ROBERT SCHENKKAN

PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING PLAYWRIGHT & SCREENWRITER

News

Celebrities Read the Mueller Report, and It’s a Dark Comedy

Who knew that the Mueller report was a comedy?

The findings of the special counsel, of course, concern dead-serious questions about the integrity of American democracy. The published version is dry as a [redacted] saltine. Robert Mueller himself has the stoic G-man bearing of someone who would laugh by writing “ha ha” on a memo pad.

Yet “The Investigation,” a star-studded dramatic reading of sections of the report, adapted by the playwright Robert Schenkkan and staged at Manhattan’s Riverside Church and live-streamed Monday night, opens with an episode of drawing-room, or rather dining-room, farce. It’s early 2017, and President Trump (John Lithgow) meets with then-F.B.I. director James Comey (Justin Long) over dinner.

“I need loyalty!” Mr. Lithgow fulminates.

“You will always get honesty from me,” Mr. Long answers, stiffly.

“That’s what I want. Honest loyalty.”

If you’ve followed this case, you’ve already heard this story — not just in the Mueller report, but in newspapers like this one, back in 2017. But something about Mr. Lithgow’s bluster and the way he hits “loyalty” a little harder than “honest” nails something essential about his character, and the assembled audience cracks up. To read more, click here.

“It’s the End of My Presidency”: Movie Stars Channel Mueller

Funded by scions of the Disney clan, John Lithgow, Annette Bening, Jason Alexander, Michael Shannon, and friends brought the special counsel’s report (and Trump’s line “I’m fucked!”) to life.

The pictures we carry in our heads of Disney—cheerful rodents, regal lions, long waits for the good rides—rarely include Robert S. Mueller III. But last week a group of stars gathered at Riverside Church for a dramatization based on the special counsel’s report. The playwright Robert Schenkkan had distilled Mueller’s doorstop into “The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts,” with the actors reading verbatim the evidence for each alleged obstruction of justice. Financing for the endeavor came not from the Magic Kingdom—the Walt Disney Company—but from three Disney siblings who decided to collaborate on a project for the first time.

“My mother, who was not a Disney, was a great storyteller, but I’m an idealist, and I think that’s the Disney side,” Abigail Disney said at the after-party, in the bowels of the church. She’s been a successful filmmaker for some time, but in recent years has taken up progressive activism. She missed most of the Mueller play, because she was at CNN, advancing her crusade against insufficiently taxed wealth (like her own) and excessive corporate compensation (like that of Robert Iger, Disney’s C.E.O., who made nearly sixty-six million dollars last year). Her brother Tim (also a filmmaker) and her sister Susan (a restaurateur and philanthropist) represented the family. They are all the grandchildren of Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother and a key figure in the early days of the company.

The show itself maintained the austere tone of the Mueller report. There was almost no political posturing, just the exact words that the prosecutor and his team composed. The actors sat on the altar, in chairs draped with patriotic bunting. They rose in place to deliver their lines. Some of the casting seemed random, but there were several magical pairings. John Lithgow’s aristocratic honk sounds nothing like Donald Trump’s voice, but his incessant whining (“Not fair! ”) captured the President’s mien nicely. Joel Grey hammed it up with a Southern accent as Jeff Sessions, and Jason Alexander, just because, killed in a Chris Christie cameo. The biggest laughs of the night came courtesy of Michael Shannon, as Don McGahn, the White House counsel who tried to fend off the President’s incessant efforts to interfere in the Mueller investigation. It’s one thing to read that McGahn told his boss that he takes notes “because he is a real lawyer,” but Shannon’s saying it brought down the house.

