Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan talks about world premiere 'A Single Shard' at Seattle Children's Theatre

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Writer Robert Schenkkan

Seattle is proud to claim Robert Schenkkan as a local. This well-awarded writer has achieved some extraordinary heights since winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his epic (six hour) The Kentucky Cycle, a series of nine related one-act plays. His most recent nominations were Emmy noms for two of the segments (#8 and #10) of The Pacific mini-series for HBO, and a Writer’s Guild Award for Episode 8.

CultureMob talked to him exclusively as Seattle Children’s Theatre prepares to open the second play he’s written for SCT. A Single Shard is an adaptation of Linda Sue Park’s book about a 12th century Korean boy who struggles to make it in the world as an orphan. The book won a Newbery Award in 2002, one of the highest awards a children’s book can win

The Kentucky Cycle world premiered at Intiman Theatre in 1991. That was Schenkkan’s introduction to the city of Seattle. He relates that, “it was a mad love affair. I thought the city was amazing. The city was culturally rich, but not so large you couldn’t manage it. It was family friendly and I had small children then.  My then wife and I agreed we’d like to relocate and we did and now it’s 16 plus (years).”

Linda Hartzell, the artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre, commissioned Schenkkan to adapt A Single Shard. Schenkkan says he was excited about the story. “It’s a gripping story that was cross-cultural that would appeal to any audience. A young person without a family who has created a family, living in dire poverty who aspires to be something in the world and struggles to find a new family and realizes his innate artistic nature.

“On top of that I found the setting fascinating, 12th century Korea, about which I knew next to nothing. I certainly know more now than two years ago and it’s a fascinating culture. American audiences will understand some things immediately and other things they won’t.

“There’s something about orphan stories. (Charles) Dickens wrote orphan stories. Little Orphan Annie, cheap novels about shoe shine boys, rag pickers. It’s an appealing idea. That kind of self-motivated upward energy is particularly American as we root for the underdog. That idea that hard work and ambition and decency and a little luck will carry you across the finish line.

“(But) Tree Ear doesn’t achieve it on his own, he has a social network that helps him achieve it. It’s an opportune moment to tell this story due to the number of children that exist in poverty. The effect of poverty in this time of recession.

“It’s not that different from Johnny Tremain (by Esther Forbes), the classic America story. Trying to make his way in an oppressive adult world. Tree Ear succeeds because of his courage but also because adults have been helping along the way. Crane Man is his mother and father and teaches him how to live in the world, not just get by, but show proper respect.”

Talking about the differences between writing for stage or television and films, Schenkkan points out that, “The most important difference is that as a playwright I retain the option on the underlying rights, which means that no one may change my writing without my permission. In television, once I’ve sold it, I no longer retain the rights, which means the producers can do whatever they want and I have no legal power, merely the power of my opinion. That’s a huge difference.”

Another difference is that of course, “Film and television is primarily a visual medium communicated principally by image, and the stage is principally by dialogue, spoken word. It very much affects the basic way one approaches telling the story. I can do things that would be very difficult to do on stage in the same way. There are theatrical techniques that are applicable to tell stories differently.”

Schenkkan enjoys it all and says, “I like the balance I’ve managed to reach in my life. I love what I’m doing for SCT, and the movie I’m writing for Robert Downey Jr. and for HBO. I feel very lucky.”

Major achievements are in the offing in the very near future. The Robert Downey Jr. movie is about the USS Indianapolis and how an eleven year old boy, Hunter Scott, discovered evidence that there was an injustice done, and got our United States Congress to pay attention to it. The captain of the ship had been court-martial-ed for losing his ship (which was torpedoed by Japanese during WWII). This boy got Congress to restore the captain’s honor.

Also, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will world premiere his play, All the Way, about President Lyndon Baines Johnson, at the end of July 2012. And if that isn’t enough, he is working on another HBO mini-series based on Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy, American In the Time of King (Martin Luther King, of course).

So how does he keep all that going at once? “These things tend to have natural stopping points and I pick up one when another pauses. You’re forced to keep a lot of irons in the fire because these things can die quickly and you have to have a number of things ongoing from a practical financial standpoint. It’s a challenge but it’s not overwhelming. And I like being busy.”

For information on A Single Shard, go to www.sct.org or call 206-441-3322.

Ho-Kwan Tse and Jason Ko in 'A Single Shard' at Seattle Children's Theatre (photo by Chris Bennion)

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