As the play has gone through workshops, rehearsals and preview performances on the way to its world premiere at Arena Stage, Rothstein has kept a close eye on developments in the technology world. Congress’s probes into tech companies’ handling of data and privacy have prompted adjustments to the play. Last month, Rothstein tweaked the script when attorneys general from 48 states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, signed on to an antitrust investigation of Google.
“There’s just been a flurry of activity in tech regulation,” Rothstein says, “so I’ve been rewriting my fingers off.”
Although the “right to be forgotten” — allowing individuals to request that personal information be removed from search engine results — is guaranteed to citizens of the European Union and some other countries, no such federal law has been adopted in the United States, where many argue it would violate First Amendment rights. When Rothstein began writing the play more than five years ago, she was less knowledgeable about the legal subtleties, and more interested in the emotional stakes that they suggested.
“I was really mesmerized by the terminology of it,” Rothstein says. “When we think about our rights, we think about the right to bear arms, or the right to free speech. But the right to be forgotten? It feels so emotional and personal, and also human. I couldn’t stop thinking about: ‘Well, who wants to be forgotten? And why would they want to be forgotten?’ ”
Those questions led Rothstein to create the character of Derril Lark (John Austin), a neurotic 27-year-old PhD candidate who, 10 years before the events of the play, traumatized his high school crush (Guadalupe Campos) with obsessive behavior, becoming the inspiration for an unflattering viral movement. When the play begins, Derril finds himself grappling with the reality that his noncriminal teenage mistake could permanently derail his professional and personal aspirations. So he recruits the help of an eccentric privacy lawyer (Melody Butiu), who works with him to petition the state attorney general (Edward O’Blenis) for the right referred to in the play’s title.
“I was really interested in whether we can feel sympathy for Derril Lark, and whether we should feel sympathy for him,” says Rothstein, 38, who loosely based the character on a high school classmate who sent unwelcome attention her way. “I think that is an open question. But mostly, what I found, as I wrote more and more, was that it’s a complex story — because humans are complex, and we don’t seem to have a technology that can truly acknowledge and account for all of our complexities.”
To channel the all-encompassing sprawl of the Internet, director Seema Sueko collaborated with scenic designer Paige Hathaway and projection designer Shawn Duan to give the show a layered visual aesthetic. A sea of binary code is projected against the wooden walls of Arena’s Kogod Cradle to create the sense that the online world is “overwhelming and suffocating” the characters, Sueko says. Hathaway’s sterile set, meanwhile, features white, cubic architecture that serves as a canvas on which more colorful imagery is projected.
“[The Internet] is ultimately data — ones and zeros — but the front-facing side of what we see is very pretty and colorful and people-friendly,” Sueko says. “What we’ve designed in the Kogod Cradle reflects that.”
Striving for authenticity, the creative team spoke to authorities on both sides of the debate. Early in the writing process, Rothstein reached out to Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet law at Harvard who helped shape the legal cases presented in “Right to Be Forgotten.” Once Arena Stage committed to producing the play, Sueko and Rothstein consulted officials from organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Future of Privacy Forum and the Center for Democracy & Technology.
Rothstein’s ambition, however, is not to lecture the audience on the topic’s legal ramifications, but to create a dialogue through the play’s personal, small-scale storytelling.
“I hope that it really serves as a vehicle for us to talk to each other about what role our humanity should play in our technology, and how we might have to start changing our technology to reflect not just the society we want to be, but also how we want our lives to be reflected and memorialized,” Rothstein says. “Those are very nuanced, personal questions, and I think the answer to those questions needs to come from all of us, not just our government officials, and not just people in Silicon Valley.”
Right to Be Forgotten