Since my PhD is in English Language and Literature with a specialty in 20th century American dramatic literature, this subject holds special interest to me (if you are so inclined, you can read my abstract here).
Robert Schenkkan once joked in an interview that regardless of the success he might achieve as a playwright, he would always be best known for his role on the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. While fans of the show may know him in this capacity, it is as playwright of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle for which he is recognized in literary and theatre circles.
After enormously popular runs in Seattle and Los Angeles, it became the first play to win the Pulitzer before a Broadway opening. Epic in scope, with its minimalist stage setting, actor-driven dialogue, and elements of American mythology, The Kentucky Cycle addressed many of the political and social issues that, in Schenkkan’s view, were threatening to destroy the United States. Like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama the year before, The Kentucky Cycle was written to address timely political and social circumstances that were unique to American society. At the time, Kushner commented in Newsday, “I don’t think it’s coincidental that at the same time I was writing Angels he was writing The Kentucky Cycle, and that we both wrote these huge plays that are an attempt to address large-scale questions about American history and about where we are going."
Schenkkan does more than write for the stage, though. He is an in-demand screenwriter as well:
- Author of four of the episodes of the recent HBO miniseries The Pacific (2010)
- Wrote the A&E miniseries The Andromeda Strain (2009)
- Wrote the USA network miniseries Spartacus (2003)
- Co-wrote the screenplay for the movie The Quiet American, starring Michael Caine (2002).
Upcoming projects include the screenplay for the HBO and Harpo Films project America: In the King Years, a 7-hour miniseries about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr based on Taylor Branch's book trilogy, and the adaptation for Incognito, a graphic novel series written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Sean Phillips.
I met Robert about nine years ago when I interviewed him for his biographical entry I was writing for the Dictionary of Literary Biography (the DLB is subscription based, so if you are associated with a university in some capacity, chances are you have access to the entry I wrote). We have stayed in touch since then, and Robert was gracious enough to answer these questions. Robert lives in Seattle with his wife, the writer Maria Dahvana Headley.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? I’ve always written. I thought I was going to another Orson Welles, and I would act, write and direct. I did act for ten years but when my writing began to take off, I found I was just having more satisfaction in this arena than in any other. I’ve never looked back.
Talk about your writing process. Do you have a regular routine? Yes. I wake up early, around 6-6:30, and go to the gym or exercise at home. I eat a light breakfast after, shower, and am at my desk at 8. I write until noon or 1pm, then have lunch and a nap. In the afternoon, I sometimes continue to write if I am under deadline, but I more often spend that time on business or research.
As a professional writer, do you set goals each day for how much you are going to write? When I am in the middle of a project I am for at least five pages a day (regardless of the number of hours). I have often written considerably more than that.
Are there any quirky parts of your writing process that help you write? No superstitions per se, but I try to avoid the chronic temptations of email, the online NY Times, etc. I do make a point of not writing myself “completely out.” That is to say, as I near the end of my work day (whatever that is) I will stop short of where I know I’m headed. I find this allows me to jump back in the next day much faster.
What do you do when you get writer's block? What advice would you give people who have it? I’ve never really experienced any serious writer’s block. When I have a particularly knotty problem, I will remind myself of the situation just before I go to sleep. I often find that when I wake up, a solution presents itself.
You live in Seattle. How does living there affect your writing process? John Boorman once said that one of the keys to happiness was living somewhere where the external landscape mirrored your internal landscape. I truly believe that. I love where I live, both the city of Seattle, and the office environment I’ve created (I work at home). I’m sure I could write anywhere but there is a comfort level here that I find particularly satisfying.
Is exercise a part of your writing process? Do you find that it makes you more creative or helps in your invention stage? I find regular exercise gives me more energy and more confidence.
What are the two or three most valuable practical editing/revising tips you would give writers? Before you being the revising process, give yourself a few days away from it. Read or work on something else. Then come back to it. And be very specific about what your goal is when you are editing.
For people who want to write clear, direct prose, what authors would you recommend they read? Not sure about that one. However, the two authors I’ve most enjoyed recently were Junot Diaz and Michael Chabon.
You write for both the stage and the screen. How does your writing differ for each in terms of process, awareness of audience, and message? By in large, as a screenwriter, I am a writer for hire. And of course, at the end of the day, I don’t own the copyright. This makes the process of screenwriting considerably more collaborative and political. I have a lot of stakeholders I have to keep satisfied while still maintaining my own standards.
As a playwright, I simply write what interests me. I am always conscious of what the audience’s experience will be and try as much as possible to craft a satisfying journey, but again, that is largely measured by “what would I enjoy seeing?” There are limitations within the theater, particularly since I began writing: costs have escalated and producers are much more leery of “large” works like plays with more then two characters and one set. I am mindful of this but ultimately the story dictates what it needs.
How has your writing changed since The Kentucky Cycle? When I wrote The Kentucky Cycle, I was still largely supporting myself and my family by my acting work and wrote only in my free time. Afterwards, I committed myself to being a writer full-time and as a consequence I write now with more confidence. I continue to experiment in my writing, both with different styles and different genres, but the goal remains the same: tell an interesting story.
The Kentucky Cycle can be read as a series of one-acts. How did you write it? It started when I wrote one of the parts, "Tall Tales," as a one-act. After I wrote it, I felt like, no, this is not really getting to the story the way I mean it to for the audience, because they didn’t have what preceded it. So then I wrote the act before it, and then the one before that one, and pretty soon it just grew. But then at a certain point I had to sit down and structure it and ask myself what it is that I am trying to do? New things in the characters’ development just kept on resurfacing,” he explained. That happens a lot when I write. I am frequently surprised by my characters and by events that I hadn’t anticipated when I write. (note: “Tall Tales” is the sixth part of the play)
Most people say that plays are meant to be seen rather than read. Do you write plays knowing that people will read them, though? If so, how does that affect your process? I certainly am aware that my plays will be read by the casual reader, but that doesn’t change how I write them. What is important is that I am clear in my intention on the page to the prospective production team.
How does being married to a writer affect your writing process? For example, does she read everything before you send it out? I am very fortunate in my partner – she is both extremely supportive and very sharp. I wouldn’t say she reads everything I write but I show her most things and I find her observations helpful.
What playwrights had the greatest influence on you when you were starting out? Eugene O’Neill. Arthur Miller. Peter Weiss. Beckett. Albee.
What are the 3-5 most important plays by American playwrights that you think everyone should read?
Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Angels in America by Tony Kushner
Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks
How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel
(my note: hard disagree with these choices. I might throw a Tennessee Williams play in there, but I especially think that everyone should read Vogel's work.)
What playwrights today impress you the most? I would go out of my way to see anything by Paula Vogel, Stephen Sondheim, Tony Kushner, and Suzan-Lori Parks.