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OpenForum Blog:

Rapid Response: Theatre Takes Aim at Trump’s Politics

Posted on June 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

by Linda Lombardi, Building the Wall Assistant Director and Production Dramaturg



This past election season felt like none other—longer, meaner, more divisive, more bizarre. The first female nominee of a major political party faced off against the real estate mogul turned reality TV host. Every story was breaking news, Facebook newsfeeds offered outrage and alternative facts, and Twitter refreshed instantaneously with 140 characters of snark, hashtags, and accusations. And it hasn’t diminished since November.


Given the current political and cultural climate, the debate over theatre’s relevance has taken a turn in an interesting direction. We’re not only competing with the accessibility and affordability of TV, film, and streaming entertainment anymore. The question now is, how can theatre quickly respond to and address the issues of our day, when the issues come at us a mile a minute; and we’re used to a new play development and production process that typically lasts a year or longer?


One answer is offered in the quick turnaround of Robert Schenkkan’s new play Building the Wall. Written in a weeklong “white hot fury,” as described by Schenkkan, and finished exactly one month prior to the election, Building the Wall speculates a scenario two years into the future. What will America be under a Trump presidency? Where will the normalization of his extreme racist, sexist, nationalistic rhetoric lead us? How can we understand each other across such division? Have we crossed a line, and can we find our way back? Does history come down to one ordinary individual’s decision to act or not to act? The urgency of those questions fueled the play’s creation and drove Schenkkan’s process. 


“We are in the middle of a political crisis, the most serious threat to the Republic in my lifetime,” said Schenkkan. “I believe the situation is critical, and that it demands an immediate response.”


Forum Theatre—along with Fountain Theatre in LA, Curious Theatre in Denver, City Theatre in Miami, and Borderlands Theater in Tucson—is providing that immediate response as part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere of Building the Wall. Forum Producing Artistic Director Michael Dove described the genesis of the partnership as fitting a critical need in a way no other play was able to do.


“This was late January, after the inauguration,” explained Dove. “We still had an open slot in our season and wanted something that was emblematic of the conversation we wanted to have under the new administration. Forum’s mission is about creating a space and curating a piece of work that gets people talking and opens up conversations inspired by the event of the play. Steven Sachs from Fountain Theatre sent me Robert’s play, and after I read it I couldn’t wait to be in a room with it. I’ve never read a new play that was written with this same immediacy and was speaking to the questions and fears and concerns I was having.”


That immediacy opened up the doors to a collaboration with Arena Stage and the opportunity to produce part of the run in DC, blocks from Capitol Hill and the White House. “Arena was excited to host Forum Theatre in the Kogod Cradle with this timely and meaningful production,” said Arena Stage Executive Director Edgar Dobie. “Our relationship with Robert Schenkkan and our audience’s attraction to political plays made it an ideal partnership.”


The opportunity to perform a piece of timely political theatre in the heart of the nation’s capital was attractive on many levels, and empowering. “DC is the center of political power in this country, but that power does not reside solely at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW,” argued Schenkkan. “For a radical ideology to become law and then public policy, there must be enormous buy-in from numerous political stakeholders within all three segments of government. Bringing the play to Washington enables me to raise my thematic concerns directly with all of those people. The greatest danger in a democracy is always a complacent citizenry.”


While playwrights develop the work that will replenish the American canon in the years to come, rapid-response theatre adds an alternative, supplemental model to the conversation. Part of what theatre does so well involves taking the long view, but we can and should also respond to the changing times as they are changing. As playwrights embrace a new way of creating, theatres can use this time to rethink how they program. Forum’s ability to nimbly and fluidly respond to the call from LA, Arena Stage’s partnership, and NNPN’s support created the opportunity for this play to be seen by DC audiences. Rapid-response is an exciting new producing model, offering immediate artistic reaction to current affairs while the events are fresh in our mind. After all, the power of the play is in the doing.


This weekend, theatre artists, producers, and administrators from across the country will gather to discuss these very issues during Theatre Communications Group’s annual conference in Portland, Oregon. Schenkkan and Dove, along with Portland Center Stage Artistic Director Chris Coleman and American Records Founder/CEO KJ Sanchez, will be featured panelists on Building the Wall: Making Theatre in a Time of Political Crisis. As part of an artistic director luncheon, the discussion will focus on Schenkkan’s play and how theatre can respond to local, national, and world events in our rapidly changing political landscape.


Theatre has a tradition of being a place to bear witness, embrace change, create empathy, and encourage resistance. Building the Wall addresses some of the feelings of division, suspicion, unease, and confusion many Americans are experiencing. Schenkkan’s play—and the responsive theatre that will surely follow—allows us as artists, activists, and citizens to expand the part we play in our communities and alleviate some of that anxiety. There is great hope to be found in that possibility.


“This is such a great chance to make good on the promise to create safe spaces for unsafe ideas, and the desire to embrace more diverse communities,” observed Dove. “If we’re not going to do that now, if we’re not going to take advantage of this time as it’s happening, then I fear we never will.” 


Linda Lombardi (@llombardi99)
Linda Lombardi is a director and dramaturg attracted to work that shifts our perspective and broadens our understanding of the world—epic stories told in intimate ways that capture the resiliency of the human spirit, the extraordinary events of an ordinary life, the poetry of everyday language. An artist and activist based in Washington, DC, she explores the intersection of dramaturgy and community engagement, and serves as a bridge between the work and the public. Linda previously served as Artistic Associate/Literary Manager at Arena Stage. Directing credits include Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; Henry V; Perfect Arrangement (world premiere); Domestic Animals; Ajax; and The White Devil. Production dramaturgy credits include All the Way, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Disgraced, and Building the Wall. New play dramaturgy credits include String of Pearls, and The Peculiar Awakening of Riley Parker.
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