ROBERT SCHENKKAN

PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING PLAYWRIGHT & SCREENWRITER

Expanded Biography

ROBERT SCHENKKAN

 

Robert Schenkkan was born in Chapel Hill, N. Carolina in 1953, the third of four sons to Bob Schenkkan, Sr. and Jean McKenzie. He grew up in Austin, Texas, graduated from Stephen F. Austin High School in 1971, and entered the University of Texas that Fall as a double major in Plan II Honors and in the Department of Drama, Fine Arts.  He graduated in 1975 with a B.A. in Drama and was selected by his peers as “Best Actor.” He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude, and was inducted into the Friars' Society, one of the first Drama students to be so chosen. 

From 1975-1977, Robert attended Cornell University on a full-scholarship and graduated with an M.F.A in Theater/Acting. He then moved to New York where he began his career appearing on Broadway (GR POINT), off-Bway, (THE FOREIGNER), at iconic NYC theater institutions such as the Public Theater, Manhattan Theater, etc. as well as Regional Theaters across the country. He also did considerable work as an actor in Film (PUMP UP THE VOLUME) and Television (STAR TREK, ACT OF VENGEANCE, etc). 

He wrote his first play, Final Passages, in 1979. This play received its world premiere production at the Arena Theater under the direction of A.J. Antoon, and was quickly optioned for Broadway. It also brought Robert to the attention of noted theatrical agent, Helen Merrill, and gained him entry into New Dramatists and the Ensemble Studio Theater. 

Robert wrote two other plays, Heaven on Earth and Tachinoki and a handful of one-acts published as Conversations with the Spanish Lady before he wrote The Kentucky Cycle. This ambitious epic, spanning two hundred years of history in Eastern Kentucky and running six hours brought him national attention. Time Magazine declared that the play, “Aspires to nothing less than the history of the United States. It strives for mythic power – and achieves it.” In Los Angeles, the play won the LA Drama Critics Award and the Penn West Award and Robert would be honored by separate declarations by the City of Los Angeles and the State of California.  The play won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Theater, shattering 75 years of Pulitzer tradition as it became the first play to win before it received a NY production. 

The Kentucky Cycle went on to Broadway where it was nominated for Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics, and Drama League Award. That same year, the University of Texas honored Robert with the Distinguished Young Alumnus Award. With the success of The Kentucky Cycle Robert moved his young family to Seattle, stopped acting, and devoted himself to writing full time. 

Over the next 25 years, Robert would write and publish ten other full-length plays: Building the Wall, Hanussen, Shadowplay, Handler, By the Waters of Babylon, Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, The Marriage of Miss Hollywood and King Neptune; The Dream Thief; A Single Shard; and The Devil And Daniel Webster. Simultaneously, he became one of Hollywood’s most in-demand writers working with Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Oliver Stone, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Denzel Washington, and others. He co-authored the films, Hacksaw Ridge (6 Academy Award Nominations) and The Quiet American. For television he wrote the movie, Crazy Horse, and the mini-series, Spartacus, and The Andromeda Strain (six Emmy Nominations). In 2010 he wrote four episodes of the acclaimed HBO miniseries, The Pacific, and received two Emmy nominations and a Writers Guild Award for his work.

Capping a long history of fruitful collaboration with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Robert was the first playwright they commissioned for their epic “American Revolutions Project.” In 2012, his play about President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his first term in office, All The Way, had its world premiere in Ashland. The play was an astounding critical and popular success and was quickly optioned for Broadway. A subsequent production headed by the five-time Emmy award winning actor, Bryan Cranston, enjoyed a sold-out run in Boston at the A.R.T. Theater  where it won the inaugural Senator Edward Kennedy Prize for Theater inspired by History Award, and the Steinberg/American Theater Critics Award for Best Play. It opened on Broadway, March 6, 2014 at the Neil Simon Theater and broke two box office records. The play swept the awards that year winning the Tony Award for Best Play, the Drama Critics, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle Award. It also entered the national political conversation and refocused long-overdue attention on President Johnson’s civil rights achievements. Robert has appeared on numerous panels to discuss LBJ, politics, and civil rights and was the 2013 Harry Middleton Lecturer at the LBJ Presidential Library.  

Robert adapted All The Way as a movie for HBO and Co-Executive Produced with Steven Spielberg and Bryan Cranston, and it was nominated for eight Emmy Awards, including Best Drama.

The Great Society, the theatrical sequel to All The Way, was commissioned by the Seattle Repertory Theater and had its premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014, before going on to Seattle where for the first time the two plays were performed in rotating repertory. In both cities, The Great Society sold out the entire run and broke long-standing box office records. The Great Society is scheduled to appear in NYC in the 2018/19 season.

In that same year, 2015, Robert’s rock musical, The Twelve, (book/lyrics; music and lyrics by Neil Berg) had its world premiere at the Denver Theater Center. It won the Henry Award for Best New Play/Musical.

In 2016, during one of the most dispiriting Presidential campaigns in recent memory, Robert wrote Building the Wall in what he described as "a white hot fury" in the space of one week.  This play, a cri de coeur for the importance of individual conscience during times of political crisis has had over fifty domestic productions within the first year alone, as well as productions in Canda, Mexico, the UK, and Austria.

Robert is currently writing play commissions for The Public Theater in NYC, the A.R.T. theater and Harvard Center for the Environment, and the Geffen Theater in LA.  His film script, The Project, for director, Robert Redford, based on Jennet Conant’s best-selling book, 109 East Palace,  is scheduled to go into principal photography in 2018.  His screenplay, Union, written for Joseph Gordon-Levison and Amazon is also scheduled for production that same year.

Robert has been in residence at The MacDowell Colony (Thornton Wilder Fellow), The Orchard Project, Sundance, The O’Neil Center, Seven Devils, The Gathering at Big Fork, and New Harmony. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild, WGA, SAG, AEA, PEN America, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and is an alumnus of New Dramatists. He was elected to the National Council of the Dramatists Guild where he is focused on copyright protection and gender parity in the American Theater.