Making History, Part Two
Director Bill Rauch on bringing LBJ to the stage in 'All the Way'
When Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch began a new program in which contemporary playwrights would explore moments of change in American history, he knew he wanted Robert Schenkkan on board. In fact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Kentucky Cycle was the first writer he approached. Schenkkan said yes and used to opportunity to create a new play about Lyndon Johnson's first year in the White House. Here, Rauch discusses All the Way's genesis in OSF's American Revolutions cycle of history plays, what makes the play and LBJ Shakespearean, and why the play matters in the current presidential election year. All the Way runs through Nov. 4 at OSF. For more information, visit www.osfashland.org.
Austin Chronicle: When Robert Schenkkan told you that LBJ was the figure he wanted to focus on in his play for American Revolutions, what went through your head?
Bill Rauch: I was thrilled, because, to be honest, this series that's become American Revolutions, when I originally conceived it, I imagined it being a series of plays about presidents. Then my colleague Alison Carey very wisely said, "Let's widen the lens in how we look at American history and look at it not only through presidents." And, you know, presidents are very different from kings, in terms of Shakespeare's history cycle, so she, in talking with a lot of writers and historians and donors really widened the lens of American Revolutions to be moments of change. But when Robert suggested LBJ, I was thrilled – just for him as a Texan, you know, the personal connection and the passion and because it got back to the founding impulse of the whole series, which was, "Let's actually look at one of our presidents." So I was very pleased.
AC: Personally, it felt very much like a Shakespearean history play. I always imagined Kennedy through Johnson through Nixon as the history cycle that Shakespeare would have written if he'd lived in our time, but I wasn't sure that even though those men strike me as Shakespearean figures, what their drama would feel like in an actual play. But All the Way felt very much to me like an authentic history play in the Shakespearean sense. Does it feel authentic in that way to you?
BR: Absolutely. And I know exactly what you mean. It was a landslide victory in "64, so where's the drama? But I think Robert so deeply taps into not only LBJ's desire for power but his fear of humiliation and the man within the unbelievably skilled politician and the bully. Everything that he was, Robert finds the humanity so actively. I think that's what makes it Shakespearean. The background is the historical sweep, but the character pulls you in, and you have that thrill, like when you watch any great character on stage: "Could I ever be that naked, could I ever expose myself that directly? Could I ever manipulate somebody that much?" Everything that he does so brilliantly as a character, we just immediately connect [with]; we're drawn to it as human beings because it's larger than life but it's so real, so completely real.
AC: Did you as a director have any concerns going in as to how to make the piece work?
BR: Listen, one of the reasons that I was so excited to commission Robert, and I'm so happy he said yes, and I'm so happy he wrote this, is this is what we want to be doing, new work that's Shakespearean in scale and scope and spirit. So often in this country new work is two to four actors in a play. It's a small story. So to create work that is epic, that is political, that's a large canvas, like the Shakespeare history plays that we do outdoors or other classics we do, that's what we should be doing as a classical theatre that's commissioning a lot of new work with a resident company of actors. I love the fact that Robert is now going to write Part Two with the actors that created Part One. Whoever ends up performing Part Two, of course, he's going to have these actors in his heart and in his head. And that's how the great classics of certainly Western dramatic literature were written. They were written for companies of actors in collaboration with companies of actors. There are so many things about depth of company and a playwright getting to know voices.
But you asked about challenges in approaching the play directorially. Certainly, a lot of the play takes place on the phone – you know, it's LBJ talking to people on the phone. So, sure, I have the: How dramatic is a phone conversation? And how can I bring variety to all these phone conversations? That was something that I definitely struggled with but was excited about, too. Robert had the great insight in terms of the witnesses. He wrote into the text the witnesses. [These are actors who sit onstage watching the action when they aren't directly involved in a scene.] It's just so theatrical. You've constantly got the tension between people whose characters could never hear what was going on sitting and listening. The interplay between black and white people, men and women, older and younger generations – the people witnessing have a different perspective than the characters as they're enacted in the middle of the arena, and I think that tension between 2012 and 1963-1964, is one of the things that makes it fascinating. Even though they're dressed in period clothing, you know that they're not the character watching, they're the actor watching, so it automatically brings up a lot about the tension between then and now in very provocative ways.
AC: I know Robert had said that it was very important to him that this be done in an election year and he talked about it as a meditation on power and morality, so what makes this for you a play that's not only about the past but about the present and even the future?
BR: You know, I'm fairly well educated when it comes to history and politics. I'm not a huge history junkie, I knew a fair amount coming into this, and my perspective on where we sit in terms of party alliances and regional alliances and national politics has completely shifted because of working on this production. To me, the whole American Revolutions series and this piece in particular, it's about shedding light on how we got where we are, where we are now, but also where we might go. And to watch something like Johnson pushing through the civil rights legislation and how that shifted political alliances in terms of the South, to me it raises: What new things can happen, will happen, should happen, might happen that can create other balances in the future? People say, "Everything's always the same," and what I find so chilling and moving in this piece is how everything is the same and everything is completely different at the same time. So for me, not just as an artist but as a citizen, it provokes a lot of new possibilities in my thinking, frankly. To see just how things are both the same from a human point of view and very, very different on the political landscape.
AC: Why do you think that LBJ has not wound up as a dramatic character as either Nixon or Jack Kennedy?
BR: I think he was waiting for Robert Schenkkan to write his play.