- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
As timely as the latest political scandal, “Building the Wall” issued like a blaze of lighting from the mind of Robert Schenkkan, the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who grew up in Austin.
The 90-minute, two-person drama about America after an envisioned impeachment of President Donald Trump has its regional premiere at the University of Texas on Thursday and runs through Sept. 10. A public conversation will take place on Sept. 7 at the Brockett Theatre.
Not that long ago, “Building the Wall” was barely a sketch of an idea in Schenkkan’s mental notebook. Yet possessed by the play’s force, he wrote it expeditiously in October, just before the presidential election.
Multiple theaters picked it up immediately, and it reached New York on May 24, which in theatrical terms is like an overnight turnaround. That run was short-lived, but a Los Angeles version was extended several times, and other productions have opened or are in rehearsals around the world.
“I felt the moment was urgent,” Schenkkan says. “It was good to see that as an artist I could respond quickly and that my community would join me. I met so many different artists at different theaters all over the country, institutions I didn’t know, or only knew by reputation, and everybody who participated in this did so with tremendous enthusiasm and excitement because they, too, felt the urgency of the moment and the need to do something, to respond to this extraordinary political crisis.”
In contrast, Schenkkan’s President Lyndon B. Johnson plays, “All the Way” and “The Great Society,” took years to write and then more time to wind their way through the country’s nonprofit and commercial theater systems, eventually winning local awards for their regional premieres at Zach Theatre.
We asked some key Austin producers and playwrights about the pros and cons of a hurried play development process. Several of them agreed that the traditional, longer gestation gives the creative team time to work out problems in the writing.
“As soon as it is on its feet, the writer sees things that can only be learned by speaking the language,” says Brant Pope, producer and director of the UT show. “And you get past that. You’ve had the advantage of trial and error and fixing.”
Plus, if the process is too quick, the author loses some control.
“Normally with a new play, a world premiere, I would be very careful in where we placed the play and how we brought it along,” Schenkkan says. “Here, by allowing anyone to present it anywhere without regard to size of house or place, I suddenly had multiple productions all overlapping, and it was impossible for me to be present as I normally would, overseeing design, casting, rehearsal and previews. This meant that productions might vary widely in interpretation and quality.”
Given overlapping shows, Schenkkan also dealt with multiple versions of the text.
“Because I was continuously revising the script throughout this period, it meant that multiple productions were sometimes happening, each with a slightly — or more than slightly — different version of the script,” he says. “It was challenging to stay on top of all of that.”
If the ultimate destination is New York for a play, a long evolution, though costly, can build its reputation.
“You tally a résumé of successful audience experiences and critical reviews, and you build momentum through small changes,” says Pope, who is keen to build on UT’s already-sterling reputation for nurturing new works. “For ‘All the Way,’ Bryan Cranston agreed to pick it up in Boston and take it to Broadway (as LBJ), but the Oregon Shakespeare Festival run before that was not just a workshop, nor the production at Seattle Repertory Theatre. They were finished products from substantial companies. But you really have to be enamored of the dramatic idea and of the playwright, because there’s a cost disadvantage in this long process.”
Formerly, regional theaters provided much of the play development architecture in this country, but now the duty often falls to universities because the costs are lower.
“Sometimes, new plays and musicals get lost in development hell in a series of writer retreats, workshops, staged readings and new play festivals,” says Dave Steakley, artistic director of Zach Theatre, which produced the LBJ plays here. “Robert has done something very interesting, which is to write the play very quickly, cut out all the middle steps and go straight to production with a piece of activist political theater that responds to the Trump administration.”
A jump from the page to the stage can prove quite providential.
“I kinda can’t imagine the disadvantages,” says Kirk Lynn, a playwright who teaches at UT and whose works have been seen nationally, especially as staged by the Austin-based Rude Mechs. “I think much of my taste is a preference for the casual and passionate. … To be able to give comfort and form community and argumentation in the presence of the event seems like a great advantage.”
Another UT author, Steven Dietz, also one of the most produced playwrights in the country, agrees.
“The theater is a nimble medium at its core: It needs a story, a teller and an audience,” Dietz says. “Everything else is extravagance. The theater is nimble because it is consumed at the same time it is made. Thus it can more easily operate at the speed of a news cycle than any of the (other) performing arts, save music. While there are certainly issues that benefit by time and reflection before being put through the lens of art, other issues — like the one at the heart of ‘Building the Wall’ — benefit through immediacy. Timing, in art, is intent.”
Amparo Garcia-Crow, who for decades has written for the stage, is gearing up to do something similar with her original musical “Strip: Sex, Drugs and Persecution.”
“As we mature as writers and human beings, there is an urgency to honor the impulse of an idea,” she says. “The best ideas — I am very Greek about this — are bestowed by the gods and deities that pull on a writer’s ear. I honestly think I do very little as a writer except listen! … A long development process can surely have its benefits for some, but in this case, why wait? There is no time to waste.”
Steakley points out that Schenkkan has written a good deal for TV and film, so he can work very quickly. He compares the playwright’s attempt to create a simultaneous national conversation to Suzan-Lori Parks’ “365 Days/365 Plays,” rolled out as a year of playlets for companies of all sizes, with groups like Zach Theatre acting as regional hubs.
“Some creative things require long incubation, and some take a couple of weeks,” he says. “Robert is smart to write a single, unit-set play with two actors, which is affordable for any size theater to produce, so small companies that may normally get left out of high-profile play events can participate in a sort of rolling premiere across the country.”
UT producer-director Pope, who also serves as chairman of the Department of Theatre and Dance, takes a very practical view of the hurried-up action in this case.
“Very few playwrights would put out a play too quickly, because it might end up half-baked,” he says. “But ‘Building the Wall’ is a two-person play written in the moment. It is not a metaphor, like Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible,’ which was also written in the moment, but expresses the essence of that moment in another time period. It only has meaning in the moment. The moment will pass.”
“And let’s be honest, a lot of development is just sitting on your hands waiting for partners to take up the work,” Lynn says. “This is work we’re ready to take up.”