That was the point of the performance—to elevate the Mueller report from dry text to live theatre. Even pared down to a brisk seventy-five minutes, the saga retained its maddening complexity, notwithstanding the deadpan efforts of Annette Bening, as the narrator, and Kevin Kline, as Mueller himself. Even news junkies had trouble keeping track of all the references and characters. (Wait—who was Rob Goldstone again? Oh, the publicist who set up the June, 2016, “Russian adoption” meeting at Trump Tower.) Couplings like Alfre Woodard as Hope Hicks, Alyssa Milano as Jay Sekulow (sic), and Piper Perabo as Jared Kushner (sic!) delivered pleasing surprises, and moved the story along, even if the parts didn’t seem likely as future movie roles. The Disneys undertook the project out of frustration that the public hadn’t yet grasped the magnitude of the misconduct that Mueller uncovered, but it seems doubtful that the production, despite its virtues (and a live stream), will do much to change attitudes about the President.

Walt Disney, along with most Disneys of earlier generations, was known as a political conservative. (So is a fourth sibling of the three producers.) Tim worked at the company for a few years, but his sisters never did. Abigail is unapologetic about using her name to bolster the causes she believes in.

“Disney is the last shameable company in the world, because it’s an emotional brand,” she said. “There’s a lot of love in that brand, and people will always pay attention to it.” Abigail credits her theme-park patrimony with shaping her views. “What’s ‘It’s a Small World’ except a little bit of a United Nations?” she said. “I think that ride set me up to do what I do.” ♦  Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker

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Star-studded play 'The Investigation' brings Mueller report to life. CNN

On Monday night, at the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan, an audience was treated to a powerful live reading of "The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts," by stars including John Lithgow, Jason Alexander, Annette Bening, Kyra Sedgwick and Alyssa Milano. The play, written by the Pulitzer Prize winning Robert Schenkkan, was a dramatization of the Mueller Report that used the actual text for dialogue. In an email interview with me, Schenkkan explained that he wrote the play out of frustration that the Trump administration had been "successful in obstructing the narrative" from the moment that Attorney General William Barr outlined the findings. Given the partisan political climate, the play seemed to be undertaking the role of Congress -- bringing the findings to life and giving the public a sort of thorough congressional hearing that we simply have not seen yet.

 
 
 
The results were powerful. The actors narrated parts of the action, using text from the report, while others acted out the lines as if they were the people in the report. Seeing Lithgow, as President Trump, delivering lines with furious indignation about closing down the "witchhunt" investigation and barking orders to his staff to follow through carried a much greater wallop than reading the dry text.
 
The actors reading about the infamous Trump Tower meeting, and subsequent cover up of what happened, paint a more damning picture when heard out loud. Michael Shannon, playing White House Counsel Don McGahn, offered devastating depictions of the moments this top counsel pushed back directly against Trumps's efforts to obstruct and lie about what he had done. After the cast reads out loud the ten possible acts of obstruction, Zachary Quinto's recitation of Attorney General Barr's summary sounds more misleading than ever. The play focuses on 10 possible instances of obstruction of justice. Actors including Kevin Kline, Ben McKenzie, Alfre Woodard, Gina Gershon, and Aidan Quinn, helped bring to life the devastating findings from the Mueller report on just how far President Donald Trump was willing to go to stifle a major investigation into his administration and into Russian interference in the election.
 
In contrast to the way that President Trump and Attorney General Barr have depicted the report, Schenkkan's play shows that Mueller's team documented a shocking abuse of presidential power. Billed as "The Play That Attorney General William Barr Doesn't Want You To See," according to the press release, "The Investigation" is a dramatic counterpoint to the disinformation campaign that came out of the administration.
 
Schenkkan's hope was to use the arts so that the play's audience would gain a better sense of the report's contents which have been discussed extensively and even became a best-selling book -- but not clearly or fully read.
In early May, a CNN poll found that only 3% of those polled had read "all the report," 24% said they read some of it. Three- quarters of those polled said that they had not read any of it.
Nor is it clear that many Americans who have read the report can really grasp its full implications.
 
