When DATA, the tech drama by playwright Matthew Libby, has its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre tonight, he’ll be in his Brooklyn apartment, in front of his computer with friends, ready to hop online for a post-show Q&A.
To this day, Libby has never set foot in Atlanta (hello, COVID-19). DATA, the 2021 winner of the Alliance’s prestigious Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition, rehearsed for two weeks, and then filmed using green-screen technology. Libby stayed in Brooklyn, with the cast and director Susan V. Booth anchored in Atlanta. The result is a live, interactive staging that features a lot of ping-pong. More on that later.
DATA (running virtually through May 23) follows a brilliant entry-level programmer in Silicon Valley, a man torn by idealism, and family and company loyalties. Its setting, as the script puts it, is: “Now, more or less. More than less.”
As a Kendeda winner, Libby finds himself in the company of such playwrights as Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney, Michael Lew, Kenneth Lin, Jiréh Breon Holder and Madhuri Shekar. Libby grew up in Los Angeles, studied cognitive science and creative writing at Stanford University, and earned an M.F.A. in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He’s the only one in his family to make a life in the arts, and says he was “fortunate enough to grow up in a family that deeply values the arts and in a city where I had an arts-and-entertainment industry in my backyard.”
Libby, 25, spoke to ArtsATL via email from the apartment he shares with a friend from his Stanford days.
ArtsATL: What was the genesis, the germ idea for DATA?
Matthew Libby: I remember the day when I first started thinking about it. It was April 10, 2018. It was about six months after I had moved away from Silicon Valley. I was thick in the middle of what I can now see was a pretty cut-and-dry quarter-life crisis, one that I imagine a lot of people have felt immediately post-college — feeling aimless and unsure of my identity and scrambling to figure out what I wanted to do next.
I was watching TV, and the big story of the day was Mark Zuckerberg testifying in front of the Senate for the first time about Facebook’s connection to Cambridge Analytica. Watching Zuckerberg evade question after question, I began to think about my friends who had recently started work at Facebook, my friends who had been hired at Palantir, a company I interviewed with and which has been called the “Palo Alto Cambridge Analytica.” I started wondering if these friends and others who had stayed in Silicon Valley were having the same quarter-life crisis that I was having, and if the fact that they worked at companies that demanded so much of their time and energy and moral currency affected that.
This idea of connecting a kind of personal quarter-life crisis to an industry that is itself having a quarter-life crisis was really intriguing to me — the idea of how understanding the anxieties of one could help us understand the anxieties of the other. As I started writing, that was the contrast I was interested in. Mining that contrast — the seemingly juvenile and the socially grave — is where it all started.
ArtsATL: Can you talk about the ping-pong? Why that device?
Libby: It’s helpful for me to think about objects when I’m first developing plays — what’s onstage in Scene 1 that can take on different meaning over the course of the story. If I can figure out how the audience’s relationship to that object changes, I can start to get more specific with the general arc. Plus, I liked the idea of adding danger and tension to the play through the magic trick of real, waking audiences up to that feeling of “Whoa, they’re actually playing ping-pong” was exciting to me — the idea being that it gets people to lean in more, to listen more acutely.
ArtsATL: What was your very first exposure to theater?
Libby: I am positive I saw plays and musicals before this, but the first I remember was a revival of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway that my mom took me too when I was 9. Alfred Molina played Tevye, and it absolutely blew my mind. I was completely intoxicated by the energy of live performance, and I remember making a conscious choice in my 9-year-old brain that I wanted to do more theater.
ArtsATL: When did you know you wanted to be a playwright?
Libby: It’s honestly hard for me to pinpoint. When I was a kid, I used to make up stories and act them out in our living room, which my family called “Matthew World.” My parents eventually had the foresight to have me write these stories down, which I suppose was probably the start of it all. As my middle-school and high-school theater department started introducing us to Thornton Wilder and John Guare and Kenneth Lonergan and Eugene O’Neill and others, I began to get inspired and started writing in the theatrical medium specifically. So, definitely a combination of nature and nurture.
ArtsATL: What do you think your prospects are for making a living with your writing?
Libby: Well, I’m not sure I’m the one to make that assessment, but I hope they’re good. I feel very acutely at the beginning of a career, but I’ve been lucky to have support from mentors and representatives and theaters like the Alliance so far, and all I can do is keep at it and write the stuff that excites me and hope that that support continues.
ArtsATL: Can you talk about the challenges of doing this world premiere long distance?
Libby: I’d say the biggest challenge would’ve also been the biggest challenge should I have been there in person — we were creating something for which there was no real precedent. Many theaters over the past year have developed some staggeringly brilliant theater/film hybrids, but the one for DATA was so specific and tech-dependent that we all had to be in complete communication for risk of flying blind. Because of the realities of assembling this, I didn’t join everyone in Atlanta for the week of filming, but at that point we had rehearsed already for two weeks over Zoom, and I was keyed into the camera feed and able to watch the filming the whole time. So I was on my own in one sense, but I was also connected to everyone in another sense. The fact that nobody had ever really made anything like this before was what was both terrifying and exhilarating.
ArtsATL: Where does your interest in technology come from?
Libby: I’ve always loved math and science, but more than anything else, it’s hard for me to separate my interest in tech from the years I lived and went to school in Silicon Valley. I became so interested in the tech industry while at Stanford not because I really had a desire to work in it, but because I was fascinated by how the industry is an intense microcosm of our modern technological world at large, and by what the values it encourages might say about what we value as a country more generally. At Stanford, I ended up in a cognitive science major, a field of study that essentially looks at how the human brain both is and is not like a computer, and I became really compelled by that notion: What is innately human in an increasingly technological world? I like phrasing it in that way because I think it’s gets to the core of what really interests me about tech, which is not the tech itself, but how the tools we create reflect back onto us, the humans.
ArtsATL: What writers do you admire, and read?
Libby: I could go on about writers I admire forever, but I’ll say my North Star has been and probably always will be the genius Annie Baker. Reading The Flick for the first time almost a decade ago changed my life, and completely opened up my understanding of what storytelling onstage can be. I’ll also shout out Lucas Hnath and Suzan-Lori Parks, two writers I completely adored for years before I went to NYU and was lucky enough to take classes with. Unbelievably influential writers who became equally influential educators.
ArtsATL: Going forward, do you see yourself continuing to write plays, do film/TV projects and keep acting?
Libby: All of the above. I think about my job as being the curator of a bunch of toolboxes — here’s the playwriting toolbox, there’s the screenwriting toolbox and the acting toolbox, and so on. On any given project, I might use tools from multiple toolboxes, or abandon one toolbox entirely, only to pick it up and use it exclusively for the next one. I love theater, but I also have genuine love for screen media, and I always want to be acting and directing more than I am. More than anything else, I just love making art with brilliant people, and I try to cast as wide a net as possible to make that happen.
ArtsATL: What’s next for you professionally?
Libby: I’ve been mainly focusing on film and TV work during the pandemic, though I hope to start a new play soon, as things open up. On the TV side, I’m working on a series adaptation of DATA — it’s been incredibly fun to think about what’s essential about the play’s structure and themes that can expanded into the world of a television show. I’m also working on a historical TV series set in 1990s Russia with eOne and the filmmaker Alex Gibney, which has been a dream.