All the Way With LBJ's Play

Bill Rauch talks staging 'All the Way' and 'The Great Society'

In two years, Robert Schenkkan's LBJ drama All the Way premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; moved to Broadway with Bryan Cranston starring; broke box-office records and won a slew of awards, including two Tonys; and was picked up by HBO for a film version. Now a sequel, The Great Society, is up and running at OSF.

President Johnson (Jack Willis) dictates a letter to the parents of a soldier lost in the fighting in Vietnam. (Courtesy of Jenny Graham)

Since the Chronicle was there in Ashland when All the Way opened, and spoke with both Schenkkan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Kentucky Cycle who grew up in Austin, and OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, who commissioned Schenkkan to write All the Way for OSF's American Revolutions cycle of history plays, it only made sense to return for the opening of its sequel. While there, we checked back in with Rauch regarding the astounding and unlikely success of All the Way and its impact on the development of The Great Society, which will close in Ashland on Nov. 1 and re-open two weeks later at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it will run in rep with All the Way through Jan. 4. (For more information, visit www.osfashland.org and www.seattlerep.org.) We spoke in Rauch's office at OSF.

Austin Chronicle: When we spoke back in 2012, nobody knew what was likely to happen with All the Way. Robert Schenkkan felt very proud of the script, and the production seemed in a really great place, but in terms of the future of the show, all you knew was that Seattle Repertory Theatre had commissioned a sequel. What kind of life All the Way might have after its OSF run was very much up in the air. I've a couple of opportunities to talk to the playwright about his sense of that journey from Ashland to Cambridge to Broadway, but I'm curious to hear how it felt to you.

Bill Rauch: You know, it was thrilling, the whole ride. The connection between the piece and our audiences was so electric that we knew something special was happening, and we had keen interest from so many producers around the country, in terms of our nonprofit peers – theaters that I would love the show to be performed in and for those audiences. But Robert was really clear that he wanted the play to be in New York if at all possible, and he had the relationship with Jeffrey Richards, the producer, and I was really happy to be invited to go along on the journey as director, because obviously I really believe in Robert's writing and feel like I understand it, you know, and I'm a good interpreter of it. It's not that I think I can direct anything, but when I feel like I understand something, I want to stick with it, protect it, and help nurture it. The only sadness for me in the whole deal was not being able to continue with the same cast, because I believe in our company of actors. Jack Willis [who played Johnson in Ashland] is extraordinary. I do get the economic rules of Broadway and why a large-cast historical drama needs a star if it's going to be in a commercial venture, and Bryan Cranston is, of course, a brilliant actor and a complete gentleman, but I never stopped missing the OSF actors, even with the great adventures in Cambridge and New York. So those are some quick reflections.

AC: Did the electricity that you felt with the audiences in Ashland continued in the other cities?

Bill Rauch (Courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

BR: Absolutely. And that goes back to: Robert's written something really important. Because we have very generous audiences, but they're also very discerning audiences, and they have very strong tastes and good tastes. So I felt very confident in the play and the production based on what happened here, but there's still that [feeling that] maybe it won't land as strongly. But then in Cambridge, again, audiences leaping to their feet, wildly enthusiastic, very engaged. And I'm sure that Bob has talked to you about this, but the thing that I loved the most, I think, of everything, was how the play entered the national dialogue outside of the arts circles, outside of theatre, that in terms of reappraising Johnson's legacy, in terms of the role of government, in terms of reflections on partisan politics today and maybe issues that have their roots back in events 50 years ago, politicians and policy makers saw the play, argued about the play, wrote about the play, and it wasn't just in the arts pages. And that's exciting for us, because we believe what we do makes a difference, but to get such vivid proof of that was really gratifying.

AC: The timing of the original production could hardly have been better, because so many people wanted to talk about the civil rights act on the 50th anniversary, and the play was there for that, and I have felt that same impact that you talk about. Then there's the question of following through on that – Henry IV, Part 1, now we're into Henry IV, Part 2! Has it even crossed your mind to think how the second play would have come together – from both the playwriting perspective and the production perspective – if All the Way had not had the prominence and attention that it had? Has that attention added to the expectations for what the second play needs to be?

BR: No doubt. But on the other hand, I think that, just based on what All the Way meant to our audience here in Ashland, I think it would have been a really difficult ticket to get, no matter what. In other words, the pent-up excitement about the project already existed. I think the play having the success it did in Cambridge and then in New York and the Tony and the box-office records added to that, but already there was such enthusiasm from our audience and such eagerness to see the next chapter. And it's been interesting, you know, because of course All the Way is more of a feel-good story, because it's a story largely of triumph. This is the more tragic story.

AC: And the part of the story that more people tend to think about when they think of LBJ.

BR: That's right. But because of the emotional investment in All the Way and the fact that the majority of people seeing The Great Society did see All the Way, either here or in New York, I think that different understanding of Johnson is carried into this play. Once again, Robert's writing works at all levels of age in the audience. There are the people who vividly remember the events from their own adulthoods or late childhoods, the people who know somewhat about the events but don't personally remember them, and then there are the young people who know almost nothing about the events who are learning it all for the first time and are shocked, shocked by it all.