"The notion that any significant portion of the populace will take it upon themselves to spend the multiple hours required to read a 450 page report is sadly unrealistic," said McKenzie, the star of "Gotham," who played Michael Flynn and Donald Trump Jr. in the play.
 
Schenkkan told me that the report, though detailed and comprehensive, was not easy to read. "The 'story' tends to get lost. A theatrical event like this makes the story very clear and easy to understand. It gives focus and emotion," he said in his email. Artists, he wrote, "surface the stories that need to be told and do so in a way which people can absorb. They provoke introspection, conversation and a sense of community -- all of which are sorely lacking right now."
 
 
This play, along with other comparable efforts -- such as a graphic novel that is in the works based on the report -- addresses one of the most fundamental flaws in the investigation: Without any substantive congressional hearings comparable to the Watergate committee in 1973, Democrats who favored the impeachment process would never really have a chance to sway the public.
 
President Trump, who is a product of the television era and seems to have little appetite for reading, may have understood that the fact that the investigation came out as a written report -- without complementary congressional investigations -- would work to his political advantage. Regardless of the substance of Mueller's findings, much of the public debate would revolve around interpretations of the findings rather than thorough readings of what Mueller's team discovered.
 
 
What's gone wrong? Partisan polarization is the most obvious culprit. Republicans have refused to join Democrats in convening serious hearings into the allegations. Senate Republicans have been saying that the case is closed.
With Republicans locked into an oppositional stance, and most Republican voters unwilling to break with the President, the potential for full-blown hearings is nil.
 
And the hearings that are convened take place on a fragmented and partisan media universe that makes it incredibly hard to break through to the public. The world of the news media is much different than the world of entertainment where high profile productions -- such as Game of Thrones -- still have the capacity to produce national conversations.
In the current media universe, conservative television networks like Fox News or web sites like Breitbart won't give a deep dive into the Mueller report the time of day. Instead, their talent primarily repeats the President's talking points. And presidential power has been crucial. The President has simply rejected the idea of congressional oversight. He used Attorney General Barr to spread a narrative about the findings that contradicted what people who did read it actually saw. The President has stopped key people from testifying and when they have, like Hope Hicks, they have said nothing.
The highest profile testimony so far has come from John Dean, a member of the Nixon administration who has little to do with Trump's scandal other than providing commentary. Faced with such a brazen use of presidential power, Democrats have been flummoxed in their efforts to teach the public.
 
With the broken state of Washington, perhaps it is time for playwrights, moviemakers, actors, and others from the world of culture to step  and fill the void. Otherwise, it seems almost impossible to shake the public into the kind of deep engagement that is necessary at times when our political institutions are under serious strain. "The Investigation" is a timely reminder that the giant political thud that could be heard in Washington when Mueller's report landed was not a result of its contents but rather the inability of Congress to translate the findings for the public. Julian Zelizer
 
 

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Star-studded play 'The Investigation' brings Mueller report to life

On Monday night, at the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan, an audience was treated to a powerful live reading of "The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts," by stars including John Lithgow, Jason Alexander, Annette Bening, Kyra Sedgwick and Alyssa Milano. The play, written by the Pulitzer Prize winning Robert Schenkkan, was a dramatization of the Mueller Report that used the actual text for dialogue.

