Playwright Robert Schenkkan on Winning a Tony and Impressing Spielberg

It's been a big year for one of Oregon theater’s biggest success stories. We caught up with Schenkkan in Ashland to take stock.

By Aaron Scott November 3, 2014 Published in the November 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

In this stormy political month, Oregon theater’s biggest current success story offers dramatic perspective. All the Way, Robert Schenkkan’s play about Lyndon Johnson’s battle to pass 1964’s landmark Civil Rights Act, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 as part of its cycle of commissioned historical plays, American Revolutions. The play moved to Broadway this March, with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston as the titanic president, and promptly racked up every major award, including Tonys for best original play and actor. In July, news broke that Schenkkan would adapt All the Way into a film for HBO, starring Cranston and produced by Steven Spielberg.

Schenkkan and OSF followed up this summer with The Great Society, about LBJ’s second-term descent into war and partisan backlash. (Should we send Obama a ticket?) Now both productions are traveling to Seattle for a repertory run that traces the arc of one of the nation’s most meteoric politicians. We caught up with Schenkkan in Ashland to take stock.

Why LBJ?
I grew up in Austin, and my father knew LBJ in a very modest way. The 1964 election is the first I remember as a participant. When he defeated Goldwater, I felt the forces of light had vanquished the forces of darkness. A year and a half later, our troop levels in Vietnam ramped up from 23,000 to over 200,000. With my older brother nearing draft age, I had a very different feeling about LBJ. 

The character allows me to explore issues of power and morality in a really personal and compelling way. The whole American Revolutions project was conceived as using Shakespeare as a prototype to explore American history. And LBJ is such a quintessential Shakespearean figure: outsize in his ambitions, flaws, strengths, weaknesses, and complexity. I love Bill Moyers’s description that “the 11 most interesting people I ever met was Lyndon Johnson.”  

Seattle Repertory TheatreWhen was Broadway first mentioned?
As we were in the run-up to the opening of All the Way in 2012, my agent and I sent the script out to a number of Broadway producers, and we had an amazing turnout in Ashland, given you’d think we were asking people to go to the Antarctic some times.

[Broadway producer] Jeffrey Richards loved it, and he said he wanted to do it. Right from the get-go, it was clear we were going to need a star—that’s what Broadway is. We were very fortunate to find Bryan. He was just finishing Breaking Bad, and what he really wanted to do was a play in New York. 

We broke the record for biggest weekly gross for a straight play in the history of Broadway. Would I have guessed that’s what we were going to do? No. 

I read that Spielberg was sitting behind you on opening night.
Yes, and Nancy Pelosi was sitting in front of me. It was this wonderful combination of contemporary political figures, individuals who were key leaders during this time, and industry heavyweights. It was fantastic, and I was exhausted.

What are the plans for Seattle?
It’s so rare to have the experience where you write about a particular character and pick it up in a subsequent piece. We’ll remount both with mostly OSF’s company, plus some Seattle actors. Then they play in rotating rep with at least five days where you can see them in a marathon. 

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