Extinction Rebellion's 'An Enemy of the People' disruption has lasting impact A recent disruption at An Enemy of the People on Broadway by Extinction Rebellion shows a new approach to climate change activism.

'We want to help': Why climate activists are trying something new

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

When three audience members stood up and spoke out at a Broadway show recently, many people around them thought it was part of the performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: No theater on a dead planet.

FADEL: It was actually a climate protest. This disruption from Extinction Rebellion is one of the latest in a string of headline-grabbing stunts by climate activists. NPR's Chloe Veltman reports this particular intervention signals a new, more subtle approach to climate action.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: In Henrik Ibsen's 1882 drama "An Enemy Of The People," there's a scene that takes place at a public meeting. The residents of a spa town are trying to prevent a local doctor from telling the truth - a factory is polluting the local water supply.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) All right. Understood. I won't mention the things you said.

VELTMAN: Social media videos show it was at this moment, during a press night for the Broadway production that a climate activist stood up from his seat in the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) If there are no further objections...

NATE SMITH: I object. I object to the silencing of scientists. I am very, very sorry to interrupt your night.

VELTMAN: He was followed by two other members of the New York chapter of Extinction Rebellion.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: Don't forget about the truth tellers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Get out.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: This play doesn't end when you leave the theater.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: Governments have failed us.

VELTMAN: Security hustled them out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: We will be...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: There will be no fear.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...Pausing this evening's performance.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #3: ...And your lies.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: May I have all of the actors clear the stage, please?

VELTMAN: But the actors didn't clear the stage. And many audience members believed the intrusion was part of the production. The New York Times' Jesse Green says he didn't fully get that this was a real climate protest until the performance was over.

JESSE GREEN: When the rather shaken-looking press agents for the show were standing in the lobby to tell all the critics that no, it was not part of the play.

VELTMAN: Time Out New York's Adam Feldman was also there. He says breaking the fourth wall is a common device in theater. The actors on stage stayed in character during the activists' disruption and, most significantly, it wove itself into the fabric of the play.

ADAM FELDMAN: This is a play that speaks very much to the difficulty of getting truth out in a public square and, specifically, truth about dangers to the environment.

VELTMAN: Climate change-related actions are ramping up in cultural spaces around the world. They're shocking, so they get a lot of attention. Activists have flung mashed potatoes at a Monet painting in Germany...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIRJAM HERRMANN: (Speaking German).

VELTMAN: And stormed the stage during a performance of "Les Misérables" in London's West End.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) Do you hear the people sing, singing a song of angry men?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #4: It's murder. Just stop oil. Oil is killing us.

(BOOING)

VELTMAN: These types of protests are meant to show how human-caused climate change will destroy the things people love, namely art, unless we take action. But the response from the media, from the public is often negative. The perceived aggression of these actions make some people angry. Like, what do these people have against art? That's why Extinction Rebellion wanted to try something different, says Nate Smith.

SMITH: We were trying to keep the reaction both live in the room and in the public afterwards from being solely negative. If I just stood up and started shouting, we're in a climate crisis; there's no theater on a dead planet, people would have booed immediately.

VELTMAN: Smith was the first activist to interrupt the show.

SMITH: But if some people are like, is this a part of the play? This is what it's about. You show that you're not trying to be an enemy of the people like everybody wants to make you out to be. You're really coming to try to help.

VELTMAN: In other words, instead of existing in stark contrast to the Broadway play the protest was meant to interrupt, it seemed in some ways to be at one with it. James Ozden is the founder of Social Change Lab, a nonprofit that researches climate activism and other social movements.

JAMES OZDEN: This kind of tactical innovation is, I think, pretty necessary and important because often things just stop being as effective over time as people become used to it. How do we reach new people? How do we keep pushing the agenda?

VELTMAN: And what the activists want is not just awareness but also action.

BESS ROWEN: We have this problem in the theater sometimes of being accused of preaching to the choir, and I do think there's always an aspect of that.

VELTMAN: Bess Rowen is a scholar of theater activism at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

ROWEN: But there's still an expectation of passivity - right? - that we are aware of these things, but are we doing anything about them? And these days, if you're paying for those Broadway tickets, maybe you're not feeling the effects of climate change as specifically as other kinds of folks are, because maybe it hasn't impacted your everyday life in this kind of way.

VELTMAN: Critic Adam Feldman says that's exactly why this particular piece of climate change activism was so effective.

FELDMAN: It was fascinating to see how quickly this well-behaved, presumably relatively liberal Broadway audience turned into this groupthink, this derision of the activists who were making their point.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You got to write your own play. You understand that?

FELDMAN: I'm not saying that I want to see this kind of thing at every show, but in this particular instance, it really felt perfect.

VELTMAN: But the New York Times' Jesse Green says the protest was far from perfect.

GREEN: Why would you be protesting in a situation where what you were talking about was actually being supported? It seems to me that it would turn off people who were likely to be on your side.

VELTMAN: He points to the grassroots political group ACT UP's similarly theatrical actions, aimed at raising the alarm about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Health care is a right. Health care is a right.

VELTMAN: Green says those actions were successful because they were in clear opposition to the thing being protested.

GREEN: Even the most outrageous of the ACT UP protests, interrupting Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, putting a giant condom around the house of Jesse Helms, the rabidly homophobic senator - they were always aimed at the actual enemies.

VELTMAN: But whether or not it was confusing, Extinction Rebellion's action on Broadway happened weeks ago, and people are still talking about it. It's resonating.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS")

JEREMY STRONG: It only underlined the message of the play, which is that...

VELTMAN: The play's star, Jeremy Strong, spoke about it on NBC's "Late Night With Seth Meyers" just a few days ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS")

STRONG: So I'm doing this play, but I also think if we could be a force multiplier for saying something about the world we all live in, then I'm all for that.

VELTMAN: A spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion New York says this action was among the group's most successful so far. But he says it's just one of many approaches they plan to keep experimenting with in their ongoing effort to get people to do something about climate change. Over the last couple of weeks, Extinction Rebellion members have popped up in spaces that have nothing to do with art...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #5: Our love of cars is killing us.

VELTMAN: ...Including a more traditionally direct protest against the fossil fuel industry at the New York Auto Show. Activists splashed oil on cars.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News.

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