In an email interview with me, Schenkkan explained that he wrote the play out of frustration that the Trump administration had been "successful in obstructing the narrative" from the moment that Attorney General William Barr outlined the findings. In an email interview with me, Schenkkan explained that he wrote the play out of frustration that the Trump administration had been "successful in obstructing the narrative" from the moment that Attorney General William Barr outlined the findings.Given the partisan political climate, the play seemed to be undertaking the role of Congress -- bringing the findings to life and giving the public a sort of thorough congressional hearing that we simply have not seen yet.
The results were powerful. The actors narrated parts of the action, using text from the report, while others acted out the lines as if they were the people in the report. Seeing Lithgow, as President Trump, delivering lines with furious indignation about closing down the "witchhunt" investigation and barking orders to his staff to follow through carried a much greater wallop than reading the dry text.
The actors reading about the infamous Trump Tower meeting, and subsequent cover up of what happened, paint a more damning picture when heard out loud. Michael Shannon, playing White House Counsel Don McGahn, offered devastating depictions of the moments this top counsel pushed back directly against Trumps's efforts to obstruct and lie about what he had done. After the cast reads out loud the ten possible acts of obstruction, Zachary Quinto's recitation of Attorney General Barr's summary sounds more misleading than ever.Thorough congressional hearings have always been an important form of political theater. Hearings have historically served the function of focusing public attention on pertinent issues and educating the public about problems -- from failed policies to political corruption -- that have plagued Washington.
Since the release of the Mueller Report, House Democrats have struggled to shed light on the contents of the report and its implications. Instead, Americans have been left with a lengthy and complicated document which on its own is unlikely to stimulate a political response.
When approached by the producers to write the play, which was also live-streamed, Schenkkan agreed to take on the job. He is a playwright who knows how to bring politics to life. In the Tony award winning "All the Way" (which was also a film on HBO starring Bryan Cranston), he gave audiences a gripping look at President Lyndon B. Johnson, the era's tangled legislative process, and the key public policy issues in the 1960s in a compelling way that most journalists or historians would have had trouble carrying off.The play focuses on 10 possible instances of obstruction of justice. Actors including Kevin Kline, Ben McKenzie, Alfre Woodard, Gina Gershon, and Aidan Quinn, helped bring to life the devastating findings from the Mueller report on just how far President Donald Trump was willing to go to stifle a major investigation into his administration and into Russian interference in the election.
In contrast to the way that President Trump and Attorney General Barr have depicted the report, Schenkkan's play shows that Mueller's team documented a shocking abuse of presidential power. Billed as "The Play That Attorney General William Barr Doesn't Want You To See," according to the press release, "The Investigation" is a dramatic counterpoint to the disinformation campaign that came out of the administration.
Schenkkan's hope was to use the arts so that the play's audience would gain a better sense of the report's contents which have been discussed extensively and even became a best-selling book -- but not clearly or fully read.
In early May, a CNN poll found that only 3% of those polled had read "all the report," 24% said they read some of it. Three- quarters of those polled said that they had not read any of it.
Nor is it clear that many Americans who have read the report can really grasp its full implications.
"The notion that any significant portion of the populace will take it upon themselves to spend the multiple hours required to read a 450 page report is sadly unrealistic," said McKenzie, the star of "Gotham," who played Michael Flynn and Donald Trump Jr. in the play.
Schenkkan told me that the report, though detailed and comprehensive, was not easy to read."The 'story' tends to get lost. A theatrical event like this makes the story very clear and easy to understand. It gives focus and emotion," he said in his email. Artists, he wrote, "surface the stories that need to be told and do so in a way which people can absorb. They provoke introspection, conversation and a sense of community -- all of which are sorely lacking right now."
This play, along with other comparable efforts -- such as a graphic novel that is in the works based on the report -- addresses one of the most fundamental flaws in the investigation: Without any substantive congressional hearings comparable to the Watergate committee in 1973, Democrats who favored the impeachment process would never really have a chance to sway the public.
President Trump, who is a product of the television era and seems to have little appetite for reading, may have understood that the fact that the investigation came out as a written report -- without complementary congressional investigations -- would work to his political advantage. Regardless of the substance of Mueller's findings, much of the public debate would revolve around interpretations of the findings rather than thorough readings of what Mueller's team discovered.
What's gone wrong? Partisan polarization is the most obvious culprit. Republicans have refused to join Democrats in convening serious hearings into the allegations. Senate Republicans have been saying that the case is closed.
With Republicans locked into an oppositional stance, and most Republican voters unwilling to break with the President, the potential for full-blown hearings is nil.
And the hearings that are convened take place on a fragmented and partisan media universe that makes it incredibly hard to break through to the public. The world of the news media is much different than the world of entertainment where high profile productions -- such as Game of Thrones -- still have the capacity to produce national conversations.
In the current media universe, conservative television networks like Fox News or web sites like Breitbart won't give a deep dive into the Mueller report the time of day. Instead, their talent primarily repeats the President's talking points.And presidential power has been crucial. The President has simply rejected the idea of congressional oversight. He used Attorney General Barr to spread a narrative about the findings that contradicted what people who did read it actually saw. The President has stopped key people from testifying and when they have, like Hope Hicks, they have said nothing.
The highest profile testimony so far has come from John Dean, a member of the Nixon administration who has little to do with Trump's scandal other than providing commentary. Faced with such a brazen use of presidential power, Democrats have been flummoxed in their efforts to teach the public.
With the broken state of Washington, perhaps it is time for playwrights, moviemakers, actors, and others from the world of culture to step in and fill the void. Otherwise, it seems almost impossible to shake the public into the kind of deep engagement that is necessary at times when our political institutions are under serious strain. "The Investigation" is a timely reminder that the giant political thud that could be heard in Washington when Mueller's report landed was not a result of its contents but rather the inability of Congress to translate the findings for the public.
By Julian Zelizer, CNN Analyst

