The unlikely marriage of young Lucy Prebble and America's first great corporate scandal of the 21st century (many more have followed since) began in 2003, when the playwright began to follow news accounts of the trials of Fastow, Skilling and Kenneth Lay, who together orchestrated a massive financial fraud to disguise billions of dollars in debt and falsely inflate Houston-based Enron's stock price.
The modern historical-tragical play bowed the Chichester Festival Theatre in the summer of 2009, as the world was in the throes of a series of Wall Street and corporate meltdowns that echoed the widespread chicanery practiced by Enron. It then transferred to the Royal Court in London and after that to the West End. It is currently infesting the Broadhurst Theatre with blind mice, raptors and lesser reptiles known as traders, stock analysts, investment bankers and CFOs. Prebble talked to Playbill.com about how a gal from Surrey captured the bad boys of Texas.
Playbill.com: You're born and bred in England, right?
Lucy Prebble: That's right.
Playbill.com: What made you want to write a play about an American corporate scandal?
LP: What I really wanted to write about was business, and corporate collapse and what that means. At the time, the only really big story of contemporary times was Enron. Obviously, that's changed in the last couple years. I started about thinking about it in 2003 and 2004 when the trials were happening. They were covered quite extensively in Britain. Everyone was quite fascinated by them. I started as an outsider. I always had a fascination with all things American. I adore America and am slightly frightened of it. I suppose when I read about Enron and these men on top — Skilling and Fastow and Lay — I was really interested in finding a story that had these archetypal businessmen in it. And in Britain I never found a business story with as much drama and classical tragic narrative as Enron seems to have.
Playbill.com: How long did it take you to write it?
LP: All and all, probably it was about three years. I did a year's worth of research and then two years of drafting. Playbill.com: Was it difficult trying to wrap your mind around the complex business models that Enron had in play?
LP: Oh, yes, absolutely. Yes, it is very difficult. What really inspired me is that the complexity of these financial models is intentional. The people who design them want them to be as opaque as possible. It benefits them. So if you're researching finance, it's worth remembering that if you feel stupid, it's because Enron wants you to feel stupid. It benefits the financial sector to say, "You couldn't possibly understand this. Give me your money and I'll invest it for you."
Playbill.com: You identify all the major players — Skilling, Fastow, Lay — by name, except for one. The character Claudia Roe seems to be a stand-in for Enron executive Recebba Mark.
LP: She's a combination of several female executives at Enron. I didn't feel comfortable giving her one single name because I wanted to do things in the narrative of the story to which I didn't feel ethically comfortable assigning a name to. I wanted her to represent hard industry, to represent a more nostalgic view of business, and for her narrative to be slightly different from the narrative of the reality of Rebecca Mark or Amanda Martin, or several other female executives. Because within the narrative I wanted her to do some things that I was frankly doing for my own purpose, I felt it would be unfair to give the character a real name. I think the character Claudia Roe comes off completely well, comparatively. I don't think anyone would mind being associated with her as a character.
Playbill.com: Since the play was produced, have you been contacted by anybody who was connected to Enron?
LP: Sure, yeah. A number of people. And quite a few people I've met who had seen the show and I had drinks with them afterwards. People who worked for Enron, or with Enron, or knew the major players very well. I had dinner with Richard Grubman recently. He's featured in the play. He's the analyst who brought Enron down. And Bethany McLean, who's the journalist that wrote the original Fortune article [that lead to Enron's downfall]. So I've been in touch with all sorts of people. Obviously, you get some behind-the-scenes stories you can't possible repeat. It's amazing how many people were touched by Enron in different way. I'm always hearing people leave the theatre saying, "Oh, you know Bob knew Andy. He worked with Andy Fastow for years."
Playbill.com: Obviously, of the three major players, Lay is dead, and Fastow and Skilling are in jail. So I'm guessing the two remaining haven't reached out to you.
LP: No, I'm afraid not. Though we expect Fastow's release imminently.
Playbill.com: And Skilling is staging an appeal for a new trial.
LP: Absolutely. He's in the papers. His appeal is ongoing. It's being heard by the Supreme Court. I believe he thinks he's absolutely innocent.
Playbill.com: There are quite a few expressionistic touches throughout the play. How many of them are in the script and how many came out in rehearsal?
LP: Most of them feature in the script, such as the representation of the stock price and the representation of the raptors. There are a few moments where we use dance. Those are suggested in the script. And then in rehearsal Rupert [Goold, the director] and the choreographer [Scott Ambler] discussed how we can best represent that movement sequence. It's a combination, really. Most are written in the script, but when it comes to movement, that's not my strong suit. I tell the choreographer what I see in my head and then they do something much better.
Playbill.com: Have you been making changes to the script here in New York?
LP: Yeah, absolutely. I've been rewriting during previews. Mainly cutting, which I enjoy very much, because cutting is my favorite part of writing really. The story is more familiar to Americans than it is to British people. You can tell if an audience is already there before you. And Broadway theatregoers are very quick, very smart. So it's running shorter here than it did in Britain.
Playbill.com: When I first heard there was a play about Enron, it seemed to me a topic a playwright like David Hare would take on. Is he a writer you admire?
LP: I do like David Hare very much. He wrote a play in London called The Power of Yes, which is about the economic crisis. So absolutely, that sort of subject matter is what he would explore. He's one of the few writers who's taken on the world of work, which I'm very interested in. I think if you look at the work he's done on the financial crisis and Enron, my play, I'm a little bit more, I don't know, exuberant, a little bit more flashy.
Playbill.com: How on Earth did you get the rights to use the Enron logo as the play's design?
LP: (Laughs) Good question. I'm afraid I'm the wrong person to ask about that. I know the producers and directors were working together on that.
Playbill.com: What are you working on now?
LP: I have an idea for a next play, which I haven't started writing yet. I'm going to write a film version of this play for Sony Pictures. And I'm working on a television series for Showtime.