Scholar on the Stage

A new off-Broadway play features a character based on a real media studies professor.

July 27, 2016
Joan Marcus
Actors in 'Privacy' at New York's Public Theater

Siva Vaidhyanathan is known as a scholarly expert on privacy. This summer, that knowledge is being showcased in a highly public setting.

Vaidhyanathan, the Robertson Professor of Modern Media Studies and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, is being portrayed by an actor in an off-Broadway production of Privacy at the Public Theater in New York City. Since opening on July 18, the play has been hailed as “one of New York’s hottest tickets” by The New York Times.

The show seeks to examine the nature of privacy -- or the lack thereof -- in the digital era. Vaidhyanathan is played by Raffi Barsoumian, an actor known for his role in The Vampire Diaries. The protagonist, who goes by the mysterious moniker the Writer, is played by Daniel Radcliffe.

“There’s no way for a play or even a documentary to do justice to the complexity of our current privacy and surveillance issues,” Vaidhyanathan said in an interview. “The debates are so complicated and fluid right now that to really get a grasp of the issues, you should read 10 books about it or take my class.”

“That said, a play or a movie can serve as an introduction and an invitation to these issues,” Vaidhyanathan added. “And that’s what I think Privacy accomplishes.”

At the outset of the play, the protagonist embarks on a journey to stalk his ex in New York City. When he arrives, he encounters a host of fantasy versions of real people who have contributed to public discourse on privacy, including Vaidhyanathan and James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Edward Snowden looms large over the show. At one point, the infamous whistle-blower even makes a video appearance.

Privacy also adopts a playful approach to the audience’s use of technology. Audience members are encouraged to leave their smartphones on, and free Wi-Fi is available in the theater.

While this summer marks his first brush with the stage, Vaidhyanathan has extensive experience with print. He has published four books and contributed to publications including The New York Times Magazine, The Nation and Salon.

Vaidhyanathan said he talked with the show’s playwright, James Graham, via Skype in October. The pair discussed the nature of privacy in the context of Vaidhyanathan’s 2011 book, The Googlization of Everything -- and Why We Should Worry (University of California Press).

“I figured the Skype interview would serve as background for the play,” Vaidhyanathan said. “I figured maybe he would credit me in the play, and maybe I’d get a ticket out of it.”

But several months later, Vaidhyanathan got a surprising Facebook message from a friend who is an actor. The message read, “Hey, I just auditioned to play you.”

The friend ultimately didn’t land the role. But Vaidhyanathan was pleased with the casting of Barsoumian.

Vaidhyanathan said the way he found out about the role raised interesting questions about intellectual property -- a topic of personal scholarly interest. “One of the lesser-known areas of intellectual property is the right of publicity, which is the right of a person to control his or her likeness and name in certain contexts,” he said. “If I were in the business of selling my name and image to do commercials for beer or cars, then I would be highly protective of my name and image. But I’m in the business of communicating ideas to my students and a larger public, so I had no qualms about this.”

In addition to Vaidhyanathan, three other academics are portrayed in Privacy. The protagonist encounters -- or possibly imagines that he encounters -- Jill Lepore, the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University; Daniel Solove, the John Marshall Harlan Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School; and Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Privacy will run until Aug. 14.

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