Podcast: Stage For Change – No Theater on a Dead Planet

By and Holly Yu Tung Chen

June 26, 2024

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Arts, Audio, Environment

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(NEW YORK) – At a March 2024 Broadway performance of “An Enemy of the People,” the new revival of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 social drama starring Jeremy Strong, who would go on to win a Tony for his role, activists from the environmental group Extinction Rebellion, interrupted the performance to remind us that there can be “No theater on a dead planet!” 

According to a post on Extinction Rebellion’s Instagram feed, “this play,” which tells the story of a scientist who discovers contaminated water from the spa in his small town, “was chosen to highlight and bring to reality the harsh persecution being faced by climate activists all over the world.” 

This event sent shockwaves through the New York theater scene and culminated in a live reading of “An Enemy of the People”  hosted by Extinction Rebellion, which featured performances by Bill Murray, Kathryn Erbe, and Taylor Schilling. It also led many, including the artists, to ask the question, “Can art really save us in the midst of a climate emergency?” 

On this episode of “Stage for Change,” Holly Yu Tung Chen and Genevieve Hartnett speak with eyewitnesses, experts, and activists to uncover the role of art on a dying planet and how we all need to act with more urgency to protect humanity.

Transcript

Archived Recording

ACTOR: If there are no further objections, Dr. Stockmann.

NATE SMITH: I object! I object to the silencing of scientists.  Broadway will not survive on a dead planet!

HOLLY CHEN: I’m Holly Chen,

GENEVIEVE HARTNETT: and I’m Genevieve Hartnett, and this is Stage for Change

HOLLY CHEN: So, something happened during a performance of An Enemy of the People on Broadway in March. Genna, what can you tell us about it?

GENEVIEVE HARTNETT: Sure! So, “An Enemy of the People,” it’s a Henrik Ibsen play from the late 1800s, and it’s the story of a scientist, Dr. Stockmann, who discovers the water in his town is being contaminated by a local spa. And when he tries to tell his community, he’s persecuted.  It’s currently a Tony Award-nominated Broadway revival starring Jeremy Strong as Dr. Stockmann and Michael Imperioli as Mayor Stockmann, one of the main deniers of the water contamination and the brother of the protagonist, and it’s playing at Circle in the Square theater on Broadway.

SARAH PARKER: Yeah, so Circle in the Square is the one Broadway theater that is in the round. So what that means is that the stage or, like, the performance space is in the center, and then people sit on all sides of it in 360.

GENEVIEVE HARTNETT: That’s Sarah Parker. She’s a dancer in the company of the Tony-nominated Musical Hell’s Kitchen, a choreographer and journalist who attended the performance where critics and theater professionals were invited to see the show before it opened to the public.

SARAH PARKER: I was seated — like, we were three or four rows up from the stage, so we were pretty close. Actually, I knew a couple people right around us. Behind me was Tommy Kail, who is the director of Hamilton. There were — it was a big press night. There, I think, New York Times, there was a bunch of reviewers there, so I saw a couple reviewers that I recognized.

HOLLY CHEN: But then at the start of the second act, during the scene recreating a town hall where Dr. Stockman is being silenced by the politicians, an environmental activist with the group Extinction Rebellion got up and staged a protest, right there in the middle of the show.

SARAH PARKER: The first protester came in, came running down the aisle from one of the doors in the back of the theater.

Archived Recording

NATE SMITH: Our water is poisoned! The Doctor is correct! Our water is poisoned! The oceans are acidifying! The oceans are rising!

SARAH PARKER: And so he came running down and screaming some things, and I think, yeah, it kind of caught us off guard, but we were a little like, “Oh, this is part of the thing.” But then he started using some very, like, modern language, and the play is not set in modern times.

Archived Recording

NATE SMITH: Broadway will not survive on a dead plant!

SARAH PARKER: And then a second protester stood up who was seated in the audience.

Archived Recording

PROTESTER 2: Free the truth tellers. When you leave here tonight…

MICHAEL IMPERIOLI: Let’s go!

SARAH PARKER: Um, but the lead actors, Jeremy Strong and Michael Imperioli, specifically, stayed and completely stayed in character and kept the scene going and started kind of reacting to the protesters and the situation in character. Which was just an absolute masterclass of acting to get to witness.

Archived Recording

PROTESTER 2: This play doesn’t end when you leave the theater! Free the truth tellers!

ONSTAGE ACTOR: She’s not right.

JEREMY STRONG: She’s right!

MICHAEL IMPERIOLI: All lies. Speculations!

