Could Protestors Turn Broadway Into Political Theater?

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Courtesy of The New York Times.

March 1, 2015:
CLOSING NIGHT OF BROADWAY PLAY
“DISGRACED,” PULITZER WINNER,
MARRED BY ISLAMIC ACTIVISTS
Actors Threatened During Final Bows

February 14, 2015:
FIRST PERFORMANCE OF
“THE QUEEN” ON BROADWAY
INTERRUPTED AT CURTAIN CALL
BY ANTI-MONARCHIST PROTESTORS
Dame Helen Mirren Unfazed

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Those headlines are hopefully imaginary. But what happened at the Metropolitan Opera last Thurs., Jan. 29, may serve to warn us of what could very easily take place in the future. For what happened was not merely a wild breech of civic decorum — though it certainly was that. A major, internationally recognized performance space was effectively hijacked during the curtain call — appropriated, if you like — for purely political purposes by a member of the audience. From the New York Times:

A protester carrying a sign criticizing the policies of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia climbed over the orchestra pit and onto the stage at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday night as the diva Anna Netrebko took her curtain call after performing the title role in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta.

Courtesy of The New York Times.
Courtesy of The New York Times.

Picture that: he climbed over the orchestra pit and onto the stage. Well, of course he did. For in the theatre, there is no glass, no literal fourth wall to separate the spectators from the performers. Nothing but air, really, to keep them apart — along with the ancient tradition that actors will do what they do on the stage before the spectators, and that the spectators will respond in whatever way that they do: watching, waiting, reacting. Even the hurling of coins, peanuts or roses is not the same thing, not nearly, as climbing over the orchestra pit and onto the stage.

What happened at the Met could just as easily happen after, say, the performance of a play on Broadway. Or any public event vulnerable to politicization and controversy.

The man who did this climbing and sign-carrying will surely go down as a minor historical figure; the Times didn’t even print his name, if they even knew of it at the time the story was published. The story transcended that man’s individual identity and instead was about the gesture — the brazen confronting of Netrebko with a sign that links her personal politics back in Russia to the homophobic and Stalinesque rule of Vladimir Putin. It certainly wasn’t the first time that the acclaimed diva was a target of anti-Putin controversy and protest, but it was the first time that such a protest was so direct and pointed and therefore dangerous.

Watch the video below. The man-with-no-name walks so calmly onto the Met’s stage that he could just as easily have been mistaken for an absent-minded supernumerary who missed his cue:

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Listen to the sounds of shock coming from the audience, especially as the man-with-no-name faces them and unfurls a banner depicting, among other things, Putin as Hitler. Notice the tumult as he pivots and forces the diva to stare at the banner, humiliating her, before ambling off to the wings and being greeted by security.

From the viewpoint of that unnamed man, the stunt undoubtedly worked. He received coverage, if not name recognition, in the New York Times. And here we are, wondering why there haven’t been such stunts before.

Anti-monarchist sentiment runs low in the U.S., so the second of the two imaginary headlines at the top of this post is a fairly ridiculous scenario. But consider briefly the first imaginary headline, the one pertaining to Ayad Akhtar’s superlative play now running on Broadway, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Disgraced concerns a Muslim-American lawyer and his wife, an artist whose work is inspired directly by Islamic imagery. It’s a play about identity and ideas; its most explosive idea, perhaps, is that no matter how well we assimilate into American culture, fidelity to ethnicity, to our tribal roots, trumps our patriotism.

Disgraced features a combustible speech in which the central character, played by Hari Dhillon, challenges another couple on stage to confront their own sense of tribal pride, of social belonging. Watch the whole video (it’s worth it), but the speech that inspired my imaginary headline at the top of this post comes after 3:00:

Can you imagine a situation in post-Sept. 11 America — in our fame-obsessed, social-media-driven, selfie culture — in which the full manifestation of some individual’s pro-Arab, anti-Israel, anti-American pride might compel them to protest Akhtar’s play at a curtain call? The wonder is that it hasn’t happened yet. And if it did, it would instantly change the security calculus at Broadway shows. Ticket-holders are already accustomed to opening up their bags as they enter a theatre, a practice that began as a reaction to the bloody 2002 Moscow Theatre siege that claimed some 130 lives. But that’s nothing compared to the drama that would ensue here.

  • Anna Shpook

    He did it for many people who are still so blindly are going and supportig performers, who support terrorists. Their money go directly to those who kill innocent people in Eastern Ukraine and who invade independent country that is striving for independence and better life! There is no place for terrorism in music, art, etc. Artists must promote peace, and not the war! Spectators need to wake up. It’s not about politics, it’s about their clear consciousness and the need to do what’s right for the whole world!

    • Oksana

      Yes, Anna! You are absolutely right and we are very proud of Roman!!!

  • mary efremov

    Being able to make a statement such as confronting Netrebko’s support for Putin policies is simply using our free speech.The public performance was not disrupted.. he was making bhis point. What is wrong with that.The Russian Propaganda budget is HUGE and makes its points every day and we can answer back. This was a very modest protest.

    • Oksana

      FREE SPEECH and PEACEFUL PROTEST!!! I like people who talk back with powerful message. Thank you Mary!

  • Yelena Tretyakov

    Thank you Roman! You are a brave man, to hold the protest alone.
    Artists who supports Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine should Not be welcome to perform in any venues in U.S. War in Ukraine is not only the fault of Putin, but it is also caused by people who support it or are indifferent toward the issue.

  • The question is not whether or not the individual’s cause is just, the question is overtaking an artistic production and co-opting it to get your message out. If this happened frequently, it could well close down theater. Audiences would be afraid to attend and art as art would be endangered. What about respect for art and creativity? Free speech is one thing, encroaching upon another’s boudaries and life is quite another. That’s aggression. There are plenty of places to get one’s message out, one does not have to hijack the lives of others.

  • Politics affects us all and I have no doubt that we will see more of this kind of direct action at live performances. It used to tried on the radio where a seemingly ordinary caller would try and hijack the air to pass on a political message. Radio has now put in a delay loop as have most broadcasts so that attempts are removed before going on air.

    Perhaps the audiences of the play that was hijacked were perceived to be sympathetic with Russian ideals, which is a nonsense of course, but we are not dealing with rational people.

    Perhaps what is needed is for production companies to examine any risk that a performance may attract and put in some counter measures. This is nothing unusual for public places and so far theatres have not been made a target for extremists. The risk in such a confined space is enormous. Having a member of the audience getting on the stage to vent their anger is a very frightening experience and as such should come under terrorism and be dealt with severely. He/she could easily have been a suicide bomber, so these risks need to be evaluated, identified and measures put in place to prevent it happening again. Maybe, a prearranged three minute slot before or after the play can be offered to someone who values freedom of speech at £25 and a disclaimer by management on the content of the rant. At least then the theatre will know who it is and the reason for his 3 minute address.

    Theatre, as far as I know, has not been subjected to political statements since the assassination of President Lincoln and even now things have stayed much the same with no added security. I do not advocate security that will have impact on our freedoms as that is counter productive. However, simple, background security measures and audience monitoring is not invasive. Security at Disney World is obvious in its invisibility as many of the Disney characters are security guards. I am not suggesting Mickey Mouse to be lurking in the theatre isles but a big guy with a stun-gun somewhere on the payroll might be worthwhile.

    I hope it isn’t the case, but I feel that this is the start of some huge problems for theatres and cinemas for those who want to make a statement.