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Enron drama plays out on the stage

Norbert Leo Butz as Jeffrey Skilling in Enron the Play.

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TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: The more we learn about what Wall Street was doing before the financial crisis, the more it all seems vaguely familiar. Like we've seen this movie before.

And to a certain degree, we have. About 10 years ago with a company called Enron. Shady accounting. Hiding debts where they'd never be found. And an insatiable need for capital that eventually left Jeffrey Skilling, Andy Fastow and Ken Lay facing time in federal prison.

It's not what you might call the classic recipe for a Broadway play.

Andy Fastow, in "Enron:" Alright... Wait, wait. You need capital? You need cash?

Jeffrey Skilling, in "Enron:" Yes.

Fastow: You need cash, what one, two three...?

Skilling: More like four.

Fastow: Well, 4 million I can find.

Skilling: Million. No!

Fastow: You need four billion dollars? Cash?

Ryssdal: Today, as we cover the art of money -- what artists and others see when they look at the economy -- playwright Lucy Prebble. She read the stories about Enron, while it was happening. But she really started paying attention when its executives went on trial a couple of years later.

Lucy Prebble: And that's when it really struck me that there was something innately dramatic about the story. The way that Andy Fastow, for example, the CFO of Enron, testified against his former boss, Jeffrey Skilling -- a man who he had adored and really looked up to, in order to get himself a reduced sentence. And when I was looking at those sorts of things, I thought, "Well, this is a story really about the relationship between these two men. And finance is part of that, but, you know, there's actually an awful lot of quite classical dramatic tragedy going on there as well.

Ryssdal: Yeah, and the other great character, of course, is Ken Lay.

Prebble: Of course.

Ryssdal: He sort sits atop this whole structure and kind of engineers the whole thing.

Prebble: Well, absolutely. And I think the fascinating thing about this triangle of men, really -- Skilling, Fastow and Lay -- for me was that they were such strong personalities, as people attracted from power often are. But they also represented something different and archetypal about business. You know, Skilling was very much a visionary idealist and Fastow a kind of amoral numbers guy. But the thing I was really fascinated with about Lay -- Lay, a very religious, very traditional man -- who really believed or thought he believed in integrity and ethics and the company as something that was there to support America. And I think, someone like that being drawn into and corrupted by money, I thought, was a fascinating journey.

Ryssdal: When you sat down to write this, then, how did you conceive it. I mean, what was the thought process as you put pen to paper?

Prebble: Well, originally, my first thought was "OK, this has to be not be boring."

Ryssdal: Yeah, we do that every day.

Prebble: Yeah, well exactly, of course, it's very similar in that way, how you'd think about finance journalism, isn't it? I mean, the first thought is "how do you make finance interesting and exciting?" And the second thought really was "what are the human elements of this story?" But the more you look into it, the more you find... I think that behind numbers and behind finance, there are always just people behaving. The marketplace itself is just a group of people acting, whether it's prices going down because of fear or prices going up because of greed. They are emotional responses, even though the outcome is somewhat numeric.

Ryssdal: It must've been great for you to have the ability and the creativity of the stage to explain some of these things that are just bizarrely complicated.

Prebble: It, to me, felt like quite a logical place to do it. Whether you're talking about hedging or derivatives or even something really complex, like credit default swaps, they tend to be based on some sort of metaphor or illusion, fundamentally, i.e. they're not real things that you can take hold of and grab. And in a way, that's what we do in theater. When you write and you put on a show, essentially, you're asking people to come into a room and believe that something that is not real is real. And that's sort of how financial instruments operate in a way.

Ryssdal: Tell me about one of my favorite devices in this show: How you personified the debt -- the thing that brought Enron down, really, the debt and the off-balance sheet partnership and these raptors that you have. Tell me about those.

Prebble: Andy Fastow, the CFO, he designed financial instruments called "raptors." He was a big fan of sort of 90s movies and he named them after the velociraptors in "Jurassic Park."

Jeffrey Skilling, in "Enron:" What was that?

Andy Fastow, in "Enron": Nothing.

Skilling: What is it?

Fastow: Don't worry about it.

Skilling: What the f--- is this?! Oh God!

Fastow: It's the raptors! You like 'em? They like you. That's where the debt goes, with these sort of entities.

Prebble: There are also things named after "Death Star," there were lots of "Star Wars" references. But particularly the Raptors I found fascinating, 'cause when I read about it, I thought, "How am I going to represent financial instruments that devour debt on stage?" And then you find that Fastow himself called them "raptors," and you think, "Well, I know exactly how am I going to do that. I'm going to have dinosaurs on stage. Why not?"

Ryssdal: This play did very well over in London, and here you are now, bringing it to the States to Broadway. Was there any reluctance on the part of the American producers in the fact that you're obviously not from this country and what do you know about writing this American story?

Prebble: Well, you know, I'm certainly aware of that, well I'm aware that I'm British, telling an American story. But, what I feel about it is that America is this sort of great empire of our times. And if I was living in Roman times, I'd want to write about Rome. I love America, I'm passionate about it and fascinated by it. And I think coming from the west, as I do in Britain, I'm as much as part of capitalism as anybody else is. And I just wanted to look at a story that exemplifies that, really.

Ryssdal: Lucy Prebble and her play "Enron." It opens on Broadway, next week. Lucy, thanks a lot.

Prebble: Thank you, Kai. Thank you very much.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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