When Robert Schenkkan meets LBJ, sparks fly

All the Way
Robert Schenkkan: ‘Lyndon Johnson’s motives, particularly when it came to civil rights, were genuine and selfless.’ But in ‘All the Way,’ the audience sees Johnson use the same tactics simply to get elected. “We begin to feel queasy about it,” Schenkkan says. “He’s playing on the cutting edge of the moral quandary.”

By Sylvie Drake

For the DCPA NewsCenter

Robert Schenkkan is no shrinking violet.

When he accepted the Best Play award for All the Way at the 2014 Tony Awards, he had no hesitation reminding the American Theatre Wing that it had taken its time coming across with a Tony for his work.

Robert Schenkkan. It was 1994 when Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle, a sprawling two-part, six-hour epic consisting of nine short plays, won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Drama — the first time in the history of the Pulitzers that a play that had not first been presented in New York City was selected for the award.

The Kentucky Cycle covered two centuries in its unvarnished look at the brutal history behind our American mythology. But while it was nominated for a Best Play Tony, it did not win.

More than 20 years later, Schenkkan (pictured at right) again dipped into American history for inspiration. All the Way is a fictional construct of Lyndon Johnson’s chaotic first year in office following the Kennedy assassination and his sudden ascension to the presidency. We find him facing the growing ramifications of the Vietnam War, embarking on some complex political maneuvering for passage of his civil rights bill, while also working to win election to his first full term in office.

Commissioned by and first produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the play became OSF’s first sortie on Broadway. That this 20-actor historic drama won the Tony was a surprise. That it quickly recouped its initial investment, breaking box office records for selling more dollars-worth of tickets for a straight play in Broadway history, is astonishing.

Schenkkan was interviewed while in Los Angeles for the HBO filming of his adaptation of All the Way. Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad,” Trumbo), who scored a Tony award for his Broadway performance as LBJ, is again starring. Release is expected in May.

Robert Schenkkan Quote

Sylvie Drake: Judging by your output, American politics and history attract you. Why?

Robert Schenkkan: I can’t point to a single exciting event that sparked this interest, but I grew up in the South, where history and the past are very present, in a household with parents who were politically active, interested in the life of the mind, and who both read extensively. As a consequence I did as well and, for whatever reason, I’ve always found history provocative and deeply pleasurable.

Sylvie Drake: Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch has said “our country is a never-ending series of changes.” Is that part of the attraction?

Robert Schenkkan: I have a personal connection to history. My family’s history affected me long before I understood why, and the understanding of what had happened made clear the feelings that I had, that history isn’t there as a part of the past, that it continues to resonate, to affect us. We have a very odd relationship to it in this country. We’ve had this enormous energy moving forward in a herky-jerky kind of way and, simultaneously, a fierce resistance to that motion—and a lot of people, it seems to me, pay a lot of attention to our history.

Robert Schenkkan: History at present is a battleground between liberals and conservatives. It’s very much a question of who gets to tell the story. The story has become increasingly politicized and the winner determines what history is. But I do feel that [history] has been more consciously politicized in this country. Look at the causes of the Civil War. There are textbooks out there — textbooks — that mention slavery almost in passing. And there are many, many people who resent the notion that the Civil War was about slavery. Certainly not from their family’s point of view. This simply isn’t true. There is no question about this. When I wrote The Kentucky Cycle, one of the things I touched on was the notion, in terms of western expansion, its psychological motor, that the past didn’t matter. You could leave it behind.  You could start over. Re-invent yourself. And part of the point of themes I was working on was how both liberating and energizing that concept is—and how damaging.

Sylvie Drake: Still true?

Robert Schenkkan: Yes. But we’re at a point in our history and socially, in terms of class, where opportunities for that are much less true. There’s much less upward mobility now. At the turn of the century, wealth was amassed by a very small group of individuals and we are now again in a place where we are seeing a consolidation of wealth and power in such a small number of people that the middle class is stagnating at best. Opportunities are fewer. We badly need to turn our ship around. Badly. The most optimistic view is we’re in that process, but it’s hard to tell sometimes.

Sylvie Drake: What exactly drew you to LBJ and civil rights?

Robert Schenkkan: Well, I grew up in Austin, Texas, part of the hill country, which was Johnson’s turf. My father knew Johnson in a limited but critical way. My father was a pioneer in public television and radio, hired by the University of Texas to create and manage the first public TV and radio station, not just in Texas but in the Southwest. Job one was to go to then-Senator Johnson and get his donation, because said station would compete directly with Johnson’s media empire. Johnson went on to sign into law the bill that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. So he was on my radar. My family initially saw him as a very good man. I remember the ’64 election—the first election that I do remember. Two years later, with troop levels in Vietnam suddenly up from 25,000 to 275,000 and my oldest brother nearing draft age, I had a very different feeling about him. He was a complicated guy.

Sylvie Drake: How much time did you spend on actual events to get the story right, and how much on setting them aside, so you could write a play? 

Robert Schenkkan: The research was ongoing. There was so much material to sort out, I never really stopped. I worked on All the Way commissioned by Oregon — and my other LBJ play, The Great Society, commissioned by Seattle Rep — on and off for seven years, getting plenty of dramaturgical support, readings and workshops, from each theatre. I would meet people who then introduced me to other people… There was so much material that it became about what’s the story? What can I really use? How do I tell this…? I was mindful of my audience, too.

Sylvie Drake: How do you feel about actors who are not lookalikes playing political figures whose physical features are so familiar to us?

Robert Schenkkan: I’ve always resisted this notion of, oh, everybody has to look exactly like the character they’re playing. It’s a trap. It treats the experience more like docudrama or a History Channel piece. It’s not; it’s a play, a carefully selected and translated theatrical vision of history, that I have taken over. Not everything happens on stage exactly the way it happened in life.

