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A Real Character: Media Studies Professor Portrayed on the New York Stage

Jul 25, 2016 |

Siva Vaidhyanathan is no stranger to the spotlight. The director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship and Robertson Professor of Media Studies regularly shares his commentary on privacy and communications in the news, and has even had a cameo on “The Daily Show,” but watching an actor portray him on a New York stage this summer was a first.

“Privacy” cast members take selfies on stage. From left to right: Rachel Dratch, De’Adre Aziza, Michael Countrymen, Daniel Radcliffe and Reg Rogers. Raffi Barsoumian sits in the back left.
Joan Marcus

“It was by far the weirdest moment of my scholarly career,” Vaidhyanathan said. “It was also flattering beyond belief.”

Vaidhyanathan saw the on-stage version of himself at a preview of “Privacy,” a new off-Broadway production at the Public Theater in New York City. The play explores the meaning of privacy and identity in the digital age through the eyes of a young protagonist known only as “the Writer.” Played by Daniel Radcliffe of “Harry Potter” fame, he is a lonely man in a new city trying to figure out how to connect and share parts of his life without giving too much personal information away.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is the director of UVA’s Center for Media and Citizenship and the Robertson Professor of Media Studies.
Dan Addison / University Communications

The show’s playwright, James Graham, first contacted Vaidhyanathan in October while conducting research for the script. A version of the play ran in London in 2014, but Graham and director Josie Rourke were adapting it for American audiences.

“When we spoke, I thought it was just research. I knew he was talking to a few scholars in the U.S., but I didn’t think it would go any farther than that,” Vaidhyanathan said. “I thought I might get a nice invitation to see it when it debuted, but I had no idea what was actually going to happen with my contribution.”

Vaidhyanathan and Graham discussed his 2011 book “The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry)” and different strategies for communicating the complex issues surrounding privacy.

“Then about four months ago, I got a Facebook message from an actor friend telling me that he had just auditioned to play me in a play off Broadway,” Vaidhyanathan said. “That’s how I found out I was in it and my character actually had lines.”

His friend didn’t get the part, but Vaidhyanathan was excited to learn that actor Raffi Barsoumian had been cast as him and that Barsoumian wanted to Skype to prepare for the role.

Actor Raffi Barsoumian plays UVA Media Studies Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan in “Privacy.”
New York Public Theatre

“Raffi had a lot of good questions about how I get motivated to write about privacy and Google,” Vaidhyanathan said. “He was really serious about the issues and that impressed me. Everyone involved with the play was invested in explaining and exploring privacy.”

The creators worked to include numerous perspectives in “Privacy,” and Vaidhyanathan was one of several university professors who were interviewed and ultimately ended up as characters in the show. Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Daniel Solove of George Washington University’s School of Law and Jill Lepore of Harvard University all make appearances as characters in the play.

“The professors are kind of like the ghosts from ‘A Christmas Carol,’” Vaidhyanathan said. “We pop in and try to guide the Writer’s thoughts about privacy and identity, public and private relationships and technology in general.”

For him, it was an interesting look at his community of scholars and their growing field of research. It also provided a new forum to discuss privacy in a very public space. There are many instances where actors interact directly with the audience during the play, and “Privacy” breaks the established norm of pre-show announcements by asking audience members to turn their cellphones on, rather than off.

“The whole production is really clever and the script is very funny,” Vaidhyanathan said.

Barsoumian’s rendition of the media studies professor even got a rave review from the most knowledgeable critic – Vaidhyanathan’s wife, Melissa Henriksen, associate director for University Engagement at the UVA Applied Research Institute.

Vaidhyanathan joked that viewers were unlikely to confuse the younger Barsoumian and his full head of hair with his older, real-life counterpart and his signature shaved head.

“But otherwise, he captured me perfectly, according to Melissa,” Vaidhyanathan said.  “She said he captured how I stand, along with some of my mannerisms and how I intone.”

Theater-goers seem to share Vaidhyanathan’s enthusiasm for the performance. “Privacy” opened July 18 and is already sold out for its full run through Aug. 14.