Michael Slate Interview with Playwright Robert Schenkkan

Building the Wall: A Play About the Future Now

August 1, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Building the Wall takes place in the very near future. The Trump administration has carried out the round up and detention of millions of immigrants. A writer is interviewing the supervisor of a private prison—who is awaiting sentencing for carrying out the federal policy that has escalated into the unimaginable. Building the Wall is a riveting, harrowing, and illuminating drama by Pulitzer and Tony award-winning playwright and screenwriter Robert Schenkkan. It delivers a powerful warning and puts a human face on the inhuman, revealing how, when personal accountability is denied, what seems inconceivable becomes inevitable. The play premiered at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles and since then has spread across the country. Schenkkan urges theater companies, actors, and others to grab the play and mount performances wherever they are. The following are excerpts from an interview on The Michael Slate KPFK radio show with Schenkkan on March 31, shortly after Building the Wall opened in Los Angeles.

The Michael Slate Show airs every week at 10 am Pacific Time on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles, a Pacifica Network station. The show can also be streamed live and people can listen to or download archived shows.

Revolution/revcom.us features interviews from The Michael Slate Show to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports, and politics. The views expressed by those interviewed are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere by Revolution/revcom.us.


Michael Slate: Robert, your play is blowing a lot of minds. It’s an extremely important piece out in the world today. You said you wrote it in a “white hot fury” and finished in a week. What compelled you to do this?

Robert Schenkkan: Well, this is in late October—as one of the more dispiriting presidential campaigns lurched to a close. I was extremely angry and anxious at what I was hearing and how it was being treated in the press. I thought that the then Republican presidential candidate’s rhetoric was quite deliberately incendiary and had crossed quite a serious line. I kept hearing fairly respected commentators, press as well as politicians, trying to reassure us that “he didn’t mean it” or, that “it was just words,” or that they would protect us and I didn’t believe that. I thought that regardless of how the election turned out—and I will be honest, I expected a different result—I thought that however the election turned out that we had already crossed a serious line politically and culturally. I needed to respond to that as an artist. So, I sat down and I wrote this play in a week. That is a bit faster than my normal process, which can take several months or several years. But I had such a strong impulse here and such a sense of urgency about the situation. I felt then and even more today that we’re in the middle of an unfolding political crisis—the magnitude of which I’ve certainly never seen within my lifetime and I doubt that the Republic has in 100 years, certainly not in terms of such an internal threat.

MS: The play is situated in the aftermath of the Trump regime to a certain extent, and it has a certain progression built on the most horrendous and terrible things being done. You’ve argued, though, that this is not some kind of “wild-assed” science fiction here—that in many ways it’s the logical conclusion of where things are headed. Let’s talk about that in relation to you doing this play.

Robert Schenkkan: Oh, absolutely! The play is set in the near future, the fall of 2019. You could call it speculative fiction. But I would argue that the ultimate reality that I’ve envisioned here is very easily one that could be brought into being. What we are seeing right now in the early months of this new political regime—while startling and infuriating and scary, is not new. This is a page out of a very old handbook, the authoritarian handbook. The process here is pretty straightforward. You make the populace feel afraid and isolated and anxious. You position yourself as the strong leader who is the only person capable of rescuing them. There are appeals to nativism and racism, scapegoating of minorities, racial and religious and a consolidation of power and the diminution of personal liberties...

MS: The way you present this, it’s all very compelling and challenging. You have these two characters and frankly, the interaction between the two—there’s sort of an edge to it. But there’s also a way that they’re really exploring where each other is coming from to a certain extent. There’s a lot going on in terms of the confrontation and interaction between these two characters themselves who are arguing out arguments that are taking place in this society and that are very organically tied up with what you just said about things being done that are just an unfathomable crime against humanity.

Robert Schenkkan: Well, thank you, that’s certainly what I intend to do here. The play’s not intended to be a polemic. I’m actually trying to get at some complicated ideas that we’re struggling with; some complicated issues that are not black and white. There’s a reason why people who would not normally have voted for our current president did during this election and this has to do with very real economic and societal failures that created the kind of conditions in which this kind of authoritarian figure can arise. It’s very important to understand that; not to excuse but to understand so that we can solve the underlying problem and hopefully change the circumstance under which we’re currently struggling. So yes, with these two characters who are different in many ways—Rick is a blue-collar managerial type who ran a private prison and he’s white, male. The other character, Gloria, is an African-American female who’s a professor of history. They come together in this one moment. Rick has been convicted of some unspecified, but obviously pretty serious crime, and is awaiting sentencing. And interestingly, Gloria is the only person, or first person that he has allowed to interview him.

