My Favorite Year
In an extraordinary season of four premieres, UT alum Robert Schenkkan brings his old school a new screwball comedy
When you're a university theatre department with an alumnus who has a Pulitzer Prize in drama, it's only natural that you'd want to produce one of his plays, right? And beyond merely mounting one, you'd be really tickled to give one its first production anywhere. So it is with the UT Department of Theatre and Dance, which is over the moon about its premiere of a new script by 1975 grad Robert Schenkkan.
Now, if you know The Kentucky Cycle, that sweeping historical epic for which Schenkkan was awarded the 1992 Pulitzer, or his film writing, such as the 2002 adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, you might find this new play to be, well, not what you'd expect. The title gives you a clue: The Marriage of Miss Hollywood and King Neptune doesn't quite have the ring of sober, probing drama. And it appears even less like one after a peek at the dramatis personae: bathing beauties, cowpokes, mobsters, a star of Tinseltown Westerns in the days before talkies, scheming agents, and so on. It is, in fact, a comedy, a broad, farcical, wild, and wacky comedy of the kind that was once called screwball.
If the idea of a screwball comedy by Robert Schenkkan is unexpected, well, it comes at a time when the unexpected is the norm for the writer. He's in the midst of an extraordinary production period that will see four of his plays receive their premieres in a 13-month span, and all four are as different from one another as Kentucky is from Hollywood. Besides the Dream Factory farce with the cast of 40 (!), there's By the Waters of Babylon, a romance between a Cuban gardener and an Austin widow, which premiered this past summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; a new political satire, Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, which takes America's early explorers up San Juan Hill, across the Mekong Delta, and into the heart of Iraq, currently in rehearsal at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; and a dramatic adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét's The Devil and Daniel Webster, which Seattle Children's Theatre will open in Schenkkan's current hometown in February.
Most playwrights rarely experience such a concentrated period of activity, especially while tending to a thriving career as a screenwriter. On one of his recent visits back to the town where he grew up and went to college, Schenkkan spoke with the Chronicle about this busy year, writing for the stage and screen, and what Austin means to him.
Austin Chronicle: Did you grow up on old Hollywood comedies?
Robert Schenkkan: You know, I grew up here in Austin, for the most part, in a house that had a deep appreciation for theatre, a house full of books, a house full of plays, so whether this was something specifically out of my parents I don't know, but I sure watched a lot of those movies and saw a lot of those plays. And I read those plays, particularly those screwball comedies, which were just delightful. There's an almost mathematical satisfaction in the way those plots are structured and work out.
AC: This play is set in Hollywood, but were you evoking more the screwball comedy of those plays of the Kaufman and Hart era or of the movies?
RS: Really both. It's definitely a tip of the hat to Kaufman and Hart, and it's also a fondness for this period in Hollywood, this transition from the silent to the talkies, which ironically enough found its way into many of those plays: Merton of the Movies, The Royal Family, Once in a Lifetime also deal with the business of entertainment, show business. So in a way I'm just following the standard of the genre. But I also have an abiding fondness for that period. It was glamorous and exciting and completely insane. And very, very funny. You read the accounts of the business in those days, and the personalities, the outsized personalities, and you think, "No, Kaufman and Hart were really writing naturalistic drama." [Laughs]
AC: When you began to work up this script, did you go back and look at those works?
RS: I read all of them again. Pretty easy homework. I wanted to remind myself of the salient features of this genre and get my head out of the place I normally write. A big part of this exercise was to challenge myself, to do something different, certainly something different than people that know my work would think of it as. So that was one way to do it, to immerse myself in the world of screwball comedy.
AC: You mention that mathematical quality of their plots, and yet there's also this frenetic wildness, the utter disregard for convention. In the writing of it, how do you embody those extremes?
RS: That's a really interesting question. You know, the quintessential challenge in these plays is, how many obstacles can you throw at the main character? How many plates can you force him or her to juggle? That's the zany part. Then the mathematical part is how you resolve each of those in a way which is satisfying and, at its best, is interlocked, so one solution covers many situations. Or one solution creates many new problems. So it is both this kind of wild, Dionysian thing and an Appolonian one.
AC: It does sound like it would tap a different part of your brain than a naturalistic drama.
RS: You know, comedy is hard.
AC: It's a cliché because it's true.
RS: It's true. Comedy is very tricky. Writing funny is its own challenge that's quite different from writing something more naturalistic or more dramatic in tone. But at the same time I also found it, and I'm not sure I can explain why, very freeing. Maybe because it was different, maybe because it's not a place that I normally write, maybe the zany quality of the genre permits a certain latitude that you don't have in a strictly naturalistic dramatic piece.
AC: Do you have the experience of characters running off in directions that you didn't expect?
RS: Absolutely. And I have to say, that's what I really like in writing. It's not a scary thing. That's a really great thing, a real pleasure to me when I surprise myself by writing something that I hadn't intended or planned to. A character does something or says something that I hadn't thought of, I love that surprise. Certainly that happened in this experience.
