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Robert Schenkkan takes on President Trump in new play

by John Horn and Jonathan Shifflett | The Frame

Robert Schenkkan's "Building The Wall" imagines a scenario where Trump's immigration policies yield disastrous consequences. Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Academy of Moti

Robert Schenkkan won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for “The Kentucky Cycle,” and the 2014 Tony Award for “All the Way,” his play about Lyndon Johnson’s effort to pass the Civil Rights Act.

Now he’s turned his attention to our current president in a play titled “Building the Wall,” which is having its world premiere at the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles. The play, which is set in 2019, features two characters — a college professor who visits a prison to interview the former supervisor of a federal government detention facility for illegal immigrants.

You may wonder how Schenkkan managed to write the play so quickly. Well, in fact, he began writing it before the November election.

What I was feeling is that, regardless of who won, we'd already crossed a line in this dismal presidential election campaign. I felt a need to respond to that.

When The Frame's John Horn spoke with Schenkkan recently, they discussed the making of the play and its message for audiences.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On what the play would have looked like had Hillary Clinton won:

The play is about a more fundamental issue, which is the importance of individual citizens not ceding their moral authority to the state. I think the play is timely, but I also think it has a timeless quality that would have endured beyond a change in the election results.

On creating a realistic story:

It was very important to me that this story, which is a speculation about the near future, be absolutely grounded in current political rhetoric and legislation. The more grounded it feels, the more potent I think the ending is. 

On sympathizing with the Trump supporters:

I've spent quite a lot of time thinking about this issue. My feelings about people who voted for Trump ... many of these people voted out of a palpable and justified sense of anxiety and frustration that their needs and concerns — and these are largely economic needs — were not being met. So I look at the way people voted. and in particular [at] this individual, who I've imagined in an entirely sympathetic way. Their ideology is not necessarily mine, but they're just people and they're motivated by the same things that motivate all people.

On making the character of the Trump supporter relatable:

I want to play fairly here. I want us as an audience to understand how decent people, good people, can wind up making terrible mistakes. If I tilt the scale so far, well, it would not be much of a revelation, nor would it have much meaning. It would be very easy for the audience to feel like, I'm not that person. I would never do that. And indeed, the point is, we're all capable of making terrible mistakes.

On his response to people who say it could never happen:

My response would be, Well, that very much depends on what you do. We are the best and ultimate safeguard of our own democracy. What that requires is that we be very aware. That we not look away, that we not engage in the all-too-appealing idea of avoidance or denial ...  We accept what is happening, [but] we don't normalize what is happening — that we make our decisions very consciously and predicated on our own sense of what is right and what is wrong.

"Building the Wall" is at the Fountain Theatre through May 21.

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