I can’t stop thinking about Enron.
As we approach the opening of our 50th production, there are a lot of sleepless nights — as there always are during tech and previews — but I think that’s even more true this week, as many of us can’t stop thinking and talking about this play. Personally, I have many complicated feelings about what happened at Enron, and specifically about Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow.
Obviously, there’s a lot of anger. Anger because when I look at what happened at Enron it is hard for me to ignore what I perceive to be a totally senseless downfall. Anger because of all that the stakeholders lost. Anger at Ken Lay and the board.
Yet I’m equally fascinated with the minds of Skilling and Fastow. As someone who loves numbers and accounting concepts, I have to admit that I find Fastow’s mind to be brutally compelling.
But it is really Skilling — and Bret Tuomi’s dynamic portrayal of him in TimeLine’s production — that is keeping me awake at night. It is easy to portray Skilling as a basic villain, but it really sunk in watching Sunday night’s preview: Skilling for me is no longer just a man I read about in the paper or in books. He now has humanity. While I don’t agree with what he did, I have started to understand his motivations, and that is a very unsettling feeling. We watch Bret as Jeff Skilling go through that journey — starting off as a smart man with sophisticated ideas, taking himself to the top of the world, then watching it all crumble away and culminate in a heartbreaking 4 a.m. phone call to his daughter. While his acts were monstrous and destructive, this play helps us remember that he was motivated by very human emotions: pride and fear.
As I reflect on Skilling’s rise in the business world, I can’t stop wondering about the powerful, intoxicating feeling of being a pioneer, of standing of the edge of the next big thing. It brings to mind David Sarnoff and some of the questions The Farnsworth Invention raised about innovation, about the pain of bringing an idea from concept to reality. Sarnoff’s big question was “What’s next?,” which is a question we like to ask ourselves at TimeLine. As it turns out, that was the exact same question Jeff Skilling was asking as he tried to make sense of the new virtual world that Enron helped pioneer.
I understand that there is a huge burden to being a pioneer in a public company, where you are accountable to the shareholders. Intellectually, I understand that in that world, you are only as good or as valuable as your stock price. But having spent my entire adult life working in the not-for-profit industry, I can’t fully appreciate the pressure of the stock price. But I do understand the pressure to be accountable to the people who support TimeLine, the artists and the mission. And though we prefer to concentrate on “What’s next?,” we recognize that in moments like this we also must ask the question “Why?” It’s our responsibility to inspire a real conversation about why Enron happened. If only the leadership at Enron had demanded an answer to that question, perhaps thousands of lives might not have been ruined.
My thoughts now are just scratching the surface. We have 12 more weeks to live with this production, but I don’t anticipate my feelings about Enron and Skilling will become any less complicated. TimeLine always wants to create a dialogue with our audience about the work we put on our stage, and this one will surely inspire some passionate discussions. I can’t wait to hear what you think, and how you respond to this production and the complicated feelings it evokes.