Sylvie Drake: But doesn’t it then demand an extra suspension of disbelief?

Robert Schenkkan: Oh, yes. Here’s a classic example. In every production, I’ve been emphatic that the actors not go to YouTube to immerse themselves or try to capture that actual image. This was especially true for LBJ because, frankly, we all know LBJ was a terrible public speaker. Boring. He was not like that in real life, ordinary life. Everyone who knew him described him as an incredibly charismatic, wildly entertaining individual. At a party he was funny and profane. But the public speaking thing was due to his sense of inadequacy, his upbringing. He didn’t go to Harvard like Jack Kennedy, so when he became president, he developed a speaking style that he thought was presidential. It drove his family crazy. I told the actors don’t pay any attention. That’s not the LBJ we want. So that’s just one example of how unimportant, and actually antithetical, it was to me that the actors look like the character. We gave them accents, dressed them in period clothes, as we remember them. These were improvements in terms of helping the audience deal with regional differences. But no one was going to imitate anyone.

Sylvie Drake: Is that also true of the HBO film?

Robert Schenkkan: We cast that much closer to look than I did on stage, but at no sacrifice to quality. The film, which is being produced under the Amblin banner, is scheduled to air sometime in May after a 43-day shoot. Quite a lot of days for an event like this. It has a generous budget by HBO standards, as expensive as anything they’ve made. I’m an executive producer, along with Bryan [Cranston] and Steven Spielberg. In this situation, I have as much creative control as any writer could have.  But while this development is splendid, my roots are on stage, especially at Seattle Rep and Oregon.

Sylvie Drake: Political plays have many pitfalls, yet you’ve avoided them well. How?

Robert Schenkkan: If it’s true, it’s because I focus on the human story. Politics is based in human struggle. I’m interested — and in All the Way in particular — in what it takes to make progress, to get something done, even something I consider to be arguably a good thing. It comes at a price. People don’t understand that and they need to. Politics is compromise. And politics cannot be “sausage-making,” as Bismarck called it. I find that struggle interesting in people who intend to do good, yet must question their means.

Neil Berg and Robert Schenkkan. Photo by John Moore.
Robert Schenkkan was in Denver last year developing the DCPA’s world premiere of his new rock musical, ‘The 12,’ with co-writer Neil Berg, left. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Sylvie Drake: And motives?

Robert Schenkkan: Not motives necessarily. Lyndon Johnson is a good example in this regard. His motives, particularly when it came to civil rights, were genuine and selfless. [Passing that act] was not necessarily the right liberal thing to do in 1964. It could have gone very badly. The means employed were not always pleasant. Not very clean. As the play progresses into Act Two, the focus increasingly becomes the election, and the audience is treated to the sight of Johnson using the same tactics he used to pass civil rights — for which we mostly cheer him — now simply to get elected. We begin to feel queasy about it. He’s playing on the cutting edge of the moral quandary. I find that fascinating.

Sylvie Drake: Plans for your other LBJ play, The Great Society…?

Robert Schenkkan: We expect to bring it into New York some time in 2016. The money’s in place. It’s my All the Way producers. It’s a question of finding a star. You can’t get a theatre without one, and Bryan’s not interested in returning to Broadway.

‘All the Way’ cast members read from the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Sylvie Drake: How do you approach a play that is so rooted in real political events? 

Anthony Powell: It’s a variation on that old joke about “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Research, research, research! Robert Schenkkan’s wonderful play packs so much historical fact into every single page , that it’s been important for every member of the production team to really get in there and pore over the historical record in order to gather clues that have informed our decisions about the casting and design of the piece.

Sylvie Drake: What do you focus on mostly: character or fact?

Anthony Powell: Robert Schenkkan has done an amazing job of making each and every role in the script—even some of the smaller ones — such real-seeming flesh and blood characters, that the reader is immediately drawn to them as individuals. My primary job on this production will be to tell the story and lay out the facts in the cleanest, clearest way possible, but I imagine that a lot of the joy will be in getting to know all of these astonishing characters and watching them interact with one another. 

Sylvie Drake: Is it potentially harder than directing actors in a play with purely fictional characters?

Anthony Powell: There may be a desire on the part of our cast to honor these amazing historical figures by striving for accuracy, by trying to do imitations of them, which I think could be dangerous. We certainly didn’t worry about definite physical resemblances to actual persons during the casting process. I was much more interested in the qualities of the actors themselves, and what each of them might bring to the telling of the story. I’ve been imagining this process as being more about cast members utilizing certain elements they grab from the true-life characters they’ll be playing and then allowing their own actorly instincts to run free.

Sylvie Drake: What are some of the differences?

Anthony Powell: This will be my very first experience directing a historical drama, so you’ll have to ask me that question again in a couple of months.

Sylvie Drake was Director of Media Relations and Publications for The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1994-2014. She is a former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a regular contributor to culturalweekly.com. 

All the Way: Ticket information

  • All the WayJan. 29-Feb. 28 at the Stage Theatre
  • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • TTY: 303-893-9582
  • Groups of 15 or more: 303-446-4829
  • Also: Purchase in person at The Denver Center Ticket Office, located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby. Buy and print online at DenverCenter.Org.
  • Previous NewsCenter coverage of All the Way
    Video: Cast reads from Civil Rights Act
    Five ways you don’t have to connect the dots ‘All the Way’ to today

    Full casting announced
    Official show page
    DCPA Theatre Company giddily going down rabbit hole in 2015-16

    Meet the Cast Profiles (to date)
    Meet Paul DeBoy
    Meet Mike Hartman

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