AC: Was it any more fun, given the kind of play?
RS: I can't say that in and of itself it's more satisfying. It was just great to discover that I could work in this genre, which I think I did. I'm actually pretty pleased with the results. I think it's a very creditable screwball comedy.
AC: How did it end up at UT?
RS: It was commissioned by the Pioneer Theatre of Salt Lake City, which has a big proscenium stage and a large company, and they traditionally do big-cast shows. When they commissioned me for this, it was going to be part of an arts festival scheduled to happen simultaneously with the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. What they said to me was the one thing you never hear in a commission in the United States: We want a big cast. Truly, you never hear that. And it's because you know that nobody wants a big cast. If you could write it with less than one person, they'd be happier. So I just leapt on it. And then, as all too often happens in these kinds of situations, for whatever reason, the money for the arts festival didn't happen, so the arts festival didn't happen. And here I had this big play that I knew would be a struggle to get produced professionally simply because of casting. But the thing that makes it a challenge for a professional theatre makes it ideal for a university theatre. Universities typically have big programs, big acting departments, a lot of students to make happy, so it becomes a perfect vehicle for that. We've been talking for a very long time about my doing a play here and that it happens to be this one has worked out very well for everybody.
AC: Does it feel like a homecoming?
RS: Certainly is for me. I was an undergraduate here, a Plan II student who spent more and more time in the Department of Drama and wound up with this hybrid degree, a B.A. in drama which doesn't really work if you think about it. It was really the generosity of several of my professors at the time that permitted me to pursue my own unique path. I got a really terrific education here, and I feel very grateful to the university. I grew up in Austin, so everything was about the University of Texas. My father worked here, and I've really made an effort to try to give back to the university. I visit Austin frequently, and every time I do I come to the department and I give a class and meet with students. I've set up a scholarship for playwrights, which awards a small stipend twice a year. I have a real fondness in my heart for this institution. I'm really happy to be able to contribute something. I always think of the Mark Twain quote: "When I was 18, I thought my father was the stupidest man in the world. When I turned 21, I was amazed at how much the old man had learned in three years." I think that was my feeling about the Department of Drama. I was so ready to leave when I left that it was easy not to appreciate what I had. The older I get, the more I appreciate the excellence of my education.
AC: The play you just premiered in Oregon was a two-person love story set in Austin.
RS: Yes! First time I've set a play in Austin.
AC: What was the impetus for that, especially since it was premiering in Oregon, and those people don't know Austin from ...
RS: Well, I have to say Austin has an international reputation now. It's not the little unknown Texas town like when I grew up. Yes, it's a two-hander, which is again a part of this very conscious process of challenging myself. I'd never written a play with a cast that small, and there are unique challenges with that. Three people is a whole different story. Two people is really tough. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival had produced a play of mine, Handler, and I'd had such a good experience, and it was a great experience for the theatre it exceeded their box office expectations, and, more importantly, it really jazzed their company that immediately we began to talk about doing something else together, a new piece. There were two actors in my play, character actors, and I really liked their work a lot and was intrigued at the idea of them being together. So it started with writing a play based around what I knew of these two actors which is yet another different way of working for me. I knew it would be set in Austin, and I knew that the [male character] would be from Cuba. Now, how that happened I have no idea. The actor himself is from Los Angeles and is Chicano, but in my mind the character was going to be Cuban. It's just one of those things where the character was already talking to me and insisting on certain things. But that meant I had to go to Cuba, which I did, and it was a fabulous trip and opened up all kinds of things for me, artistically and politically.
AC: Is there a reason Austin became the setting?
RS: I've wanted to write a play set in Austin for a long time because I know it so well. For whatever reason I've never written [a play set] in a place that I have lived in a long time. I don't know what that means or doesn't mean. I'd been thinking about setting a play in Austin at some point, and this seemed right, again for reasons I couldn't begin to articulate because I don't understand them. Maybe because I've been spending more time in Austin lately, visiting my dad. Maybe it's that you reach an age and as your children grow up, you reflect on your own childhood; as your parents age, you begin to think about place. Places acquire special significance. As a young man, I traveled extensively. I lived everywhere. Place wasn't really that important to me. More and more, it's becoming important.
AC: The four plays premiering this year a screwball comedy, a two-hander romance, an adaptation of a classic American story, and a topical satire I'm sure there are more different plays one can imagine, but that's a pretty broad span.
RS: Yes, it is. It pleases me no end that there's that kind of variety and range. I think that's so important as an artist, to keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
AC: Do you feel you've been pigeonholed as a writer, in either your stage or screen work?
RS: I personally try not to think too much about the body of my work in any fashion because I don't find that helpful. But yes, I suspect that people do think of me more as a dramatic writer and as a screenwriter and in terms of period pieces or fact-based historically based stories. I don't fight these designations, but neither do I seek them out. I think it's limiting. I'm just a storyteller. I tell stories.
