Acclaimed playwright Robert Schenkkan stands out as one of the modern masters of the stage. With his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle and his Tony Award-winning All The Way, Schenkkan demonstrates his acumen in capturing the vastly complex human spirit. In a phone interview with the Daily Trojan, Schenkkan revealed his creative process ahead of an appearance in which he will speak about his prolific career as part of the Vision and Voices series at Town and Gown on Wednesday.
Schenkkan listed playwrights Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller as his formative literary influences for their social and political content. These were the writers Schenkkan grew up reading, but it was Southern literature writer William Faulkner who shaped Schenkkan’s perspective on history.
“[Faulkner said] history is not dead; it’s not even past. History, in other words, is not something separate from us. We are very much burdened by and, better yet, affected by history,” Schenkkan said. “In many ways, we are conscious of our personal history and inguinal history, so I think it becomes very important to understand that. I think it becomes important for my own growth as an artist and as a human to understand the context of the forces within me.”
Schenkkan approached The Kentucky Cycle, his Pulitzer Prize-winning American mythology play about generations of families in the South. with this mindset. Schenkkan said that he infused ideas of the American Dream. Though Schenkkan described that concept, integral to the development of the United States, as rooted in providing a better life for one’s children, he has seen the American Dream slowly dissolve.
“If you look at college students today who graduate with a staggering amount of debt, the kinds of jobs immediately available to them are hardly those that are able to make much of a dent in that debt,” Schenkkan said. “So you put a whole generation and new workers in a terrible position. This is unbearable.”
Behind the ideals of his recent masterpiece, All The Way, a Broadway play about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, Schenkkan explored the power agenda behind a deeply ambitious man.
“[Johnson] is a fascinating individual, someone who was a political animal. He had no other interests, no other hobbies,” Schenkkan said. “All he cared about was politics. He was a very ambitious man for sure, and one who was not disinclined to do what it took to rise in the ranks.”
Additionally, Schenkkan celebrates Johnson as a progressive, one who oversaw the passage of the Civil Rights Act and truly wanted to make the lives of his citizens better. Unfortunately for Johnson, the events of the Vietnam War blemished his legacy.
“[Johnson was part of] major policy changes that are now firmly embedded in the policies of our country today,” Schenkkan said. “If one can only eliminate Vietnam, then he would be on Mount Rushmore. But of course you can’t. He lied about Vietnam and lied to Congress. He knew as early as 1964 that we weren’t going to win Vietnam.”
But Schenkkan chose to spotlight the moments leading up to the historic passage of the first meaningful civil rights bill since Reconstruction. He saw ripples of the 1964 events in today’s news, almost 50 years later.
“People think, what’s 1964 compared to 2014? We’re so beyond that. Well, are we? You know, we continue to argue about voting rights and civil rights,” Schenkkan said. “We continue to see black men murdered by white men of authority. We continue to see disparity in social equality and opportunity. Johnson was talking about the consequences of white privilege in 1964.”
In addition to the transcendent words of All The Way, actor Bryan Cranston, who played Johnson, created a multifaceted character. Cranston will also play Johnson in the upcoming HBO adaptation of the play.
“I think Bryan is a terrific actor, very talented. He’s a very transformative actor and changes from character to character,” Schenkkan said. “I also think of him as a friend; he’s very funny. He’s a pleasure to work with — smart, involved, often has very good ideas and is a great pleasure to collaborate with.”
With the great amount of productions under his belt, Schenkkan has been able to adeptly choose the optimal medium for his works.
“Some stories feel very cinematic, and they need the expanse that film or television offers you. Some stories feel more theatrical,” Shenkkan said. “There’s a certain physical size as well as immediacy and containment that is really better suited for the stage. It’s really an intuitive thing that I, and all writers, share. Not everyone would agree with how a work is executed. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t transfer, as exemplified in the case of All The Way.”
Ultimately, that intuitive nature requires years of polishing to achieve, but Schenkkan said that aspiring screenwriters and playwrights should not be bogged down by the process. Rather, it’s crucial to just sit down and start writing.
“My only advice is to do it, and not be daunted by the idea of doing it,” Schenkkan said. “It’s very easy to acquire the technical issues of what does a screenplay look like, what does a play look like, but the work is just sitting down and doing it. And USC has wonderful resources, but you don’t have to have a classroom to do that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the event was happening at Bovard Auditorium. It was set to take place at Town and Gown. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.