GENEVIEVE HARTNETT: If it wasn’t obvious already, “An Enemy of the Peopleis in many ways an allegory for climate change. Even though it was first written over a hundred years ago, its relevance to the current denial of the climate crisis is striking. And this protest got the message across that just going to see this show and talking about how relevant it is, isn’t going to reverse the climate emergency.

Archived Recording

PROTESTER 3: No theater on a dead planet. There will be no theater when wildfires make the air unbreathable. This is an ecological emergency.

THEATER ANNOUNCEMENT: Will the actors clear the stage? We will be pausing this evening’s performance.

HOLLY CHEN: In a time when we’re seeing a lot of disrupted protests, this one feels particularly significant. It felt integrated into the performance.

GENEVIEVE HARTNETT: I know, it, you know, it was a protest, but it also was theater.

NATE SMITH: And it speaks to the effect of movements. Actually, young people, or maybe just in general, we feel like you can’t change anything. Like, it’s such a massive — the world’s so big — we can’t take care of it, which is total hogwash. 

HOLLY CHEN: That’s Nate Smith, the first protester you heard at “An Enemy of the People.” He’s the founder of “The Sixth Festival,” a theater festival dedicated to bringing awareness of the Sixth Extinction caused by climate change, as well as a member of Extinction Rebellion, a worldwide climate justice coalition who say that when tackling the climate crisis, the time for polite action and reasonable compromise is far behind us.

NATE SMITH: Like, I was totally affected by the upswelling of movements in 2019, led primarily by Greta [Thunberg].

Archived Recording

GRETA THUNBERG: We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money…

NATE SMITH: And then Extinction Rebellion and The Sunrise Movements, two other climate activist movements took off in that same year. That made me think, if this is as bad as they say it is, then I need to educate myself on this because I’ll be working on this for the rest of my life.

GENEVIEVE HARTNETT: And the fact that Nate is a theater maker only adds to his credibility to critique Broadway and theater as an institution for not doing enough to address the climate crisis. After all, the method of Extinction Rebellion’s NYC chapter is to “disrupt what you love.”

HOLLY CHEN: And he has a background in theater rhetoric, a study which he really integrated into that protest. 

NATE SMITH: Thank you. I think that that’s actually probably the most hours I spent was actually just with the script. Um, and nobody’s asked that in the multiple interviews I’ve had. Yeah, really steeped myself in it. And I knew probably even before pouring into the script that it — we should pick the place that I picked that it should be during the town hall meeting in the play. And I ended up going with a place where they’re voting to silence the scientist from speaking at the town hall meeting that he has called together, which is his last-ditch effort to try to get this news that the town’s water source is poisoned. 

GENEVIEVE HARTNETT: And then you say, “I’m sorry to interrupt your evening.”

Archived Recording

NATE SMITH: I am very, very sorry to interrupt your night and this amazing performance. 

GENEVIEVE HARTNETT: Can you talk about the decision to apologize to the people around you?

NATE SMITH: I just declared that I was not going to — in my own home turf, my own working field of the theater and this, like, play and this art form that I love — I was not going to just stand up and start yelling. I looked at the European climate movement, which is ahead of the American movement by about a year, year and a half, who started this trend of interrupting arts with the famous incident now of soup on a Van Gogh. 

Archived  Recording

NEWS ANCHOR 1: Visitors at the National Gallery in London stood stunned as two young activists glued themselves beneath an exhibit of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.”

ACTIVIST: What is worth more? Art or life?

NATE SMITH: We wouldn’t have been able to pull off what we did without them doing this first. Because it was in earnest, it wasn’t just for, like, manipulating the crowd into a more positive outcome, which was my hope by looking at these European examples. I was like, everybody just hates it. It’s 90 percent negative, and if we could tilt it even just a little more positive, that would be great. And so that was kind of the impetus for starting with an apology. But it’s also because it’s the truth because I don’t want, I don’t wanna have to be doing this. Like, I would, I would really rather our planet not be falling apart. That would be great. 

GENEVIEVE HARTNETT: How have some of your colleagues in theater that are not with Extinction Rebellion reacted?

NATE SMITH: I was so scared of, like, being blacklisted.

Archived  Recording

NATE SMITH: I’m putting my career on the line because we are not doing anything about this crisis!

NATE SMITH: And so I was. I have experienced just a little bit of, like, there’s total totally the, like Broadway glitz and glam people who just think it’s, like, gross to protest. There’s this great moment in the movie Zoolander…

Archived  Recording

ZOOLANDER: Oh, you hate to see something like that at an event like this. Ugly protesters bothering beautiful people.