AC: I'm stunned by the number of times I see your name attached to a film, to write it or in talks to write it. I'm sure most never come to anything.
RS: Of course, of course. Or they result in a script, but to get something actually made ... uh! In this market, it's a challenge.
AC: Do you feel fortunate to have done as much as you have at this point?
RS: Oh yeah. I've had a good run, and even better I've really liked the people I've worked with. I've had a chance to work with some really top-notch filmmakers, so whether it's Ron Howard or Oliver Stone or Denzel Washington or whoever, that always makes the process more exciting. I mean, nothing is as good as seeing it finally up on the screen, but if you can't have all of it, [it's good] at least to be challenged by the people you work with. And I am fortunate to be able to be a little bit selective about what I do. Whatever it is, it's something I'm interested in, that I find thought-provoking.
AC: You've worked quite a bit on adaptations: The Quiet American, The Devil and Daniel Webster, a new version of The Andromeda Strain.
RS: The Andromeda Strain is a miniseries that I've written a screenplay for, and it's in turnaround. I suspect that it will get done, but I couldn't tell you on what network or when.
AC: Is the process of adapting a work substantially different for you than writing original work?
RS: It is a very different process. You think the adaptation is easy because all the work's been done for you, you just have to slap it up. But in fact it can be very, very challenging. To translate a story in one medium into another and I think of it as a translation is a lot trickier than it seems at first blush. The Andromeda Strain, to take one example, the essence of that story, which is the essence of most of Michael Crichton's fiction the idea of scientific hubris, things get away from us with cataclysmic results, last-minute heroics save the day that's a pretty standard kind of story. But the science that undergirded his original story, which is now 30-plus years old, has changed. And we are now a post-AIDS society and have a whole different feeling about pandemics than we did when this was first printed and indeed about biological warfare. But you look at the characters ... [Crichton] is not a writer particularly known for his character development; he's more of a plot guy. So you've got to make these real, three-dimensional, compelling individuals who are believable in these extraordinary circumstances today. And you have to write with an eye to attracting a certain high level of talent. So all of that is very different. [With] adaptations, the first thing I always start with is the public acknowledgment that this was a great book or great short story or great novel, but now it's going to be a movie or a play. And if there's a living author, I try to make that directly to the author, to say, "I really admire your work, and I'm going to try to be true to the spirit of it, but it's going to be different."
AC: It has to be.
RS: It has to be. And most authors are pretty understanding.
AC: Political plays can be such a minefield. It's so easy for them to end up as just recaps of current events and their characters to be political mouthpieces, and to wind up preaching to the choir.
RS: Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates came out of a very visceral response to the invasion of Iraq and the circumstances surrounding it, and the continuing havoc that this is having not only in Iraq but in the United States. But initially, even though I had this tremendous desire to express these feelings and to wrestle with the subject, I wasn't sure at all how to approach it for precisely those reasons. I didn't want it to be just a polemic or a living newspaper. Then and again, sometimes this just happens there was this epiphany. I just saw the title, as it were, like a billboard, and I was so intrigued by the juxtaposition of these quintessential American explorers and this very contemporary problem. What did that mean? Well, when I began to really explore Lewis and Clark and then look at American foreign policy interventions which bear similarities to Iraq, some really startling, deeply ironic parallels started to emerge, which was very exciting, because suddenly I had a metaphor that was working on a lot of different levels.
Lewis and Clark I think of as the advance team for Jeffersonian ideals, and Jefferson was such a uniquely American individual: a genius but with such a divided heart, someone who could write so eloquently about the rights of man and yet owned slaves, which he didn't free until his death, and he never freed Sally Hemmings, his slave mistress. Jefferson wrote about this country and its promise, and what he referred to as the "empire of freedom" has such a contemporary ring to it. It sounds wonderful on the surface, like much contemporary rhetoric coming out of the White House, but when you begin to examine it, it falls apart. Empire has an emperor, freedom has no constraints, no authority, so how do you have an empire of freedom? So what happened was, I sprung these characters free. It starts off all right, but things get a little wonky, and they find themselves in Cuba in 1898 and the Philippines in 1901 and Vietnam in 1968 and outside Baghdad in 2003. I think of it as Huck Finn meets Heart of Darkness, combining these absurdist, picaresque characters in something that's becoming increasingly complicated and dark. So it becomes a play about not simply Iraq, what went wrong, what went right, but a whole struggle in the American heart, the American soul, between our ideals and our real, practical experience on the ground.
AC: Was there any trepidation on the part of the company in tackling such a topical play?
RS: None whatever. What should American writers be dealing with? What could be more important than this current struggle? There's been this sea change politically, and there have been very significant consequences as a result. It's important that we examine those consequences.
The Marriage of Miss Hollywood and King Neptune runs Nov. 4-13 in the B. Iden Payne Theatre. For more information, call 477-6060 or visit www.utpac.org.