BWW Interview: John Austin Explores the RIGHT TO BE FORGOTTEN at Arena Stage
In an era when the American theatre seems to be constantly playing it safe with jukebox musicals, shows based on movies, and countless revivals of well-known classics, actor John Austin is doing anything but that. Lately his career seems to have two constants, exploring society's most topical issues and doing so at Arena Stage.
"I treasure DC as an artistic home because of the kind of content being explored here," says Austin in a phone interview with BroadwayWorldDC. "DC, as I'm finding out, is a city where political and topical theatre is on the rise, and where audiences want to be engaged. And even more importantly, they engage with open minds, open hearts, and are open to different perspectives."
Perhaps no issues are hotter these days than Russia and privacy, both of which have played a major role in Austin's career of late. Last season, he made his Arena Stage debut in Kenneth Lin's Kleptocracy, which explored the rise of Vladimir Putin and the Russian oligarchy. This week, he returns to Arena in the world premiere production of Sharyn Rothstein's Right to be Forgotten.
"The title asks 'do we have the right to be forgotten in the digital age.' What does forgiveness look like in the internet era, where we make snap judgements with screens in front of us? How does the internet enable us to dehumanize each other?" asks Austin. "My parents taught me, 'you can't judge a book by its cover,' so why do we judge a Facebook profile by its cover photo?"
Right to be Forgotten is inspired by a European Union privacy law of the same name. It allows citizens to petition websites to remove personal data which may stigmatize that person's reputation, be considered outdated, or not in the public interest. While no such law exists in the United States, elements of it are being cited in high profile court cases involving internet giants like Google and Facebook. In the play, Austin's character is learning first-hand that nothing escapes the internet - nothing.
"I play Derril Lark, a young man who made an awful mistake when he was a kid," says Austin. "That mistake is put online in the form of a blog and takes on a life of its own. For Derril the struggle is that having this out there makes it difficult to connect with others, and trying to remove it online only adds to the problem."
Austin adds, "It is what another character in the play refers to as the Barbra Streisand problem. Streisand had sued a photographer for taking aerial photos of her house. Before the case, the photos had been viewed six times, twice by her lawyers. After she sued, they were viewed countless times, giving truth to the notion that it is hard to go against the internet, without generating more digital content. So, what do you do?"
For Austin, it is plays like Kleptocracy, Right to be Forgotten, and Oslo, which Austin starred in earlier this year at Round House Theatre, which attracted him to Washington. After being raised in North Carolina and Austin, Texas, and yes he does introduce himself as John Austin from Austin, Texas, he received a BFA in acting from Boston University's School of Theatre. It was in Boston, while getting his degree that Austin learned about the Washington theatre community.
"I heard from faculty and mentors that DC was a great city to start in as an actor. When I moved here, I discovered that the city has a great market, a thriving community, and a wonderful mixture of content and institutions to serve as a stimulus. As a citizen-artist, I just love it," says Austin.
As the Right to be Forgotten settles in for its four week run, both the play and its subject continue to evolve. Just last month the European Union issued a new ruling on the law and its limitations. Meanwhile, in rehearsal, the play itself continues to be sharpened and refined ahead of opening night. For Austin, this is the type of artistic experience that brought him to Washington.
"It is worth noting that this is a world premiere production, which means that we are constantly getting new scenes and new dialogue. The whole process has been pretty exciting, and our cast and crew at Arena have really been wonderful. You really cannot ask for a better creative process," says Austin.
To learn more about John Austin please click here.
Photo: John Austin. Credit: Nile Scott Studios.