Building the Wall: Interview with Director Jody Steiger

Building the Wall
Costa Rica’s Teatro Espressivo is excited to make its American debut with the internationally acclaimed play entitled “Building the Wall” which was written by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Robert Schenkkan.

Costa Rica’s Teatro Espressivo is excited to make its American debut with the internationally acclaimed play entitled “Building the Wall” which was written bPulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Robert Schenkkan. Performances begin February 27, 2020.

After sold out runs in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Spain where it was lauded by critics and audiences, the show will soon run at The Clemente in Lower Manhattan. Presented in Spanish with English subtitles, the show is set in the near future where prisons are overflowing with undocumented immigrants who have been rounded up by the government. The plot follows a guard named Rick who is on remand for an incident that occurred on his watch and a historian named Gloria who has come to interview him about what occurred.

Jody Steiger is the Artistic Advisor on the production. A native New Yorker, Jody was the driving force behind bringing the show to the USA. After moving to Costa Rica in the late 1970s, she was named director of the National Theater of Costa Rica and subsequently went on to win many awards.

Jody recently discussed her experiences working on this show and more via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for the arts and why do you gravitate towards the theater?
Jody Steiger (JS): Ever since I was a child, I knew I wanted to be involved in theatre. At first, I was an actress, but still while in high school I was working at the Kaufman Concert Hall and fell in love with lighting. Since then I have designed the lighting for over 500 productions. In the last ten years I have been involved in production and direction as well. I cannot imagine my life outside of the theatre. Technically I’m retired. But I will never stop participating in theatrical productions.

MM: What was it about “Building the Wall” that so appealed to you?

JS: This is a brilliant play that takes as a symbol, the answer given by concentration camp directors from the Holocaust: I was just following orders. So often evil is propagated not by evil people, but by everyday people who refuse to take responsibility for their actions; to stand up for what they believe, for what they know is the right thing to do. When I saw this production in 2017 in New York I was convinced of its power to bring awareness of the issue. If we are not actively against hatred, then we are in favor of it. I believe this play has to power to move the members of the audience; to have them feel compassion for, in this case, those fleeing poverty and violence. And hopefully, to move people to action.

MM: What were the challenges of getting this piece staged and how did you find a venue?

JS: We have our own venue in Costa Rica, and our idea from the beginning was to produce it there. Our executive producer Steve Aronson, after seeing the work in 2017, reached out to Robert Schenkkan for the rights to translate the play into Spanish, and to adapt it to the Central American contemporary reality. Schenkkan was most generous with his time in working with us in the adaptation, and came to Costa Rica for the original opening there.

MM: What was the process of bringing it to New York like?

JS: This is a co-production with Teatro LATEA which come about thanks to a long-term relationship between Espressivo and Nelson Landrieu, the Uruguayan actor/director and co-founder of LATEA and the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center. He was in Costa Rica for several months a few years ago in our production of “La Casa de los Espiritos”. This year, after his passing, we decided to work together with LATEA to bring the production to New York as a memorial of sorts to Nelson. This is a play about immigration — our biggest challenge in bringing the production to New York was getting visas for our group to come to New York for this cultural exchange.

MM: What’s your favorite segment of the show and why?

JS: One of the aspects of our adaptation of “Building the Wall” is the addition of a guard who is filming the interview (presented live during the performance) as well as voices from interviews that have come about over the last few years. One of them is an actual recording of children being taken away from their parents at a detention center in Texas. A child cries: “Papa, Papa, quiero mi Papa”. This is inserted after Gloria (the historian played by Magdalena Morales) asks Rick (the ex-detention center director who is in jail) if he believed in keeping families together, even when in detention centers. It makes the reality of what they are saying so much more palpable, emotional, and gut-wrenching.

MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?

Building the Wall
“Building the Wall” is a play that tackles the topic of illegal immigration.

JS: It is all of our responsibilities to deal with the current immigration crisis. It is one of the deepest challenges facing humanity today. And it will only get worse. As climate change provokes less work in agricultural areas, and devastating environmental change, growth in global drug dealing creates more and more violence, we will continue to see the challenge of immigration growing. We need to become aware of the realities of the problem and think about what each of us can do. Immigrants are not “bad people” as the current President of the United States has stated. The grand majority are human beings like you or me who are seeking to find a place to live in peace, where they can offer a safe home for their children, offering education, food and health care. We need to feel as one human race — not just of one country.

MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

JS: Teatro Espressivo was founded in Costa Rica in 1989 with the express mission to impact diverse audiences through art. We produce theatrical productions and an annual Human Rights film festival throughout the year that deal with issues on contemporary personal and political issues. We just received the prestigious Costa Rican National Cultural Management Award for our social impact, championing Costa Rican heritage and fostering public partnerships in culture. I have a PhD in the use of the arts in social development and education. My love for theatre is accompanied by my firm belief that we can help resolve the many challenges we are facing today by raising consciousness within our public.