Interview with Robert Schenkkan

Robert Schenkkan

In this issue we talk to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright & screenwriter Robert Schenkkan about his award-winning Broadway play All The Way and get his thoughts on the performing & performance of history through dramatic storytelling.

Hi Robert, thanks for making the time to do this interview!

Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re up to right now?

Robert Schenkkan

I’m getting ready for the release of HBO’s version of All The Way, which premieres May 21, so there’s a lot of publicity and final marketing issues to be resolved [there]. I’m writing a movie for Robert Redford about the Manhattan Project. I have a commission from the Public Theatre for a play, and [one] from the Denver Theater Center, so I’m working on those two plays, and I have a feature film directed by Mel Gibson, which will be released in Thanksgiving.

All the Way (Source: HBO)

Poster for HBO’s All the Way | Source: © HBO

In 1964, the year that Lyndon B. Johnson is looking toward an election, he has also dedicated himself to the passage of the Civil Rights legislation that has languished in Congress, stirring the hopes, passions and fears of a country headed toward monumental change.

– Synopsis of All the Way

Sounds like you’ve got a few history-inspired projects in the works!

What’s your motivation behind delving into historical materials?

Robert Schenkkan

I certainly [don’t] exclusively write period material, but I do quite a bit of it. I enjoy history, always have, always read it for pleasure. I think it’s often a great way to get at contemporary issues in such a way that an audience can perhaps be a little bit more open to an explanation of the fundamental issues as supposed to taking a more head-on, direct, approach.

What’s been the biggest challenge about writing shows based on real events and/or figures?

Robert Schenkkan

I pick an event or an individual because the story contained therein allows me to get at a thematic concern or concerns that really interest me. So that’s where I start and why I go where I go. The challenge, of course, is to manage to get at these often very complex, thorny issues in the timeframe [that] I have in a way that is both fair to the historical record and provocative to a lot of audiences.

In your process, how do you balance the telling of fiction and history — in particular the potential for tension between the two — as well as the need for context?

Robert Schenkkan

First let me say — I’m not a historian, I’m not a documentarian, it’s not what I do. I write fiction; I write plays; I write screenplays; I write for television; so it’s a very different kettle of fish. Having said that, you know, there’s a fair amount of disagreement both over fact and interpretation just among classical historians over what happened and why it happened and what that should mean. But in my instance, I’m very thorough about my research and I take it seriously. I do take liberties very consciously with the facts for my purposes, but the bottom line, or the rule which I think is important to abide by, is that whatever changes I may make I never have a character or an individual who’s based clearly on historical figures say or do anything that they would not normally say or do. In other words, I’m not going to stretch somebody’s character beyond the realm of what is commonly accepted as their world and their worldview.

You’re quite right, you do have to provide context, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense, but by the same token the limitations of the form don’t allow me a lot of time in which to do that. So I have to become very adept at giving the audience just enough information — just the information, and enough of it, that they need to understand the context and the character and why this is happening and why this couldn’t.

Is it more about giving that kernel of fact/context, and then letting the audience research on their own?

Robert Schenkkan

Absolutely, yes.

Again, I’m not a historian and I’m not pretending to put out just the pure facts here and all of the facts. I’m an artist, I have a point of view, [and] that’s why people come see my work, for my point of view, and I’m not didactic about it. I don’t necessarily have any interest in theater [that hands out] a lot of solutions. I think my job is to pose really good questions that will provoke the audience into a bit more self searching or, as you suggest, even overt reading on their own, research on their own, into these individuals and these facts and what that means to them.

Have you found that with these kind of plays, you open yourself up to more criticism as well?

Robert Schenkkan

Yeah, that’s probably true. It’s not a terrible burden, but yes, that’s probably true.

As a writer for film, television, and theater, how do you view the recent surge & thirst fo true-crime/true-life stories such as Serial, Making a Murderer, The People v. OJ Simpson, and your own All the Way?

Robert Schenkkan

I think [these stories have] always been popular. I think people have always find it fascinating, these instances of getting a peek behind the curtain of events that they’ve read about in the newspaper or seen on television on the news at night. Television, of course, whatever’s half of television is so-called reality TV, so there’s this audience that’s become accustomed to this notion of seeing reality played out for them and these kind of true-life/true-crimes stories blur the distinction even more.

It seems to me, personally, that the true-crime/true-life stories seem more “real” than the reality shows.

Robert Schenkkan

Well, I think it’s more honest. The reality shows pretend to be a glimpse of “reality.” In fact, those shows are all scripted. They have writers; they have writer rooms; dialogue is created; scenes are created. But still the fiction that’s being sold to the audience is that, “No, this is really happening in front of your eyes.” You know, real people. Whereas in something like The People v. OJ Simpson or All The Way, there’s no question that these are actors and somebody — a writer — sat down and wrote these lines, and this has all been staged very carefully, so I think they’re more honest than reality TV.

On Broadway right now, there are two big shows about American presidents: Hamilton and All the Way.

Can you talk a little bit about this conversation about politics & leadership that’s happening on stage, especially in terms of the current political climate where we might find ourselves admiring these fictionalized real people more than the real politicians?

Robert Schenkkan

I think we have a very schizophrenic relationship with politics and politicians in this country. We demand an absurd kind of unblemished character from a politician and we simultaneously expect them to perform miracles, all the while insisting — increasingly, apparently — that they don’t do anything to totally compromise or make a deal with somebody on the other side. I’d say we are emerging from a political cycle that actually began in 1964. It’s a violent, convulsive birth, [and] people throughout the country feel the change, [that] big change is afoot and happening; some of it great, some of it terrifying. So there’s a lot of searching for answers, for solutions, and for people to provide leadership. I think that’s just a hunger in the populace as a whole, and I think theater is always slightly ahead of the curve [and therefore] has been providing a number of varied-styled projects that speak to these issues, and that’s why they’re popular and successful.