But you know, as we were opening and right after we opened [The Great Society], there was the discussion of "Are we at war in Iraq or not?" and the Ferguson events were going on, and it felt like scenes from the play were happening on our national television screens. Again, there's new relevance – as there should be with a great play – there's new relevance every passing week, every passing month. It's remarkable. And the same thing happened with All the Way: 2012, 2013, 2014 – all three years, there were things that made the story feel vital and urgent, because I think he's getting at big American themes that we wrestle with as a country, and those themes aren't going away.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Kenajuan Bentley), Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Peter Frechette) and President Johnson (Jack Willis) confer. (Ensemble, gallery, Richard Elmore, Wayne T. Carr, Jonathan Haugen) (Courtesy of Jenny Graham)

AC: And as before, and as always with the person in the White House, there's virtually no way that the commander-in-chief can turn that doesn't inspire criticism. If you call it war, you're criticized. If you don't call it war, you're criticized. If you try to be patient and not act hastily, you're criticized.

BR: And if you take strong action … yeah.

AC: We were also watching the Ken Burns film of The Roosevelts last week, and there was so much of that in there, too, so you see this entire century spectrum of what presidents have had to go through, and I think that the medium of the stage – as it was with Shakespeare's kings – is such a powerful place to experience that.

BR: I agree heartily.

AC: So when it came time to approach this second chapter, was there anything, either from having read the script or from the productions of All the Way, that you knew you wanted to make clear in telling this part of Johnson's story?

BR: Well, it was so joyful, first of all, to be back in the room with the actors who had originated All the Way in the first place. Ten of the 17 are the same, and most of the other seven are long-term members of the company, even though they weren't part of All the Way the first time around. And we had so much shared vocabulary – Tom [Bryant] the dramaturg, Robert [Schenkkan], and myself, all the designers, and then all these actors, so we were building on all that shared vocabulary. It's a different play, obviously, with a different emotional tenor, but we were definitely building on the work. And I think we all knew going in that we wanted to start where All the Way left off and then have it go to surprising places. That was the goal. I'm not sure if I'm answering your question.

AC: What do you feel that you learned about Johnson in All the Way that you wanted to make sure came through in The Great Society?

BR: His genuine commitment to making the world a better place. I think you're right that most people think about the tragedy of Vietnam, and they feel anger and grief about Johnson's policies, but what he actually did achieve and what he was not able to achieve because of Vietnam and how those programs were rooted in such a deep, beautiful impulse to make our country better, that was the most important thing to me. And we still wrestle with that, because the Great Society was so complex and so all-encompassing, with so many programs, and you can't dramatize all of that, so that's been a struggle.

AC: Knowing of that downward trajectory in The Great Society, was it difficult finding places to keep that idea of Johnson's desire to make the world a better place?

BR: That's definitely the balancing act Robert was trying to strike and that I'm trying to strike as a director. A little goes a long way in terms of rooting it in that, so I hope we have. I hope you'll feel we have. But that was definitely a struggle. Just on a very practical level, All the Way charts 11 months, and The Great Society charts four years.

AC: And you didn't want to do a 12-hour Great Society?

BR: Exactly! I had audience members ask me just the other day: "What about Part Three? What about the years on the ranch at the end of his life?" I'm sure Robert could write a beautiful play. It would be different. It would be a very, very different tone.

AC: Seattle will have an opportunity to see both plays in rep …

BR: I'm so excited about it.

AC: Is there anything about that that represents a new challenge for you as a director?

BR: Sure. It was interesting, working on the design of The Great Society, working on the casting of The Great Society, I constantly had an eye on the two plays being co-produced in Seattle. I was grateful for that pressure, frankly. Sometimes some of my colleagues would say, "Can we just focus on this play here in Ashland?" and I would say, "No, actually, because we know they're going to be done in rep in Seattle and we hope that many years from now people will want to produce these two plays in rep, so we have a responsibility to solve as many problems as we can for Seattle and for other future productions." So it really drove our process. As it is in Seattle, 16 actors will be shared between the two plays, and then there is a 17th cast member in each play. Roy Wilkins, the older African-American leader in All the Way, does not have a counterpart character in The Great Society. James Bevel, as a young activist in The Great Society, does not have a counterpart in All the Way, so we have an older African-American man in the first play and a younger African-American man in the second. That's the only place where they don't line up. And we tried to figure that out, but ultimately we had to go with what each story needed. But beyond that, everybody is in both plays.

AC: I've now had a chance to see three of your productions in the American Revolutions series – The Great Society will be my fourth. How do you feel All the Way and The Great Society fulfill your dream of what the American Revolutions initiative was intended to do?

BR: They're great expressions of the founding impulse of the program, right? We wanted the plays to dramatize moments of change to better shed light on our present and our future, and man oh man, do these two Schenkkan plays do that. We also wanted to create work that was Shakespearean in scale and spirit, and Robert's plays, they're big-cast plays, and theaters that want to take them on need to hire a bunch of actors to tell these stories. It's exactly what we founded the program to do, so I'm absolutely thrilled.

I mean, we wanted as much aesthetic diversity and diversity of topic as possible in the cycle, and we're getting that. We want to keep getting earlier time periods. Of course, a lot of writers are attracted to writing about the last 50 years – in fact, we're going into a reading this afternoon of an American Revolutions play about another Texan – two Texans: Norma McCorvey of Roe v. Wade and Sarah Weddington. You know, we've had some that have gone into earlier time periods, but I feel that's some unfulfilled promise of the program. So as we look at the last batch of commissions in the next three or four years, we want to get as much … We deliberately commissioned a piece on the Civil War, for instance, from Dominique Morisseau, who's an African American writer, because we feel like that perspective, the African-American perspective on the Civil War, is one that is really missing from the national discourse. So we want to keep doing that. But I really feel like Robert's plays really successfully capture the spirit of the program. Very precisely.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

All the Way, The Great Society, Bill Rauch, Robert Schenkkan, LBJ, Bryan Cranston, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Jack Willis

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