Making a scene: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright premieres his adaptation of 'The Devil and Daniel Webster' at Seattle Children's Theatre

With four world-premieres in the last 12 months, Laurelhurst resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan has had a busy year.

This month, Schenkkan's adaptation of the classic short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" will make its world premiere at Seattle Children's Theatre (SCT).

"It is an honor to have him writing for us," said Linda Hartzell, SCT's artistic director, adding that she hopes to have him write for SCT again. "He has two teenagers and so he, having been a father, really knows and respects what, especially, we've been trying to do at Seattle Children's Theatre when we produce theater for young audiences and for families. And he has understood everything that I think a playwright needs to do to make a vibrant, entertaining play for that audience."

Finding a sense of place

"The Devil and Daniel Webster" tells the tale of a young farmer who has a run of bad luck. Out of desperation, the farmer makes a deal with the devil for his luck to change in exchange for his mortal soul redeemable in seven years.

When the devil comes to collect, the farmer secures the assistance of orator Daniel Webster. The play includes a courtroom scene between Webster and the devil, and the trial is presided over by the souls of the damned.

"This was a short story that I loved and read as a kid," Schenkkan said.

Schenkkan's other recent world premieres include "By the Waters of Babylon," a two-character love story, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; "The Marriage of Miss Hollywood and King Neptune," a comedy about Hollywood in the late 1920s, at the University of Texas at Austin; and "Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates," a dark comedic take on American foreign policy, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

"I think certainly my writing has been informed by a sense of place," said Schenkkan, who has lived in Seattle for about 14 years. "I just love this part of the country. I love the physical setting."

Schenkkan was born in Chapel Hill, N.C., and grew up in Austin, Texas, in a household that appreciated theater. His mother was a professional actress before World War II and toured with the USO during the war. His father was a pioneer in educational TV and held a master's degree in playwriting.

Schenkkan graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in fine arts and from Cornell University with a master's degree in acting.

Schenkkan has been writing for most of his life. In the late 1970s, he wrote his first play, "Final Passages," based on a cabin boy's journal found on an abandoned ship off the coast of Nova Scotia. The journal included the cabin boy's confession to poisoning his crew in a fit of rage.

"The Kentucky Cycle" initially brought Schenkkan to Seattle, with its world premiere at the Intiman Theatre in 1989-90. An epic taking place from 1775 to 1975, the play traces the rising and falling fortunes of three families as they contest land.

Schenkkan, who often writes with a particular image in mind, took a trip to eastern Kentucky several years before he wrote the play.

The Pulitzer Prize

Schenkkan worked as a professional actor for more than 10 years.

However, he has dedicated most of his career to writing since he received the Pulitzer Prize for drama, for "The Kentucky Cycle" in 1991.

"The most important thing about writing is the doing of it," Schenkkan explained. "It certainly is a challenging career path, but it can also be very rewarding."

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, the play also earned the PEN Centre West and the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards for best play and was nominated for a Tony, a Drama Desk and an Outer Critics Circle Award.

After the success of "The Kentucky Cycle," Schenkkan started writing for television and film. As a screenwriter, he adapted Graham Greene's "The Quiet American," starring Michael Caine and Brendan Frasier.

He also wrote a TV mini-series adaptation of Howard Fast's novel "Spartacus" and a movie of the week for TNT called "Crazy Horse."

Currently, he is writing and co-producing a series for HBO, with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Bristol Bay, the company that produced "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," recently hired Schenk-kan to work on a film about Desmond Doss. Doss was the first American conscientious objector to win the American Medal of Honor for his heroism on Okinawa during World War II.

A family trade

Schenkkan currently lives with his two children, 16-year-old Sarah and 13-year-old Joshua, and his wife, writer Maria Dahvana Headley, who recently published her memoir, "The Year of Yes."

Both of his children enjoy theater. Sarah is actively involved with drama at Roosevelt High School, and Joshua appeared in a production of "Dra-cula" about two years ago.

For tickets to "The Devil and Daniel Webster," call 441-3322 or visit

Jessica Davis writes about arts and entertainment for the Herald-Outlook. She can be reached via e-mail at[[In-content Ad]]