Photo: Tony Powell

Right to Be Forgotten Sparks Healthy Debate

To err is human. To forgive? Well, that is a lot harder with the Internet around, cataloging our every misstep and reminding us years later of actions we might rather forget.

Derril Lark was 17 when he developed a crush on a girl at school. Awkward and nerdy, he followed her around for three months, causing her stress and trauma before a school official intervened and Lark stopped. That was the end of it until a blog turned Lark into a meme, exaggerating his offenses and making him the posterchild for a male predator. Lark is not free of blame, but neither is the monster that the Internet makes him out to be.

This is the premise of Sharyn Rothstein’s new play Right to be Forgotten, with a world premiere coming to Arena Stage on October 11. When Rothstein, whose previous writing credits include numerous plays and USA Network’s Suits, started researching in 2014, the European Union had just granted its citizens the right to ask tech companies to remove search results related to their name – aptly named the Right to be Forgotten.

“I was so taken by the name of the law itself,” Rothstein says. “It’s so striking and the opposite of what we usually want. I mean, who wants to be forgotten?”

The more Rothstein investigated the issue, the more its complexities surfaced. Who decides what lives online and who should have the power to remove potentially damaging content? Tech companies? The government? You?

“This is a clear case of the technology we’ve created not always working with humanity,” Rothstein continues. “Mistakes we make when we were young that we hopefully learn and grow from can now follow us for the rest of our lives and define us.”

The issue is an especially sticky one in the United States, where the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech is a foundational part of our national identity and where, to date, tech companies have faced minimal government regulations. Where does society draw the line between protecting people’s right to privacy and the right to free speech?

“A lot of discussion comes down to: could we ever have a Right to be Forgotten law in this country that wouldn’t violate the First Amendment?” Rothstein asks hypothetically.

It was these issues that attracted Seema Sueko, deputy artistic director at Arena Stage, to the play.

“As soon as I read it, I knew it was the right match for Arena,” she says. “It deals with such big, complex issues around democracy, freedom of speech and privacy.”

Sueko’s gut told her that she needed to direct the play.

“I love shows that I don’t have all the answers to at a first read.”

Rothstein channels the intricacies of the topic into the fictional story of Lark, who is not meant to be a completely sympathetic protagonist.

“He did a bad thing,” Rothstein says. “There’s no getting around that. But I hope this show highlights all the complexities of both his predicament being stuck as the monster for all time, and the girl that he followed being stuck by the Internet as a victim for all time.”

John Austin, last seen at Arena Stage in Kleptocracy, plays Lark.

“Derril has internalized a lot of guilt for his actions,” Austin says of his character. “He lives with this constant uncertainty of what’s true and what’s untrue because once something is put online, it becomes its own reality.”

Rothstein and Sueko think Right to be Forgotten will generate heated conversations as audiences leave the theater.

“My goal will be that the audience bounces back and forth in their opinion and that they can see, hear and feel the arguments on all sides,” Sueko says.

But the play studiously avoids taking a stand on whether or not the U.S. should enact Right to be Forgotten protections.

“I take every stand in the play,” Rothstein laughs, noting that her characters have strong opinions on all sides of the debate. “What I hope is that the audience comes out of this play having thought about this issue that I don’t think enough of us have thought about in this country.”

Don’t miss Right to be Forgotten at Arena Stage from October 11 to November 10. Tickets start at $40-$95. Learn more at www.arenastage.org.

Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC;202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

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nicole hertvik

Nicole Hertvik is the editor and publisher of DC Metro Theater Arts and a freelance arts writer. She was a 2019 fellow at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute.