IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT SCHENKKAN
Skyler Gray, the Alley Theatre’s Literary Manager, sat down to speak with Robert Schenkkan, the playwright of All The Way.
SKYLER GRAY: All The Way was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) as part of their American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle program. What was the play’s developmental journey from OSF commission to Tony Award-winner?
ROBERT SCHENKKAN: I'm pleased to say I was the first writer commissioned by Bill Rauch (OSF’s Artistic Director) for the American Revolutions program. I knew very quickly that I wanted to write about Lyndon B. Johnson and suggested that we shoot for a production in 2012 because it would be an election year. So with that in mind, I began a very comprehensive process of research working with my dramaturg Tom Bryant and the literary staff at OSF. There were a series of workshops and readings to test out certain ideas I had about scenes and about structure morphing into a longer workshop once I had a first draft. And then we had the production in 2012, which succeeded beyond anything any of us had anticipated. There was a lot of interest from other theaters in the country and Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards. He flew out to OSF to see it and very quickly announced that he would love to bring it to New York. Simultaneously, we had made arrangements with American Repertory Theatre in Boston to do work there before bringing it to New York. We had a workshop between the closing of the show in Ashland and the beginning of rehearsal in Boston with the new company. It had a very successful run in Boston and then moved to Broadway.
SG: I know that you went to school in Texas as a child. Did your Texas upbringing influence your fascination with LBJ?
RS: I not only went to school in Texas but I grew up in Austin. We lived two hours from the Western White House, LBJ’s ranch on the Pedernales River. My father was a pioneer of public television and radio and was hired by The University of Texas to set up the first public television and radio station in the Southwest. His first job was to go to then Senator Johnson and get his permission because the television and radio station would have been a direct competitor with LBJ’s own media conglomerate there in Texas – which would make him a wealthy man by the time he left the White House. He not only gave his permission but, as President, he would go on to sign into law the bill that created a corporation for public broadcast. In my house, initially, he was held in high regard and thought of as a friend of the court. Certainly he was in my head then. I came of age during the Vietnam conflict, which altered my perception of LBJ considerably. Years later as an artist with a young family, becoming increasingly aware of the social programs that were helpful to me and were the legacy of his Great Society domestic agenda, I changed my feeling again. All of this is to say that yes, I had a personal connection here because of my growing up in his backyard and my family’s relationship with him. It has been an interesting evolving political relationship with LBJ over the years and then, as a writer interested in politics and certain occurring thematic issues, LBJ was a great gateway into areas I wanted to talk about.
SG: LBJ is Texas through and through. Do you think the response to the play will be different in Texas where audiences are more familiar with LBJ?
RS: I think all audiences come to this material with a strong set of assumptions if they are of a certain age. I think for a Texas audience that would be especially true. Yes, people will come in with stronger feelings about the subject matter. It doesn’t mean that their reaction might not surprise them or that their response wouldn’t be similar to audiences in Boston and New York and St. Louis and Mississippi. I would be surprised if they were I am very, very happy that it is being done in Houston and Dallas at these two theaters that were important to me as a kid growing up in Texas. I am really happy that the play will have a characteristically first-class production.
SG: David Goodman, whose brother Andrew appears in the play, found All The Way to be “one hundred percent accurate.” What has been the response from other people who were there or knew the figures that appear in the play?
RS: David is an enthusiastic supporter of the piece. A number of people who appear in the play or are referred to in the play have seen it. Nobody has taken strong exception to it and the response has been very positive. This includes the LBJ family. I think that they have taken issue with this and that on the whole they have been very supportive of the play, as has the LBJ Presidential Library. I am very proud of that. The play is a tough look at everybody in this period – it is unsentimental. I can justify everything that I have written. What is interesting is how different people who all knew LBJ will have come away with very different perceptions of him. That is what makes him so fascinating. Nobody can really say, no, he would never do that because two other people will say yes he did, I was there when he did that. To me, that just speaks to the complexity of the man and how he quite consciously shaped his performance to whoever was in the room and whatever he needed to do to get what he wanted from that individual. That is who he was. I think that is a very fair assessment of LBJ as a politician.
