- Look to the Crisis Actors
Tragedy. Travesty. Circus. Burlesque. Commentators have plumbed the depths of popular theatre history in hopes of describing Donald Trump’s administration and the corresponding sociopolitical climate of a bruised, divided nation. These Trump-as-spectacle narratives—in which the president is variously depicted as ringmaster, puppet, Shakespearean tyrant, or melodramatic villain—and the progressive handwringing they inspire fittingly gesture toward the “smoke-and-mirrors” politics of an aspiring autocrat. However, they also operate on simplistic or imprecise definitions of theatricality and performativity that equate both terms with inauthenticity, treachery, or vainglory.1
Trump and his supporters also engage with and organize around notions of vigilant public spectatorship in a hyper-performative age, although to different ends. Certainly, the campaign’s routine allegations of “fake news” presuppose that journalists script fictional events and impersonate principled reporters in order to deceive an increasingly credulous public. On the far end of the conservative spectrum, a faction of conspiracy theorists have weaponized antitheatrical biases by recasting the victims and survivors of traumatic events as duplicitous and paid “crisis actors.” However, the work of student-activists emerging from one such trauma, the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, demands that we reevaluate and reposition the notion of crisis acting.
In the wake of the shooting, a group of Parkland students, many of them members of the school’s drama club, documented, narrated, and politicized their collective trauma through a multimodal performance of survivorship and activism that was no less genuine because of its performativity. Indeed, the self-described “dramatic” students sparked the coalescing of a visible and persuasive youth-led gun-control movement, one that models how to organize efficiently and communicate widely, how to acknowledge privilege and practice inclusionary activism, how to take up space traditionally occupied by adults, and how speak truth to power.2 David Hogg conducted [End Page 439] and filmed hushed interviews with classmates during the school’s lockdown, the viral cell-phone footage of which is simultaneously raw in content and deliberate in intent. In her March for Our Lives speech, Emma González ritualized protracted silence as a means of memorializing the shooting’s victims, while unapologetically rejecting the codes governing protest speeches and the ubiquitous though insufficient “moment of silence.”3 And when their theatre teacher, Melody Herzfeld, received the 2018 Tony Award in Excellence in Theatre Education, the school’s drama club and choir students marked the honor by singing Rent’s “Seasons of Love” on the live telecast. The Parkland students anchor their gun-control activism in a precocious awareness—likely a product of their liberal education, arts training, and upbringings in a digitally saturated world—that the theatrical necessarily infuses the real.
Parkland’s survivor-activists weathered accusations of being crisis actors—a claim that, in light of the teens’ involvement in theatre, struck a dissonant but reverberative chord. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Parkland student Cameron Kasky his thoughts on the conspiracy, he cheekily replied, “Well, if you had seen me in our school production of Fiddler on the Roof, you would know that no one would pay me to act, for anything.”4 While using antitheatrical rhetoric to weaken outrage or sow seeds of doubt is not new, the purposeful rebranding of trauma survivors as paid actors has become increasingly popular during the last few years. This lie works in several interdependent ways. First, it exploits the same spectatorial anxieties (and pleasures) activated by Barnum’s famed humbugs and Houdini’s underwater escapes: it calls into question the perceivers’ ability to interpret fact from fiction. “You were hoodwinked,” it scolds. “Perhaps you are not as good of a judge of character as you believed.” Second, recasting trauma survivors as professional actors presupposes that there are many more deceptions at play within the event in question. Videos can be doctored, victims and perpetrators invented, evacuations staged, and news stories faked. Third and perhaps most importantly, in their cries of “It’s all pretend!,” conspiracy theorists attempt to disable or inhibit natural empathetic responses to human suffering. Tagging Parkland survivors as crisis actors insinuates that they are benefiting monetarily from...