Robert Schenkkan had no time to waste. The playwright couldn't afford the years it took to craft his Pulitzer Prize winner, The Kentucky Cycle, or the Tony Award-winning All the Way or its sequel, The Great Society. Likewise, the standard route for developing a new play – workshopping it for months at assorted regional theatres before mounting the premiere – would take too long. Given the threat to the republic, this new drama inside him needed to get out and on a stage – make that many stages, all across the land – posthaste. This was an urgent cry for the nation: one-if-by-land, two-if-by-sea urgent.
In October of 2016 – so even before the election – Schenkkan felt a line had been crossed, not just by the Republican presidential candidate with his authoritarian threats and race-baiting rhetoric, but by everyone who began to treat what Trump said and did, no matter how disgraceful or appalling (see Mexican immigrants = rapists, shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not losing a vote, grabbing women by the you-know-what, etc.) as the new normal. If we the people were going to accept such beyond-the-pale behavior, then what other moral standards that we'd held previously might we be willing to sacrifice down the line? Seeing "a fundamental attack on basic American values," as he told one interviewer, Schenkkan started writing, and wrote with the speed and intensity of a wildfire (hardly an account of the play's creation doesn't reference the "white-hot fury" in which it was penned). Within a week, Schenkkan had his play, Building the Wall, a compact two-hander set 1,000 days into the Trump administration. In it, an African-American academic has come to an El Paso prison to interview one of its inmates, a white army vet who actually managed a prison himself before committing the crime that landed him in the pen. Learning what that crime was and how this man slid down a moral slippery slope to commit it provide the play's momentum. In an uninterrupted hour and a half, the audience sees how the corrupted atmosphere of a Trumpist regime could lead a reasonably good man to do evil.
To get there, Schenkkan took a cue from Gitta Sereny's Into That Darkness, in which the investigative journalist viewed the horrors of the Holocaust through the lens of Franz Stangl, commandant of the Treblinka death camp but someone who saw himself as a minor figure in the Nazi war machine, a bureaucrat, a flunky just doing his job. That such a person could be capable of atrocities is what Schenkkan seeks to show us in Rick, the former prison manager now prisoner who at one point describes himself as "just a guy, a regular guy in extraordinary circumstances trying to do the best he can with very limited resources." That kind of justification is an alarm bell to tell us, "Yes, it can happen here. It is happening here."
Schenkkan wanted that alarm sounding in as many places as possible, so he put no limits on what kind of theatre could mount his play or where. "You want to do Building the Wall? God bless. Go do it. I don't care how big you are, how small you are, where you are, rural or urban, blue state, red state, it doesn't matter," he told American Theatre. "You want to do this? Great. You want to do a reading of it? That's great, too. The point is: Seize the moment. Do it now. Get it out there." The Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles was the first to snap it up, with Artistic Director Stephen Sachs going so far as to rearrange the season to mount the play in March, just five months after it was written. That production kicked off a rolling world premiere with the National New Play Network, an alliance of nonprofits supporting the development and production of new drama, with theatres in Denver, Washington, D.C., Miami, and Tucson also signing on to stage Building the Wall in 2017. But a dozen more productions have been mounted or will be before the year is out, in communities as widespread as New York City; Chicago; Portland, Ore.; Santa Fe; Ottawa, Canada; San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; Vienna, Austria; and, yes, Austin, Texas.
The producing entity in our city is the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance – fitting since Schenkkan is an alum. But Department Chair Brant Pope, who's directing UT's production, has a more compelling reason for bringing Building the Wall to life here. He compares it to Arthur Miller's The Crucible (also being produced by UT this fall), a play written in a moment of national crisis, in response to McCarthy. "Schenkkan wrote this play in a moment of crisis and about this particular moment of crisis, and thus the play must be done now. It will burn hot, but will not last long. Therefore, our production must be now for the play to have sociopolitical significance."
Pope also sees UT's staging of Building the Wall in broader terms, as part of the school's mission: "Theatre & Dance at UT is deeply committed to new work. What a perfect expression of what a university theatre program should be doing by producing the regional premiere of an important and timely play." The department is supplementing the show's two-week run with a day of programming on new work in American theatre, and a post-performance discussion between Pope and Schenkkan. (See "New Work Onstage," below.)
So far, the reception of Schenkkan's warning cry has run the gamut. The off-Broadway staging was walloped by the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout, who dubbed Building the Wall "the dumbest play I have ever reviewed," and a planned two-month run at New World Stages closed five weeks early. At the other extreme (and the opposite end of the country), the Fountain Theatre's run has been extended three times and in the Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty said the play "should be seen and shuddered over, if only to heighten our collective vigilance."
That sentiment is more in line with what the author was hoping to achieve with the play and getting it before audiences so quickly. "I want them to be provoked," he said in one interview. "I want them to be prodded into thinking a little bit more deeply about their own lives, about their own experience, and about what's happening. No radical ideology becomes law and public policy without the buy-in of millions of people, and the play very much deals with that. About this process about which good people can accept compromise after compromise, until without realizing it they find themselves in a really terrible, even tragic position."
Building the Wall runs Aug. 31-Sept. 10, Tue.-Sat, 7:30pm, except Sat., Sept., 2, 8pm; Sun., 2pm, in the Oscar Brockett Theatre, Winship Drama Bldg., 300 E. 23rd, UT campus. For more info, visit www.jointhedrama.org.
In conjunction with its production of Building the Wall, the UT Department of Theatre & Dance is hosting a day of discussions about how new plays are made and received. All events take place on Thu., Sept. 7, in the Oscar Brockett Theatre, in the Winship Drama Bldg., 300 E. 23rd, on the UT campus. The panels are free and open to the public. Seating may be limited. – R.F.
2pm: Writing and Producing New Work in the American Theatre. Panelists include: Cal MacLean (producing artistic director, Clarence Brown Theatre Company), Vivienne Benesch (producing artistic director, PlayMakers Repertory Company), Marissa Wolf (director of new works, Kansas City Rep), Robert Schenkkan (playwright), and Kirk Lynn (novelist/playwright, The Method Gun).
4pm: The Role of the Critic and Scholar in Assessing New Work. Panelists include: Michael Barnes (columnist, Austin American-Statesman), Robert Faires (Arts editor, Austin Chronicle), Jay Handelman (Arts editor/theatre critic, Sarasota Herald-Tribune), Robert Schenkkan (playwright), and Kirk Lynn (novelist/playwright, The Method Gun).
9pm: Post-Performance Conversation With thePlaywright and Director. Robert Schenkkan and Brant Pope discuss the play.
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