By Sheila Wickouski
Arena Stage’s 2019-20 season features five out of ten shows based on real life. Starting with Ann, about Texas’ Governor Ann Richards, and this autumn there will be Newsies, the Disney musical about the 1899 paperboy strike. The next production, Right to be Forgotten, is a world premiere by playwright Sharyn Rothstein. While the character is a fictional young man who is trying to erase an earlier indiscretion, this is a real story about freedom of information and tech companies.
In an interview with Rothstein, we asked her to explain the concept behind Right to be Forgotten, which is based on a law of the same name in Europe. It’s an experience likely to be alien to many people, especially because most of us never experience internet shaming on a national or international scale. We might not even know of someone personally who experienced it.
How did you come to be interested in this topic and what was your research process in creating this play?
In 2014, I became deeply intrigued by this new law in the European Union called “The Right To Be Forgotten.”
The title alone was fascinating—who wants to be forgotten? Don’t most of us—especially in the United States—want to be known, remembered? We’ve created an electronic compendium for anything and everything you could ever want to know. But are flesh and blood humans meant to know everything forever?
I started reading newspaper articles, interviews with internet privacy experts, and some truly mind-melting books about the clash between our technology and our most human needs.
I interviewed Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet Law at Harvard University, and had discussions with internet privacy experts—including people at the ACLU and Google.
What truly speaks to the question at the heart of this play is that no two experts seem to have the same opinion as to whether “The Right To Be Forgotten” is necessary, desirable, useful, beneficial or dangerous.
How does this play compare to your previous works?
Most of my plays start with a question that I don’t have an answer to. This play is a prime example. I can’t tell you whether “The Right To Be Forgotten” [law] is a good or bad idea, so my characters are able to argue all sides of the debate.
But the center of this play is a very human character—a young man whose life has been high-jacked (deservedly or not) by a choice (or mistake) he made in high school, one that the Internet hasn’t let him forget.
Whether the audience feels for or against him, my hope is that they leave the theater feeling deeply, as well as debating the same issues as the characters.
Differences in writing for television versus the stage?
There is nothing more rewarding (and terrifying) than watching a live audience live and breathe the play with the actors on stage in real time. You learn what’s working about the play and what’s not from the energy of the audience, from your collaborators—director, designers, actors— and its characters in a way you simply [can’t] experience with television.
While this is not a one man play, the story centers on one character, played by John Austin, who fits the description of a young man like the one in your play. What is it like to adapt for the role to fit a specific actor and how was it working with John?
It’s been a gift to have John’s humor and intelligence in the rehearsal room! While I don’t think charming, social John in real life is anything like nervous, awkward Derril in the play, his questions about the character have helped me dig even deeper into the play and the character [he plays].
Arena is well known for taking on issues, both on stage as in last year’s production of Kleptocracy, and with its Community Civil Dialogues series. How do you feel your play fits in with this and how does it compare to other theaters you have worked with?
I’m thrilled that this play will have its premiere at Arena—both because the theater has such a tremendous reputation for producing new, politically relevant work, but also because Arena has such a smart, culturally and politically aware audience. DC is the perfect place for a play that, at its core, questions the role of government in regulating our technology.
WANT TO GO: Right to be Forgotten runs Oct. 11 to Nov. 10 in the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle.
SHARYN ROTHSTEIN‘s (Playwright) plays include By the Water (Manhattan Theatre Club/Ars Nova, Neglect (Ensemble Studio Theater), All the Days (McCarter Theatre Center), and othersShe was a writer and producer for the USA legal drama “Suits” and has developed shows for Bravo and Apple. Sharyn is the winner of the American Theater Critics Association Francesca Primus Prize and four-time recipient of the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. Sharyn holds an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU as well as a master’s in public health and a BA in sociology.