Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan (@RobertSchenkkan) has had a long and distinguished career in theatre, TV and film. And at 61 he’s not slowing down one bit.

For the theatre, Schenkkan’s latest project is the epic, two play treatment of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, premiered by Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Part 1, ALL THE WAY (2012), which was commissioned by OSF’s American Revolutions program and covers Johnson’s first year in office, started in Ashland and then went to Boston and New York, picking up numerous awards along the way, including a Tony for best new play. In this age of small casts and attention spans, for a big history play to take Broadway by storm is impressive. It’s also being made into an HBO film directed by Steven Spielberg.

Part 2, THE GREAT SOCIETY (2014), was commissioned by Seattle Rep and launched this summer in Ashland. It covers Johnson’s second term from 1964-8. If all goes well, GREAT SOCIETY will also be Broadway bound in the not too distant future – possibly including Bryan Cranston again as Johnson.

But in the meantime, one of the most exciting theatre events anywhere in the US in the 2014-15 season is bearing down on Seattle and involves both plays in the cycle. Starting this Friday, Seattle Rep is bringing the original OSF productions of ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY to the Jet City to play in rep through January 4. ALL THE WAY will open first, followed by THE GREAT SOCIETY on December 5. The two will then run simultaneously for a month. So if you’re the marathon type, come see both shows for a single day six hour immersion in the kind of live experience only the theatre can provide. It’s a big story on the big stage – and it’s already selling out.

I caught up with this extremely articulate American playwright recently to talk about the Austin connection, Johnson, the contemporary theatre landscape and more.

The man behind the curtain.  Robert Schenkkan.
Robert Schenkkan.

Can you talk about the Austin/LBJ connection?

There very much is an Austin connection. My father knew LBJ professionally. He was hired by the University of Texas to set up the first public television and radio stations in Texas and the Southwest. His first job was to get LBJ’s permission, because it would have been a direct competitor with his own television/radio empire, the source of his (LBJ’s) somewhat controversial fortune. And I am pleased to say he not only gave his permission but of course he would go on to sign into law the bill that creates the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

So in my house initially LBJ was a hero, he was on the side of the angels, particularly coming from North Carolina where my father had been, where the legislature had expressly refused to make funds available for this communist concept of public television.

During the ’64 campaign I was 11 years old, I remember it vividly. I did volunteer work at the LBJ headquarters and I had stickers on my books. I got to stay up late and watch the returns and like all of us I saw it as a very manichean battle, and LBJ’s triumph wasn’t just an electoral triumph, it was a moral triumph.

Two years later when troop levels in Viet Nam had increased from 25,000 to 270,000, my own oldest brother was now of draft age – I had a very different feeling about LBJ.

Years later as an artist with a young family trying to make a living in this country, I became increasingly aware of the services and programs that were helpful, and many of them had their origins in the Great Society, so I had yet another feeling about him.

And now having spent the better part of five years studying LBJ and researching LBJ and talking to people who knew him, I have a very complicated feeling about the man. If you could strip out Viet Nam, he’d be on Mt. Rushmore. But of course you can’t. In fact, the more I’ve read about Viet Nam, the less slack I feel inclined to cut him. The lies started almost from day one. It’s tragic in the Greek sense. He knew very early on that Viet Nam was unwinnable, there were plenty of people to make that argument, and he himself believed it. But he somehow couldn’t see a way around it. The fear of being perceived as weak, being soft on communism, being the President who “lost Asia” seemed insurmountable in a way that is really hard to square with this extraordinary politician.

The best I can come up with is that he thought there was a short term game to be played. If he could just get them to the table he could make a deal – because he could make a deal with anybody. So it was just a question of whistling past the graveyard as it were, just getting past this sticky period where he’d be lying to Congress and lying to the American people. But they would make a deal and it would all go away and he could do what he really cared about, which was domestic legislation. Of course, that was premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the North Vietnamese were about and what their objectives were.

You went to college in Austin.

I did. I went to the University of Texas and graduated in 1975. I was a plan 2 major, which was their honors arts and sciences program, and a drama department major. I graduated with a BA in drama, and then I went to Cornell University and got a masters in theatre acting and spent the better part of the next ten years supporting myself and then my family as an actor who also wrote.

Do you have an association with UT today?

Yes, I think of the University of Texas very fondly. I go back regularly, I participate in the department, I’ve created scholarships. I got a very good education there.

People sometimes refer to Austin as the Portland of the south. Or vice versa.

It is certainly a blue bastion in an otherwise red state – a kind of Fort Apache.

Do you think of yourself as a Texan?

Yes.

What’s it like to make epic theatre today in the US?

I didn’t set out to write epic theatre. I think the plays have their own organic size, and you don’t honor that at your own peril. When I started to write THE KENTUCKY CYCLE, I didn’t initially envision it being as big as it was, and it just grew over time as the story revealed itself to me. This was a happy accident, because I do love epic theatre even though my personal experience of that had been fairly limited to Shakespeare, the War of the Roses, the Greeks, the RSC’s NICHOLAS NICKLEBY.

I certainly love the ambition, the scope, the immersive quality of a theatre experience like that. I personally find it very pleasing and very satisfying. I wrote KENTUCKY CYCLE and in the interim I’ve written seven or eight plays and countless films and television shows. With LBJ, the subject dictated the size. Form follows function I guess.

I was commissioned by OSF as part of their American Revolutions project and pretty quickly knew I was going to write about LBJ. But then the question was, which party of that story? There’s so much. I could have written a play about his first House campaign, the young politician on the make. You get a glimpse there in the young man of who he would become. I could have written a play about his first Senatorial campaign, the one that was stolen from him in the final moments with a handful of fake votes. Or I could have written about his second Senatorial campaign – the one he won by stealing it in the last minutes with a handful of fake votes.

