By Kassandra Engmann
Set in 2019, this searing drama shows the shocking possible future of Trump’s America and follows a history professor who interviews the supervisor of a private prison, awaiting sentencing for carrying out the federal policy that has escalated into the unimaginable. It’s a terrifying exploration of the nature of complicity and of what happens if we let fear win.
Apt613 was able to chat with Sean Devine, Artistic Director of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre and director of the production about bringing this political piece to Ottawa and its significance.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Apt613: Describe how you came across Building the Wall and why did you connect with it so much?
Sean Devine: Most of the stuff my theatre company does is politically activist theatre, meaning that most of the projects we do is our attempt to respond to what we see going on in the world.
Typically, [Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre] creates new Canadian plays and this is an American play but we wanted to have a response to this new reality we live in. I was familiar with Robert Schenkkan, the playwright, and I had heard he’d written this political piece. He described that he was in a “white, hot fury” when he wrote it and he wrote this quicker than he’s ever written anything. He wanted to get his artistic response out there as soon as possible, similar to what I was feeling.
There’s no question that the subject matter of this production is timely but why do you think it’s relevant to Canadians?
Even though the play takes place in the US it will resonate with Canadian audiences in a few ways. Canadians are concerned about what we see happening in The States and the way that society is changing. This play is definitely a glimpse into that frightening world. But we can’t also claim that we are perfectly insulated from that kind of hatred and violence.
In Ottawa alone, in the last 9 months, there were swastikas found on several churches, mosques, and synagogues. It was a stark reminder that you can find those seeds of hate here and if they grow without opposition they can lead to terrible things as well. So the play can serve as a warning to Canadian audiences.
We can’t also claim that we are perfectly insulated from that kind of hatred and violence.
At the same time, in the play, you have two people at polar opposites of the political spectrum, forced into a room and they actually have to listen to each other. The same kind of polar division happens here in Canada. Honestly. I think one thing that any audience can relate to is that we’re seeing so much divisiveness and violent rhetoric. What rarely happens is the opportunity to sit face to face with someone who has opposite opinion of you and have a frank conversation because we dove up a wall. We don’t have honest conversations to see if there’s any common ground and the two characters attempt to find some common ground.
Robert Schenkkan said in an interview on CBC’s The Current that he believes that playwrights have a responsibility in times of crisis. What do you think this responsibility would entail? Do you feel that a director’s responsibility goes hand in hand with that of the playwright’s?
I absolutely agree. If there’s a political crisis occurring that society is choosing to ignore, then a playwright’s responsibility might be to try to wake them up.
Perhaps the audience is complicit in the crisis, the artist could urge people to take a look in the mirror, reflect and take some responsibility. More often than not, a crisis lies outside our complicity so a playwright’s responsibility would be to mobilize that audience and have them take some responsibility.
Where does the director lie in that? In this instance, I share the playwright’s passion and concern. I think that if I get it out to the audience in as raw and as brutal a manner as possible then I’m playing my role to support the original vision and premise, not to transpose it because I’m Canadian.
What do you hope people learn from Building the Wall?
What we learn from watching this journey between these two people is that the path that history sometimes takes, that leads us to the darkest sides of humanity, happened through baby steps. If we’re not careful about maintaining a certain vigilance in our country – in any country – dangerous rhetoric will rise and history has a natural tendency to repeat itself.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, Sean. I look forward to seeing this production.
Building the Wall will be at the Gladstone Theatre November 28 to December 3. Tickets are available online. The show is intended for adults but also suitable for mature teens.