You probably didn’t plan this, but to have All the Way — a show that’s about someone who can cut a deal, make things happen in Congress, and not be so divisive to the point where you get nothing done — reach its current success during this particular election year…

How do you react to that?

Robert Schenkkan

I think there’s a certain nostalgia right now for a politician like LBJ, who was — I mean, not that there was any politician like LBJ — so extraordinarily successful on a legislative level. If you can separate Vietnam from his record, he’d be on Mount Rushmore just in terms of the tremendous effects that he had on this country and the amount of legislation he was able to achieve. There are a lot of reasons for that, some of which he doesn’t really get credit for.

Lyndon Johnson Signs the Voting Rights Act (Source: U.S. National Archives/Flickr)

President Lyndon B. Johnson Signs the Voting Rights Act | Source: U.S. National Archives/Flickr

In 1964, both [political] parties were much more diverse from what they are now in terms of how they do stood on the political spectrum. That is to say, both the Democrats and the Republicans had a conservative wing, which was so much smaller; both parties had a liberal wing, and both parties had a very large center. That’s no longer true for either party. At that time, [it was] not only completely permissible but expected that you would cross the aisle to make a deal in order to get a bill passed. You needed buy-in from the opposition. This absurd notion that you could just be a purity log would have been laughed at. LBJ also had a very substantial majority in both houses of Congress, and sympathy of the nation following the assassination of President Kennedy. So there’s a lot of things that were very, very helpful [to LBJ].

Having said that, LBJ was a consummate politician, so [that’s] all he cared about. He had no hobbies, [he] didn’t do anything else. He really knew everybody — I mean, he didn’t just know them, he knew their families, he knew their kids, he knew their districts, he knew what they needed, he knew what issues were important to them, he knew who they slept with, he knew what whiskey they drank. I mean, he really knew everybody, and politics is, at its heart, personal. Nobody was better at that than LBJ and that enabled him to build coalitions and get legislation passed that I think most people would not have been able to accomplish; certainly Kennedy couldn’t.

Let’s talk briefly about The Kentucky Cycle.

This sweeping epic of three families in eastern Kentucky spans 200 years of American history from 1775 to 1975. Fast-paced and finely drawn, Schenkkan’s stunning six-hour, nine-play cycle examines the myths of the American past which have created, for better or for worse, the country we are today.

– Synopsis of The Kentucky Cycle

An interesting element of performing history is the performance/re-performance of generational conflict.

What are your thoughts on writing about conflict, in particular historical ones?

Robert Schenkkan

The Kentucky Cycle is about a lot of things, it’s about generational legacy, it’s about storytelling — true and false — [and] it’s about American mythology; and what gets expressed as a result of our failure to grapple with these issues honestly is violence; conflict. Conflict is at the essence of the dramatic form. It’s the engine, it’s what drives everything in its purest, simplest level, and in The Kentucky Cycle, conflict is an expression, as I say, of these thematic concerns, and the narrow hope that it offers at the end is that [the characters are] all on the way out of these seemingly endless cycles of violence. It’s the recognition of responsibility, and the extension of empathy beyond one’s own narrow self-interest.

Outside of everything we’ve talked about, what continues to excite you as a storyteller?

Robert Schenkkan

I love that moment in my own work where I write something that I hadn’t anticipated.

It’s a childlike joy that never fails to provide me with deep pleasure, and then I think — I hope — to see a similar kind of surprise and joy in the recognition of an audience to the story I’ve told, and that they may themselves be exposed to an idea they hadn’t considered, or a character they hadn’t fully appreciated, which leads them to the recognition of their own humanity or their connection to their community as a whole.

Thanks for your time Robert, and good luck with your projects!


Robert Schenkkan:

Pulitzer Prize, Tony, and WGA Award winner, two-time Emmy nominated writer. Author of thirteen plays: All the Way, The Great Society, By the Waters of Babylon, Handler, A Single Shard, Devil and Daniel Webster, Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, Final Passages, The Marriage of Miss Hollywood and King Neptune, Heaven on Earth, Tachinoki, The Dream Thief, and The Kentucky Cycle (Pulitzer prize, Tony and Drama Desk nominations). Also a collection of one-act plays, Conversations with the Spanish Lady, and a musical, (book and co-lyrics) The Twelve, winner of the 2015 Henry Award. The 2014 Broadway production of All The Way swept the Awards season winning the Drama Desk, Outer Critics, Drama League, and TONY Award as well as the Steinberg/American Theater Critics Award, the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Award, and Boston’s Elliot Norton Award. It also set two box office records on Broadway. It will air in May 2016 as a film for HBO, with Steven Spielberg producing. There are plans to bring the sequel, The Great Society, to NYC in fall, 2017.

Film: The Quiet American (co-author). Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson and starring Andrew Garfield, will be released in 2016.

TV: The Pacific (HBO miniseries – WGA Award, two Emmy and Humanitas Award nominations), The Andromeda Strain, Crazy Horse, Spartacus.

Currently, Robert is writing a movie about the Manhattan Project for Robert Redford, adapting the Dave Robicheaux novels as a series for television, and his newest children’s play, Shadowplay, will be part of the “New Visions, New Voices” series this summer. He has play commissions for the Denver Theater Center, The NY Public Theater, and the Geffen Theater. Robert is a member of the Sand Box Collective, Seattle7, Fellows of the American Theater, National Theater Conference, EST, the DGA (National Council Member), and is a New Dramatists Alumnus.


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