Film Goes All the Way with LBJ

It is nearly impossible to escape the shadow of Lyndon B. Johnson in Texas — and as a young boy, playwright Robert Schenkkan never tried.

The 36thpresident of the United States was his childhood hero.

Growing up in the heart of Austin — Johnson’s birthplace and hometown — Schenkkan was never far from the LBJ Presidential Library or the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, and “everyone you ran into knew LBJ or had a handful of LBJ stories,” he said, including his parents. “When I grew up in my house, LBJ was one of the good guys,” Schenkkan said. The family cheered on the incumbent through the Johnson-Galore election. But just two years later, relations in Vietnam “ramped up in an extraordinary manner,” he said. And the eldest Schenkkan brother was nearing draft age. To read more, click here.

TODAY: All The Way with Robert Schenkkan

SUNDAY, MARCH 31ST, 2019, 3PM

Tickets are still available for TODAY's screening of ALL THE WAY, with Robert Schenkkan! Directed by Jay Roach in 2016, ALL THE WAY stars Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Both the play and the film describe Johnson’s efforts to muster support from Congress and among the civil rights leaders (Martin Luther King Jr. is played by Anthony Mackie), for the Civil Rights Act; and to get it passed. “In Cranston’s hands, this accidental president comes across as an amazing bundle of contradictions, someone who seems at once too vulgar for the job and just right for it”, wrote ‘New York Times’ television critic Neil Genzlinger when the film was released. 

Pierson High School Auditorium

200 Jermain Ave, Sag Harbor

This screening is free, but a suggested $15 donation would be most appreciated!

The New Harmony Project Unveils Lineup for 2019 Conference

The New Harmony Project, an organization dedicated to supporting writers whose work emanates hope, has unveiled the lineup for its upcoming spring conference. The annual event, which will be held in New Harmony, Indiana, will support new works by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Robert Schenkkan (All the Way), Donnetta Lavinia Grays (Last Night and the Night Before), Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo), and Erika Dickerson-Despenza (Cullud Wattah), among other writers. The 33rd annual New Harmony Project conference will take place May 20–June 2. To read more, click here.

Schenkkan Interviews Greg Sargent for Brennan Center for Justice!

On October 30th at Greenberg Lounge, Vanderbilt Hall, 40 Washington Square, New York City, Robert Schenkkan will interview Washington Post political columnist Greg Sargent about his new book, AN UNCIVIL WAR.  This event runs from 12:00 to 2:00 PM and is organzied by the Brennan Center for Justice. Tickets available at Eventbrite.

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