So, they’re both here in this cell trying to understand history, trying to understand what happened. To some degree, Rick is honestly struggling as much as Gloria is, to understand what he’s done and what the consequences are. These people, like all people, come into this room with a certain set of expectations and stereotypes about the other person and the other person’s politics. These are confounded and surprised over again and both people are forced to recognize, more than once, how limited their understanding is, how narrow their perspective is, and how complicated people are. That’s quite intentional. The play’s intended to appeal to a very broad audience—regardless of your politics, or whether you’re in a rural or blue state or red state—because it speaks to a very fundamental human condition. The challenge here, as the challenge always is, is between the conscience of the individual and the power of the state. This is a struggle that’s central to the dynamic tension of democracy. Aeschylus was exploring this 2,000 years ago. It’s still true today. We like to think of our democracies as vibrant and healthy and strong and yet, we’re seeing, and not just in the United States, but in Europe as well, how fragile they are, really; how easy it is to wobble, to spin off course and how important, how even more important it is then for citizens to exercise their moral principle, their moral choice and not cede that authority to the authorities.

MS: When you write about the play, you talk about the book by Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness, and the impact it had on you.

Robert Schenkkan: This book is kind of a classic now, in Holocaust literature. I just stumbled across it, I couldn’t even tell you how. It is an investigation into the life and times of this one individual, who for a brief moment became extremely powerful in the Nazi death machinery. She spends almost 60 hours interviewing him. But she also interviews his wife, family members and colleagues and people who survived him. It’s a real attempt to come to sort of grips with, “How did you wind up doing these kinds of things”? It was very, very provocative and very illuminating—for me personally. My grandfather was a Dutch Jew who emigrated in the 1920s, not just out of economic necessity, but also because I think he saw the coming cloud of fascism. He lost 16 family members in the Holocaust and the loss was so painful that he actually never spoke of it to me. I did not know this part of my family history until I discovered it by accident in my 30s. That’s how painful and profound the loss was, the wound was. I know that reading that book, which I did almost a year ago, certainly had an influence on me and it certainly found some expression in the play that I’ve written.


MS: I keep thinking about the film The Nasty Girl where this woman goes back to Germany and the village where her grandparents lived. She starts talking to all these people who had done the most horrendous things during the fascist Hitler regime, turning in their neighbors and everybody to the Gestapo and people being slaughtered and tortured. And no one wanted to talk about it, pretending it was all in the past. But I thought that what you do with this play, the way you work out the struggle here, is that people are challenged not to forgive. You want people to understand how this happens. It’s not a question of forgiving somebody where there have been crimes against humanity. This seems linked to the point that you have quoted a couple of times where you say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Robert Schenkkan: Well, it’s very true. I was just reading an interesting article the other day in the newspaper, a review of a book talking about the Gestapo and how actually, the number of members of the Gestapo, the Nazi Germany police force, was astonishingly small given the size of the population. They managed to intimidate and control something like 3,800 citizens for every Gestapo agent. Well, obviously it’s not that that single agent is in contact with every one of those 3,800 people in every moment of the day, so what’s keeping them in line? What’s obviously keeping them in line, keeping them intimidated, keeping them subservient, is their own concession to the state. That’s a critical notion; that they gave their power away. They ceded their power to the authorities. Even if they were not explicitly active in the criminal activities that were perpetrated by the regime, they were implicitly involved because they didn’t say “no,” because they didn’t stand up. They didn’t take a stand and that’s a very, very important thing to keep in mind...

We’re all of us, the hero of our own play. We rarely think or admit that we might be wrong or that our motives might be less than pure. It requires a very, very strong constitution and conscience to be able to examine one’s motives and one’s action in an objective manner, but it’s critical that we attempt that. Rick’s slow progression here to Golgotha is full of half-steps and quarter-steps that in and of themselves make sense, sort of—don’t seem necessarily bad in the moment, but cumulatively we can see that he’s going down a certain kind of path, the consequences of which are dire and as you suggest, ultimately unforgiveable. The only way that one avoids that, and this is what the play’s ultimate argument is, the only way one avoids that is by staying very conscious—very conscious in your life. It’s critical to stay awake; to be aware of what’s happening! The human tendency to avoid unpleasantness or deny unpleasantness is almost overwhelming. It’s part of how we’re hardwired—particularly when a threat doesn’t appear immediate.

You know, it’s fascinating, I don’t know if you saw this recent article in the New York Times about American citizens and their perceptions of climate change. This actually now, is a fairly sizeable majority, 70 percent who agree with the statement that climate change is happening and it’s man-made. But what’s fascinating is that only 20 percent of those same people feel that it’s having any impact on them and therein lies the dichotomy and the terrible, terrible problem that we’re facing. We’re not feeling the consequences of our actions nearly acutely enough. As a consequence we’re not able or willing or ready to change our actions, even though we are setting in motion terrible forces, which once unleashed, may never be able to be recaptured. That’s the human condition. It requires a real effort to surmount that, to be awake, to be aware and to make our choices consciously.




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