Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Robert Schenkkan

The Tony and Pulitzer-winning playwright discusses Seattle Rep's productions of All the Way and The Great Society.

By Seth Sommerfeld December 4, 2014

Robert Schenkkan takes a look at LBJ's one term as an elected president in The Great Society.

After initially premiering in the Northwest, Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan struck Tony Award gold this year with All the Way, a dramatic look at President Lyndon B. Johnson (played on the Broadway stage by Bryan Cranston), his struggles the Civil Rights Act passed, and his campaign to actually be elected president after taking over following John F. Kennedy's assassination. As someone who grew up in Austin, Texas—the heart of LBJ country—Schenkkan was able to find the boisterous behind-the-scenes voice of the man that brought sweeping social change to the county. After bringing All the Way to its stage in November (select performances still run through January 4), Seattle Repertory Theatre now presents the premiere of All the Way’s sequel, The Great Society (December 5–January 4), which follows LBJ’s turbulent but impactful first (and only) full presidential term.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Schenkkan about the tragedy of The Great Society, the process of writing about history for the stage, and the difference between winning a Tony and winning a Pulitzer.

How would you describe the tonal difference between All the Way and The Great Society?

Well very simply, All the Way is a drama and The Great Society is a tragedy. The Great Society picks up where All the Way leaves off: it’s November 1964 on the heels of LBJ’s landslide victory and reelection as president. And it carries this forward, over a much longer period of time, to the penultimate scene in the play, which is March 1968 when LBJ—to the utter surprise of the country—announces that he will not run for reelection. The man who has spent his entire life dedicated to a relentless—some would say ruthless—pursuit of power gives it up. Interestingly, perhaps ironically—given the enormous amount of legislation this is of course the heart of the Great Society period, where he passes so many of the landmark bills that will go on to really distinguish his record—the play isn’t that much about the mechanics of legislation. The Great Society is a much more personal play. If the Broadway tagline on All the Way was “It’s not personal, it’s just politics.” And I would say the tagline of The Great Society is “It’s personal.”

What's your creative process when writing plays like these that draw from existing historical records?

I do a tremendous amount of research. I started working on these plays in 2008. I cast a very wide net in terms of what I read. So, that would mean, virtually all the major biographies, certainly of LBJ, but at least one major biography of every major character in the play. Plus, histories specific to certain issues. So for example, histories that focused on the Civil Rights Movement—Bearing the Cross or Taylor Branch’s America in the King Years. Histories very specifically about Vietnam, or about Great Society programs, or about economics in the 1960s. Books about Nixon, or the entire decade and the shift in the Republican Party. So that’s just on one level.

Then there was a lot of original material, that is to say newspapers, magazines, or YouTube. Because television was really coming into its own at that time, there’s so much material that was filmed, and that’s readily available on YouTube. Johnson taped many of his conversations in the White House; these are available to the public through the University of Virginia. They’re being digitized. There’s still a tremendous amount to be processed, but there’s quite a bit that’s currently available. You can just go online and listen to LBJ have a conversation with Dr. King or Senator Russell. Then I also interviewed individuals who knew or had worked with LBJ or some of these other individuals, characters in the play.

Again, I do not call myself or consider myself a historian. I’m not writing a history. So the game I’m playing is different, it has different rules—I’m a dramatist. I’m writing a play, so I have a very specific point of view on what I write. And I’m going to be very selective about the actual historical events I use and I’m going to take liberties with that.

One of the things that surprised me about All the Way was the play's humor. There are just all sorts of colloquialisms and Southern sayings that LBJ employs to make a point or ease tension. Why was it important to you to have that humorous element in the play dealing with serious political issues?

Well, there are two reasons.

One: that’s who the man was. He was in fact very funny and very entertaining. Most people’s memory of LBJ is sadly those incredibly boring, pedantic public speeches. Which for the most part, you know that (stiff political voice) “My fellow Americans…” And what’s ironic about that is that’s not really how LBJ sounded in his normal life. But he was so insecure about his background—growing up in Texas, poor, his educational teachers college—that he worried that he wouldn’t sound presidential. And so his solution to that was to create this persona, this voice, this speaking style. And that’s what we remember. Of course, it had exactly the opposite effect. It was quite off-putting. He used to drive his handlers—they weren’t called handlers back then, but his press secretary and staff—crazy, but they simply could not dissuade him. It’s an irony that someone otherwise so politically astute would be so blind in this regard. But, you know thus it always is with most personal issues. So anyway, you talk to or read about people who knew him or worked with him, and they all say what an incredibly entertaining individual he was: funny, great raconteur, terrific mimic, and just a seemingly inexhaustible series of colloquial jokes, stories, anecdotes, which he very skillfully would employ to make his point. I think it’s a really interesting aspect of him, in part because it’s unfamiliar.