NATE SMITH: And I, I can feel that kind of impression sometimes when I’ve brought it up with people, especially just strictly theater people — not climate people — where they’re like, “Oh,” and like, “Don’t,” it’s — I haven’t had any direct-to-my face, like, “Why would you do that? You suck.” 

HOLLY CHEN: Another interesting tidbit we should all consider is how the lead actors reacted to this protest after the show. Jeremy Strong went on Seth Meyers to talk about this. Here he is. 

Archived  Recording

SETH MEYERS: Please welcome to the show, Jeremy Strong, everyone! Most nights conversation is only one-sided, right? The audience doesn’t talk back, but you did have a moment where there were protesters in the audience. 

JEREMY STRONG: This is a play about trying to communicate an inconvenient truth to the power structure. And I guess it says something about our inattention that these activists feel a need and feel compelled to… I didn’t want it to happen, you know, on my stage, but at the same time … I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t in a way support what they were saying. It only underlined the message of the play, which is that we’re all in this together and we’re all in deep s**t. I mean…

SETH MEYERS: Yeah.

JEREMY STRONG: It’s like record wildfires, record heat…

GENEVIEVE HARTNETT: Not only that, but Michael Imperioli has made his support for Extinction Rebellion very clear. He spoke out in support of the civil disobedience in his March 2024 profile in The New Yorker and posted on his Instagram, “No Hard Feelings Extinction Rebellion Crew. Michael is on your side but Mayor Stockmann is not. Much Love.”  

HOLLY CHEN: Yeah, the decision to stage this protest on a night when critics were there was definitely smart on the part of both Nate and Extinction Rebellion because it got even more people talking about it

DR. BESS ROWEN: The disruption was like, yep, I want you to think about this actively and to have to negotiate this actively at this moment.  

HOLLY CHEN: That’s Dr. Bess Rowen. Dr. Rowen is a theater professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and she studies theater and activism throughout history.

DR. BESS ROWEN: I also think it’s a function of “Why do we go to the theater?” A lot of people are not going to the theater to be informed. What this protest shows us is that it is also possible to shake people out of the passivity.

GENEVIEVE HARTNETT: Apart from Broadway being incredibly expensive and largely inaccessible for most people outside of New York, Bess sees the need to hold Broadway accountable for its own inaction on the climate crisis. While most theater professionals, producers, and audience members hold more left-leaning politics and might not be in denial of climate change, the preference for mounting new shows with all new design elements produces immense carbon emissions. According to a 2016 study from Barnard College, one Broadway show with all new sets creates the same level of emissions as twelve American homes.

DR. BESS ROWEN:  In regional circuits there’s a lot of buy nothing, or people are sharing pieces of sets that are created. We usually at Villanova take down and dismantle our sets and save those pieces of wood and maybe particular structures we may want to reuse. We’re not building fresh every time. That’s the conversation I haven’t seen happen yet, and I think it’s the conversation we need to be having.

HOLLY CHEN: All of this hubbub is really making me think. For those of us who don’t have a theater background — I’m a rock climber — how can we bring Extinction Rebellion’s message, “Disrupt what you love,” into the context that we understand — that we’re a part of. 

NATE SMITH: You don’t have to be an activist chaining yourself to something to be doing something. I think the most effective thing that I probably do to this day is just allow myself to be the person who says “climate change” to somebody.

GENEVIEVE HARTNETT:  You know, this protest really made me think about what the purpose of theater really is. Is it just to entertain or is it to communicate a larger message and reflect uncomfortable truths? 

HOLLY CHEN: I think as we face a crisis as big as climate change. The protest and the play’s message are both equally important — we still need to find joy in the things we love, like theater — but we mustn’t ignore the urgency of the situation.

GENEVIEVE HARTNETT: That’s it for today. A huge thank you to Nate Smith, Dr. Bess Rowen and Sarah Parker for sharing their experiences and expertise. Check out the show notes for links and further information from the episode. This episode was produced and reported by us, Genevieve Hartnett and Holly Chen. 

HOLLY CHEN: Stage for Change is a production of the NYU Audio Journalism class with Professor Claire Tighe.

[Update: Both An Enemy of the People and Hell’s Kitchen are now Tony Award-winning plays and musicals. At the time of original filing in May 2024, An Enemy of the People had received 4 Tony nominations while Hell’s Kitchen received 13 Tony nominations. On June 16, 2024, Jeremy Strong won Best Leading Actor in a Play for An Enemy of the People, and Maleah Joi Moon and Kecia Lewis of Hell’s Kitchen won Best Leading Actress and Best Featured Actress in a Musical respectively. -Ed.]

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