Do humans have a right to be forgotten? What happens when a mistake you made at a young age follows you on the internet for the rest of your life? These questions, and more, are being explored in a new play, taking the stage in Washington, DC this October.
Debuting at Arena Stage on Oct. 11, and running through Nov. 10, Right to be Forgotten is a tale of privacy, social media and what it means to be human in today’s age. We spoke with the show’s director, Seema Sueko (who is also an Arlington resident), about the play, her thoughts on technology and more. Highlights from our conversation, below.
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In your own words, what is the play about?
When the play starts, we see this young couple out on a first date. It’s clear they met online. They’re both a little awkward, but this date is going so well and it’s thrilling. We get near the end of the date when it would be an appropriate time for somebody to ask somebody out for a second date. And in that moment, the young man tells the woman that he did not use his real name on his dating profile, and he says, “I didn’t give you my real name because if I had, you’d Google me and what you would have found would have scared you. And most of it isn’t true.”
It’s really a play that is asking how can very human things like love, forgiveness and second chances, coexist with technology, which is inhuman? And, of course, the right to be forgotten itself is a law that the European Union has passed, giving people the right to petition Google to remove personal information from its index. We don’t have that in the United States because it conflicts with the First Amendment right to free speech. So this play also captures that delicious conflict between privacy and free expression.
What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re directing a complicated story like this?
Humanity. It really is a play that deals with technology and there’ll be a lot of technology on stage. There are projections and cool lighting and sound and all of that. But at the end of the day, it’s really a play about humanity. I like to say this is sort of a sci-fi of sorts. Sci-fis in general are exploring and criticizing present-day society. And this one is exploring the consequences of 25 years of the public web. The miracle of the play is the human side, or the call of critical thought to have an open heart.
Have you found yourself changing your own habits online since working on Right to be Forgotten?
I’ve become hyper-aware of what I’m putting out online and also what I’m receiving online. There was a book I read to prepare. It’s a book called Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, and it’s about the virtue of forgetting in the digital age. One of the quotes in it, he says, “Do we want a future that is forever unforgiving?” because it is unfair that our words may be judged not only by our present peers, but also by future ones who we don’t even know. Right? So sort of that recognition that hopefully we evolve as a society, as a community, as humans. That evolution would mean that evidently there’s something from my past that I wished I hadn’t said or done or posted. So yes, this play has made me hyper-aware.
Why do you think the Washington, DC area is the right place to premiere a play like this?
We have the smartest audiences. So many experts who’ve been able to help me as I prepare for this show live here. I’ve been able to speak with privacy attorneys, free speech attorneys and lots of organizations that are based here. The Electronic Privacy Information Center is based here, the Center for Democracy and Technology. The International Association of Privacy Professionals. It’s based in New Hampshire, but it’s got a huge chapter here and it also held its big conference here in DC in the summer. So, the DMV is the perfect place because we have the expertise here. We also have a very smart audience that seems to love the complexity of issues that are in this show. They like to have to think critically about things.
For more information on Right to be Forgotten, visit areanstage.org. // Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington, DC; $82-$115