And two: because in a play that—this is a drama—deals with serious issues, just dramaturgically speaking the audience needs to be able to release. They need a laugh. You need the humor.

Speaking of those anecdotes and colloquialisms, where did you pull those from?

Some of those are anecdotes that are recounted by people who knew him. So for example, “the ugliest sound in the world” is an anecdote that Joe Califano Jr. tells. I appropriated it, but then used it in a very specific way in the play to to make it part of his pitch to Humphrey. So yes, sometimes these are actually anecdotes that have been recounted about him. And then sometimes I just make stuff up.

How would you describe the difference in the experience of winning a Pulitzer (for The Kentucky Cycle at Intiman Theatre) versus winning a Tony Award?

My experience of the two awards—22 years apart—I think it very much has to be taken in the historical context. Typically speaking, I think while both awards are, of course, highly coveted, the Pulitzer carries a caché that’s not associated with commercial success. Whereas, the Tony very much is, being voted on by a select group within the Broadway community.

For me, you have to keep in mind that when I won the Pulitzer in 1992, it was the first time that any play had won without a New York production first. So it was quite a departure from tradition, kind of recognition of a long overdue acknowledgment of the fact that theater in America had changed, and that New York was no longer the only place in which new work was being done. As you might imagine, this was somewhat controversial in its own way, as all precedent setting events are, and certainly not always welcomed by the New York critics. So there was a lot around that that was wonderful, and there was a lot around that that was less than wonderful.

In terms of the Tony Award in 2014, there was none of that. The play was an unqualified success artistically in terms of the previous awards that swept the awards season and won national awards even prior to its arrival in New York, including the inaugural Edward Kennedy Award and the Steinberg Award. It was an absolute commercial success on Broadway, it broke two box office records. So I felt very embraced by the theatrical community. Although, no play emerges from New York without criticism. It was a very different experience.

How has Seattle influenced your writing?

Well, I have lived in Seattle for the last 17 years. I raised my family here. So many of the key events in my personal and family life have happened while I’ve lived here. It would be very hard to separate out ways in which Seattle hasn’t figured in my writing.

Certainly and obviously, I have had homes at different times with different theaters. Initially, it was the Intiman Theater when Warner Shook was running it. Linda Hartzell at the Seattle Children’s Theater has always welcomed me. I’ve done two plays there, and we’re in conversations about a third play. And then in the last five or six years, I have had a very close relationship with the Seattle Repertory Theatre. The Great Society and All the Way will make the second and third productions and plays of mine there, and I feel extremely fortunate and very grateful to have had that kind of production support from these individuals and these landmark theaters here.

Beyond that, Seattle does theater well, and always has historically. There’s a very talented pool of artists, designers and theater makers here. For a city its size, it really punches above its weight in terms of culture. You know, I love to go to On the Boards and see whose dance company is in town. I love to go to the opera. I love to see what other theaters are doing. And I think maybe most importantly of all, this natural environment, this combination of freshwater, and salt water, and mountains, and the green of this landscape is such a source of renewal and joy for me. John Boorman, the director, once said that one of the keys of happiness is living somewhere where the outer landscape reflects your inner landscape. And I think that Seattle and the Pacific Northwest do that for me.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I’m really excited about having these two plays being performed together by the same company. It’s really, this is such an unusual kind of event, particularly in the national theater landscape where less is, alas, all too more. The Rep has gone out on a tremendous limb here financially, artistically, and is succeeding beyond everybody’s wildest imagination. So I’m just so grateful to the Seattle Rep and so sorry that (the Rep’s departed former artistic director) Jerry Manning can’t be present to be participating in this.

The Great Society
Dec 5–Jan 4, Seattle Repertory Theatre, $22–$127

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