Nimble Theatre: “BUILDING THE WALL”

Several times this year, theatre festival conversations have turned to whether theatre can be nimble enough to react to current events, such as the myriad frustrations and terrors engendered and threatened by the election of Donald Trump.  At last month’s Pacific Playwrights Festival, the playwright Michael Mitnick expressed his opinion that theatre can be “one of the fastest forms of art”, which view was surprising and, frankly, not shared by many others there. [note: see below for response from Michael Mitnick] Afterwards, I spoke with the moderator of that panel, Madeleine Oldham, Director of Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor new works lab, who thought nine months was generally the minimum time it took to bring a work to the stage.

But.  During the campaign/election in November 2016, Robert Schenkkan wrote a play in 7 days in “a white hot fury”; it is now in the midst of its National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, having had its first performance on March 15, 2017 at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles,

Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in a production of “Building the Wall” at the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles. Credit Ed Krieger

Judith Moreland and Bo Foxworth in a production of “Building the Wall” at the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles. Credit Ed Krieger

closely followed by a production at the Curious Theatre in Denver, continuing in Portland, Oregon, now in the Washington, DC area and Off Broadway in New York, and productions are scheduled for later this year in Santa Fe, Northhampton, Tucson, Miami, Ottawa and several other cities (and the play continues to be licensed as you read this).  I caught a one-night only reading last night at Santa Clara University. The playwright’s name recognition and credentials (among many honors, he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Kentucky Cycle and the Tony Award for Best Play for All the Way) almost certainly helped pave the way for this stunning four month time frame between conception to first performance of Building The Wall; it may be one of the best examples of nimble theatre in recent professional theatre history.

Playwright Robert Schenkkan

Playwright Robert Schenkkan

Fountain Theatre's Poster

Fountain Theatre’s Poster

Building The Wall takes place in 2019, after a Times Square terrorist event (which may or may not have been orchestrated by the government) enables Trump to declare martial law and ramp up his deportation procedures.  The play has two characters – a black historian interviewing a prisoner who, it emerges, was ex-military police who had been a warden at a private prison facility.  She is there to document his story and to try to understand “why he did what he did” which is teased out over the course of the play.  The play’s website says that this play was “written as a reaction to the dawn of the Trump presidency, [and] offers a direct response to his immigration policies, revealing how those policies might lead to a terrifying, seemingly inconceivable, yet inevitable conclusion.”  In Thomas McNulty’s review of the play in Los Angeles, he said that the play is a “response to what Schenkkan sees as the threats posed by Trump’s dangerous rhetoric and his reopening of the “authoritarian playbook,” which calls for the creation of “a constant state of crisis” and the scapegoating of “minorities with appeals to nationalism, racism and isolationism.”  However, this is not expressly a Trump-bashing play; rather, as Cori Anderson  wrote in ”the message focuses on individual action in moments of collective inaction”.  I found it an artful, sometimes mesmerizing, story that sheds light on the ease with which horrors can escalate and the challenges we all face right now.

A piece in Westworld by Juliet Wittman about the production in Denver quoted the playwright:

 “I took the rhetoric, the actual campaign promises, and played them out into what, in novel form, you’d call speculative fiction, imagining a future of how Trump’s promises might play out and what could happen” says Schenkkan.  And then the election turned out the way it did, which I found shocking, and only became more disturbed.” . . . Curious Theatre added the play by scheduling it in rotation with its already-scheduled play in that time slot.  Around the country, directors reacted to Building the Wall with similar passion and urgency. “They all had the same response,” Schenkkan says. “’If theater artists are going to matter, then we cannot continue to respond in the normal way we would do business — commission a play, workshop it, and two years later there’s a production — not if we’re going to be part of the essential conversation that must take place right now.”  This is not Republican versus Democrat. There’s a fundamental assault on American values, the notion of equality under the law, freedom of speech and the press.”

In a brief introduction before the Santa Clara staged reading, producing professor Kristin Kusanovich (who came out of sabbatical to organize this event) said that producing this reading was important to her as a “small step toward avoiding full scale humanitarian disaster.”  I am grateful to her and to Santa Clara University College of Arts & Sciences for providing me an opportunity to see this important work.  I hope it will be picked up soon by a Bay Area theatre so that others here can see and think about this significant addition to the dialogue about what we will allow our government to be and to do.

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1 Comment

  1. Michael Mitnick
    May 18, 2017

    Hi Susan,

    I enjoyed your piece on BUILDING THE WALL.

    I did want to clarify what I said a bit as you’ve begun your piece with some of my thoughts and I don’t believe they’re being properly represented.

    I stand by what I said at PPF – that *if the conditions are right,* Theatre IS the fastest form of a dramatized response.

    Anyone can write a one or two+ person play in 90 minutes, walk outside to a public square, and put it on. It can be devised live. Greeks to Brecht to Boal to Suzan-Lori Parks, on and on – theatre has a proud history of being a stichomythic response to the status quo.

    Madeleine seemed to interpret my point as “theatre is fastest from the idea to the stage of a prominent theatre, like Berkeley Rep or or Broadway.”

    This is not at all what I was saying nor do I think “many others” in the audience believed I meant literally the time from the page to the stage of a LORT theatre.

    Theatre is inherently the fastest form of a response because it requires just one person with a means of expressing a point (or, more common, the lack thereof).

    He or she can stand outside a Chipolte and give a speech. Two people make a dialogue. Even if we aspire to a “legit” stage inside of a noted nonprofit or commercial space, a piece of theatre could still be mounted on a Monday night when the stage is unused. Assuming you close the bathrooms, the largest expenses become electricity and the salaries of both union actors and a union electrician to literally flip on the light switch.

    If we have something to say in a dramatic way, we can say it. We don’t need to wait for noted institutions to mount our plays. The true delays are always money and real estate, not an inherently slow artistic process unless that is the process of the artist her, him, or themselves.

    Theatre can be fast, powerful, and affecting — and we sure as hell don’t need to wait at least 9 months and pay $88+ to see it.

    Michael Mitnick

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