Theatres move faster to stay relevant in Trump era

Playwright Robert Schenkkan.
Playwright Robert Schenkkan.

NEW YORK • Playwright Robert Schenkkan spent three years writing The Kentucky Cycle, the series of nine one-acts that won him the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1992. He spent 21 months on a first draft of All The Way, which won him the Tony Award for best new play in 2014.

Building The Wall, a disquieting response to the dawn of the Trump era, took him just one week to complete. Five theatres around the United States, acting with unusual speed, have already agreed to present the play in a series of productions beginning next month, shaping an early response to an embryonic presidency that has alarmed many theatre artists.

"We no longer live in a world that is business as usual - Mr Trump has made that very clear - and if theatre is going to remain relevant, we must become faster to respond," Schenkkan said. "We cannot hope to be useful if we can't respond until 18 months after the fact."

The play, set in 2019, is in the form of speculative fiction or future history. In it, a writer interviews a prison executive awaiting sentencing for his role in a Trump administration effort to detain and deport large numbers of immigrants after a terrorist attack in the US.

"It is not a crazy or extreme fantasy," Schenkkan said. "It's very solidly grounded in current American law, and Mr Trump's rhetoric and his most recent executive orders."

Schenkkan, also a screenwriter who wrote this year's Oscar-nominated Hacksaw Ridge with Andrew Knight, penned Building The Wall the week before the election last year. The play had a developmental reading shortly after the election at the Lark Theater in New York and was then circulated by the National New Play Network, an alliance of non-profit theatres.

Four quickly agreed to stage their own productions while sharing credit for the world premiere. The Fountain Theater in Los Angeles will mount the play next month, followed by the Curious Theater in Denver; the Forum Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland; and the Borderlands Theater in Tucson.

"We had our season in place, with another production planned, but as soon as I read this script, I knew we had to move fast," said Mr Stephen Sachs, an artistic director of the Fountain Theater. "It's a raw, passionate warning cry and I knew we had to be bold and make this statement."

The play seems likely to have multiple other productions as theatres look for ways to comment on Mr Trump's presidency. Most recently, the Adobe Rose Theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico, became the fifth theatre to commit to presenting it and Schenkkan is working on putting together a touring production and considering requests for productions in Canada, Britain and other countries.

The theatres presenting the play say they believe that drama can help shape public understanding and conversation, in this case about an administration whose policies they find troubling.

"I think a lot of theatre artists have been very shaken, and also awoken, by the events in November and are asking, 'Am I creating work that's addressing the questions we all should be asking each other?' and 'Am I communicating with as many of my fellow Americans as I can?'" said Ari Edelson, artistic director of the Exchange, which supported the development of Schenkkan's play.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 07, 2017, with the headline 'Theatres move faster to stay relevant in Trump era'. Print Edition | Subscribe