Aspen Ideas Fest staging Robert Schenkkan’s Trump dystopia ‘Building the Wall’
If You Go …
What: Building the Wall, presented by Aspen Ideas Festival
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, June 27, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $20
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: The play will be followed by a discussion with playwright Robert Schenkkan, Curious Theatre artistic director Chip Walton and the cast.
Witnessing Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric about immigrants last year and its normalization as Election Day neared, playwright Robert Schenkken felt America had crossed a line. The Pulitzer and Tony winner channeled his dismay and fear onto the page and, in a week, wrote what would become “Building the Wall.”
The play imagines a near-future dystopian in 2019, where the Trump administration has carried out his promise to round up and detain millions of immigrants. The two-hander features a writer interviewing a man, now awaiting sentencing, who supervised a private prison and carried out federal policies as they escalated into atrocities.
Schenkkan licensed the play to most any theater company aiming to respond to Trump’s election, hoping for a national impact. Since its premiere in Los Angeles in March, productions have opened in New York; Washington, D.C; Portland, Oregon; Tucson, Arizona; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Denver, where Curious Theatre Co. mounted it in April.
The Curious team and Schenkkan are reviving it Tuesday night at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
“The play is written as a cri du coeur to wake up, to pay attention, to be engaged,” Schenkkan said in a recent phone interview.
The writer — whose credits include “The Kentucky Cycle,” “All the Way” and the film “Hacksaw Ridge” — did not think Trump would win the presidency, but felt he needed take action and spark dialogue through his work. After Trump’s victory, he knew he needed to get the play in front of as many Americans as possible.
“While I thought the election would turn out differently, I already felt we had crossed a line and real damage had been done,” Schenkkan said of his impulse to write “Building the Wall.” “What I was specifically alarmed by wasn’t simply the incendiary and, in my opinion, quite racist rhetoric by the Republican candidate around immigration and border security. But the way in which otherwise well-meaning, well-intentioned commentators, journalists and political leaders attempted to normalize that language and excuse it.”
Schenkkan recalls being appalled at talking heads saying things like “He didn’t really mean it” or “It’s just campaign rhetoric” or (the playwright’s natural favorite) “It’s just words.” Accepting that rhetoric constituted a true crisis for the country, in Schenkkan’s eyes.
“This is where democracies go south,” he said.
While the play is a rapid response to our current moment in America, Schenkkan noted, its theme is “as old as Sophocles,” grappling with whether the individual or the government decides what is morally right and wrong.
“The danger is always giving over your moral calculus to the state,” Schenkkan said. “I was extremely worried about that possibility in October 2016. I remain very worried about it here in June 2017. We’re not out of the woods, by any means.”
He’s continued to revise “Building the Wall” as productions have gone up around the U.S., making minor changes based on events of the day and policies like the travel ban going into effect, to keep the future of “Building the Wall” grounded in reality.
Schenkkan has traveled to see productions across the country and will be in Aspen for the Ideas Fest performance.
“I’ve seen it performed in a very naturalistic setting and in a very abstract setting, very detailed and very minimal,” he said. “Its all good. I don’t give anyone any precise directions about that.”
Writing swiftly, producing quickly and licensing widely, the playwright may have kickstarted a new model for theater. Many companies are hungry for works that can speak directly to their audience’s concerns for the country, inspire civic engagement and political action.
The Curious, for example, was in the midst of programming its 2017 season when Trump was elected. In late November, its artistic director Chip Walton and managing partner Katie Maltais promised company supporters that they would be a change agent in the Trump era.
“Our power is to tell stories — stories that have the transformative power of change,” they wrote in an open letter Nov. 22. “And now is the time to have the guts to tell those stories in new and courageous ways.”
Schenkkan’s new play fit the mission. Denver became the second city to open “Building the Wall.”
At Ideas Fest it will play to unique audience, including figures from government, industry and media with their hands on the levers of power. That matters little to Schenkkan.
“It’s been in many different kinds of theaters and stages — red, blue, Democratic, Republican, whatever,” Schenkkan said. “I don’t expect the audience in Aspen to respond dramatically differently to it. … I always hope that the play will engender an intimate connection with the audience and provide a deeper connection for each member of the audience with themselves, their families, their communities and with the issues raised by the play. What you hope for is an increased dialogue.”
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