SG: Did I ever tell you that while I was working at William Morris Endeavor we would have random people call to talk about experiences they had with LBJ? People seem eager to share their stories about him.
RS: That’s fascinating. I do feel like there are a lot of people out there whose experience with LBJ was very formative or very potent. They do come forward given the opportunity. People who lived through the tumultuous period were deeply marked by it. For those (particularly in the inner circle) it was the highlight of their lives. LBJ was an intimidating presence. My family, at least according to family lore, did some modest socializing with LBJ. There was an invitation to his ranch and the story is that our car got stuck in the mud and LBJ went out and personally got it back on the road. I don’t know if any of that is true because I’m too young to remember. I asked my oldest brother if he remembered meeting LBJ and he said, “Oh yes.” I asked what was he like? His reply was so illuminating. He said, “Honestly, I don’t really remember LBJ so much. What I remember is how incredibly respectful our father became in front of this strange man.” To me, that is more revealing than if he said he looked deeply into the soul or LBJ or whatever. He had this effect on people.
SG: You also wrote a sequel to All The Way titled The Great Society. Does it pick up at the end of All The Way
RS: It does. It picks up on November 19, 1964 just after his landslide historic election victory. It continues through March 1968 when he shocks the country by announcing on television that he will not in fact run for re-election. In Shakespearean terms, it is a complete turn of the wheel of fortune. The man who has risen from nothing to become king steps down from the throne and returns to obscurity. It is a wonderful dramatic arc and I am quite fond of the play.
SG: I know you were an actor early in your career. What was your journey to becoming a playwright?
RS: I always thought I was going to be an actor, writer, and director. I thought I was going to be the new Orson Wells. Interestingly, I didn’t end up doing as much classical theater as I thought I might. Instead, I did a lot of new plays and developmental theater. I learned to write for the theatre by doing it. I was always interested in writing and it always felt natural. Initially, I was supporting myself as an actor and writing in my free time. With The Kentucky Cycle's world premiere production at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, I quit acting for the duration of the rehearsal and preproduction process so I could focus exclusively on this mammoth thing. The experience was so intensely satisfying that I thought this is what I should be doing. I stopped acting and haven’t looked back since.
SG: You’ve created musicals, plays for young audiences, Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas, television series and screenplays. Since you seem to do it all, how do you choose your projects?
RS: It is always the story. Does the story resonate with me? Is the story worth telling? Is this something that I am interested in? Is this something that I would want to see? Beyond that it is a bit of catch as catch can in this business with projects coming up and projects achieving a certain level of intensity and focus. Then some projects just die and wither on the vine. As a consequence, you have to keep a number of things going all at once. While that isn’t always ideal, it hasn’t been all that problematic. I enjoy bouncing back and forth between the three different ways of storytelling. I enjoy each of them for different reasons and feel very fortunate in terms of what I have been able to do.
SG: What are you working on next?
RS: I am in post-production for the film version of All The Way at HBO, so we will see how that goes. I was very involved in the production and filming. I am an executive producer along with Steven Spielberg and Bryan Cranston. I’m working to bring The Great Society to New York, which I hope we will do in 2016 – another presidential election year. I am writing a film for Robert Redford about the Manhattan Project and a pilot for producer Gil Netter based on the Dave Robicheaux novels by James Lee Burke. I have a musical, The Twelve, which we hope to bring to New York in 2017; a commission from Seattle Children’s Theatre, of which I have already completed the first draft titled Shadowplay. It has been selected for the 2016 New Visions/New Voices Series at the Kennedy Center in May. And finally I am at work on a new play for the Denver Center Theatre Company. It is an interesting collection – a little bit of everything.