Actor's play began as 'Tall Tales' and just kept growing


Washington -- You'd think Robert Schenkkan would have known better.

As a professional actor, Schenkkan certainly would appreciate the logistical difficulties of staging a six-hour, two-part play that spans 200 years and calls for 20 actors to play more than 70 roles.

But that's exactly what Robert Schenkkan, the playwright, wrote when he created "The Kentucky Cycle," which is playing a pre-Broadway engagement at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

Sitting in the Eisenhower's Green Room on a recent morning, Schenkkan admitted that not only was he aware, as an actor, of the difficulties of mounting such a leviathan, but "well-meaning friends and people in the business" also suggested he trim it.

Instead, he decided, "I had to listen to my own impulse." Actually, his initial impulse wasn't to write such a long play. "The Kentucky Cycle" began as a relatively short play called "Tall Tales," which takes place in the hills of eastern Kentucky in 1890, when coal companies began buying mineral rights from landowners.

After completing "Tall Tales," Schenkkan wanted to write more about the family in the play. Then that family became intertwined with two other Kentucky families, and when the playwright finally put down his pen -- more than six years later -- he'd written the nine short plays that form "The Kentucky Cycle."

"I made a very conscious decision to . . . let the play take the space it needed," says the 40-year-old playwright, who looks exhausted after several weeks of rehearsals and previews. "What was important in any kind of practical, commercial sense was that one producer [would] want to do this. . . . All I needed was one." He found that one in Seattle, where the Intiman Theatre gave "The Kentucky Cycle" its world premiere in 1991. The following year it was produced at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum, and shortly thereafter it became the first play to win the Pulitzer Prize without a New York production.

The Kennedy Center, which had already shown its support by awarding this magnum opus a $125,000 grant from its Fund for New American Plays -- the largest grant in the fund's history -- originally announced a production last season, then postponed it a season so it could be included in the subscription package, according to the Kennedy Center's president, Lawrence J. Wilker.

"It's a difficult show to make work financially, but we think we have found a way after a lot of planning," Wilker says. "We've found enough partners to share the burden with us that we think we can make it work. It's not easy, but it's certainly a worthwhile and landmark piece that deserves to be produced."

At the same time, Wilker acknowledges that straight plays haven't done well at the Kennedy Center recently. In the case of "The Kentucky Cycle," the risk would appear to be even greater since the budget for the Broadway production, of which the Kennedy Center is a major producer, is $2.5 million -- a record for a non-musical Broadway show.

In many ways, "The Kentucky Cycle" is the little play that grew. It began with a 1981 conversation between Schenkkan and a theatergoer at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where the actor was appearing in a play that happened to be set in eastern Kentucky.

"His story was really pretty extraordinary," Schenkkan says of the patron, who turned out to be a pediatrician who had run a health-care program in eastern Kentucky. "He said that, it was just happenstance, he was going to return to this area . . . and did I want to tag along?"

Schenkkan accepted his offer and was distressed by the extreme poverty he saw. But he was even more distressed by a visit to the home of the owner of a successful regional coal operation.

"I was so full of what I had seen, so moved by it, so upset by it, that I couldn't help talking about it, fully expecting this individual to nod his head sympathetically," he recalls. "Instead, his reaction was utter disdain, almost contempt. And it's interesting to me that the harshest criticism I ever heard about the people in eastern Kentucky was delivered by an eastern Kentucky native. He said, in effect, these people are lazy and ignorant, and it's their own damned fault."

Schenkkan proceeded to research the area, relying particularly on Harry M. Caudill's "Night Comes to the Cumberlands." What he wound up writing, however, is a work he believes covers a far broader range than just Kentucky. "This poverty, this environmental degradation is not unique to the Cumberlands. One doesn't have to go too far from Washington or Maryland to experience the same kinds of issues, and that, indeed, is the point," he explains.

There's an even broader point as well. "I am interested in American mythology and the process of creating that mythology and the ramifications of a mythos that was created in this country 200 years ago, and which I believe is still operational today. I'm interested in dialogue about the value of that myth," he says, referring to what he describes as the myth of the frontier.

And, while the play that grew out of all this may seem so broad it's impractical, this actor/playwright insists he approached it from a thoroughly theater-oriented perspective. "I come to writing for the theater as someone who works in the theater as an actor," he explains. "That means that I feel the words in my mouth when I write them, and it means that I see bodies moving through space in three dimensions when I write characters."

Nor is Schenkkan a novice at playwrighting. Born in North Carolina and raised in Texas -- the son of a former actress and a father who has a degree in playwrighting -- he is the author of three previously produced full-length plays. He recently completed the teleplay for an HBO miniseries of "The Kentucky Cycle," and he's already started a new play. In fact, he's eager to get back to it, but for now, he's relishing the opportunity of having "The Kentucky Cycle" produced at the Kennedy Center.

"It was very important to me that the play be here in Washington, at the Kennedy Center -- a center named, ironically enough, for the president who first raised the issues of poverty in the [Cumberland] region in the national consciousness. There's no little irony in that," he says with a smile. And then he heads off to yet another rehearsal.

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