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When Government Breaks the Fourth Wall

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You're at the theater. You're sitting in your seat, paying attention to what's going on in front of you. If the play is any good, you've completely forgotten that you're sitting in a theater. You are absorbed in the new world unfolding in front of you. The theater has cast a spell over you.

Then, suddenly, the actor on stage turns to the audience and begins speaking directly to you. He's no longer pretending to be an actor. The spell is abruptly broken. You become aware of your surroundings: the hardness of your seat, the harsh lights on the stage, the odor emanating from the person next to you. You become alert to how the director and the actors have conspired to manipulate you. Or, at least, this was how audiences originally reacted when plays began to deploy such tactics.

In theater parlance, the actor has broken the fourth wall. This is the invisible wall that runs across the front of the stage, which everyone in the theater pretends doesn't exist. The fourth wall is essential to our willed suspension of disbelief. Yes, yes, we know that they're actors. But for a brief period of time, they pretend and we pretend and the drama floats in the air on the updraft of this make-believe.

Our relationship with the government is similar. We vote. We pay taxes. We serve on juries. For most us, that's our relationship with government. Otherwise, we sit in the audience of our living room and watch as the political drama -- the occasional tragedy, the inevitable comedy -- unspools before us on the nightly news or in the articles in the newspaper. A fourth wall separates us from our representative democracy. If we don't break the law or start working for government, the wall remains in place.

Edward Snowden -- and a variety of other whistleblowers -- exposed a different reality. The government has been breaking the fourth wall on a consistent basis when it puts us all under surveillance. We thought that the NSA and the CIA were only focused on external targets. We thought there was a wall that protected U.S. citizens. We were wrong.

The shock of government surveillance is comparable to the surprise that accompanies the breaking of the fourth wall in the theater. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht frequently used this "alienation effect" to jolt his audiences from their complacency. He called attention to the devices of the theater in order to expose how plays covertly play with the emotions of audiences. Originally, this breaking of the fourth wall was profoundly shocking to audiences. But Brecht's techniques have been absorbed into the theater mainstream (and TV as well, as Frank Underwood's asides to the camera demonstrate in House of Cards). It takes more to shock us in the theater these days.

Edward Snowden is the Bertolt Brecht of the surveillance age. He has pulled back the curtain to reveal the manipulations of our national security complex. In so doing, he has shocked many Americans out of their complacency. He has also revealed that what we thought might have been an exception (like Watergate or Cointelpro) has now become routine.

In my new play, Interrogation, I've tried to bring Edward Snowden and Bertolt Brecht together on the stage. Interrogation is a cautionary tale about this new world of surveillance cameras and GPS locators and omnipresent social media. It's set in Washington, DC. And it's being performed in Washington -- at the Capital Fringe Festival this month beginning on Thursday.

It all sounds pretty grim. Edward Snowden is not exactly a stand-up comedian, and the NSA is not SNL.

But Interrogation is a comedy. Well, a dark comedy. Think of it as Dr. Strangelove for the Snowden era: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NSA.

Oh, and we're also offering door prizes. Even Brecht would have approved of that -- just as long as I tell you about it beforehand.