I settled on the first term (the accidental President) because it had such a beautiful inherently dramatic arc to it, this one year November to November, with so much happening in that year that it really felt to me like a hinge point in American history, with a real before and after.

It was always in my mind that you could tell that story and it would be a wonderfully satisfying evening. But it would be swell to continue and tell the second term. ALL THE WAY is drama and THE GREAT SOCIETY is tragedy. Seattle Rep very graciously gave me that opportunity when they commissioned the second play.

Was that after you had already completed ALL THE WAY?

It has been started but not produced yet. I had done readings and workshops and there was a buzz around it. People were excited. Jerry Manning (former Seattle Rep Artistic Director) was a real political aficionado and loved this time period, he like myself was a child of the 60’s. He was very excited about this project, so it’s sad that he’s not here to participate.

Both plays are fast-moving. On paper, there may be just a few lines in many scenes, but so much happens in the ongoing rush. The story seems to ignite in the audience’s head. Do you see the audience as bringing a lot of the story in memory?

It’s a balancing act. I typically write a pretty terse, muscular line, and here I’m covering a tremendous amount of territory, and that’s having cut out so much. I’ve left so many things on the cutting room floor out of this play because there just wasn’t time. I’m very mindful of the experience of the audience at this event, so there’s a certain kind of pressure there to be succinct.

I do think that some of this material is familiar to the audience and there’s no need to belabor what they know. But much of it isn’t, or much of it is misremembered. It’s pretty interesting to me that I myself am so much more familiar with the Viet Nam story (64-68) than I am with The Great Society. So there’s a bit of reclamation here in terms of the story. All of this was going on at the same time, and all of this was affecting each other. None of this was happening in a vacuum, and you can’t understand one without the other.

I get people who say I’m giving them too much detail, and then they turn around in the next sentence and complain I’m not giving them enough detail. They complain I put too much in, and then the next sentence is “and he left out this and this and this”. You feel like you can’t win. At the end of the day I have to make my own decision about what I think is important given the thematic concern I have. I’m not just here to give a history lesson. I’m interested in certain ideas that I think are expressed in all of their challenging complexity in the telling of this story. That’s what I’m interested in.

Can you give a few examples?

I’m very interested in the acquisition and use of Presidential power in American politics, and the moral challenges inherent in that. I’m very interested in the necessity of compromise and negotiation in a representative democracy and the very difficult choices that one must make in terms of where you draw your line about “I’ll compromise on this but I won’t compromise on that.” We demand so much from our Presidents and are disappointed so quickly in them that it’s an almost impossible job.

I think it’s useful to step back and look at this time when things got done – a lot of things got done. Some people feel too much was done, and that it was thrown together and not thought out. And some things, of course, got done that are terrible. How do you weigh that? How do you parse that? What are the lessons to be taken away from that? Do you really want a Lyndon Johnson as a President? Is he a good President or a bad President? How do you feel about that? I think there are really interesting questions that get posed in this material, and that’s what I’m about – posing questions not providing answers.

In the plays and the Johnson era, government was doing stuff. In our own time, rolling back government seems to be the dominant narrative.

That’s what makes Obamacare so interesting and so partisan as an issue. It is definitely a counter move against that prevailing trend. It is a statement that yes, this is something that government can do and should do. This is why the Republicans fought it so hard. By every measurable standard a year in, it would appear that this is indeed something the American people want and feel strongly about.

How do you think about the audience when you are creating these plays?

Ultimately I write to please myself, to write something that I think is interesting, that is compelling. Which is not to say I don’t care about the audience’s experience. I do, and I work very hard to craft that. Much of this work is theoretical in the writing and designing of the play, and where the rubber hits the road is in the preview period or in an early production at OSF when I sit in the back of the house and watch the audience – not the play – to see what their experience with this is.

When do they lean forward, when do they sit back? When do they get restless, when do they get still? What is their response to that? I pay very close attention to that and I make adjustments and changes predicated on their response, which is not always what I anticipate it will be. It’s a very illuminating process. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m not in terms of what I anticipate. But I do try to take that into account.

Does the size of the theatre space you’re working with doing anything special for you? Do you prefer writing for a big stage?

I’m more interested in the relationship between the performance space and the audience. What does that feel like? For example, the Intiman Theatre here in town I think is the best performing space in Seattle, and it’s similar to the Bowmer Theatre at OSF. The audience is higher than the stage, so they’re looking down. It has that operating room feel. The audience is spread out around the stage, even though it’s a big house in Ashland, but you don’t feel way far away from the stage.

I care very much about the acoustics of the stage and the ability to tweak the acoustics electronically. How well can you hear? I personally am beginning to lose my hearing so I really care about my audience’s experience. And much of my audience is my peer group.

In New York we were in a very big house (the Neil Simon), and that’s not a house you would typically put a play into, it’s typically thought of as a musical theatre house. Interestingly, because you only have the one balcony, and it’s not way far back, you have a more intimate feeling there than you do in many smaller theatres in New York, so it actually turned out to be a good space for us.

We were offered another space that was smaller, but it was a very long theatre and you felt very far away. It just didn’t feel as satisfying in terms of the sightlines for our set. So we actually rejected what would have been the more standard theatre in New York, because it was smaller, for a theatre that was larger, because the sightlines were better and because it felt organically better for the play.

Is it increasingly hard to get a theatre in New York?

The trick in a straight play is to get one of the smaller theatres. That’s the hard thing. There are fewer of them than there have ever been because musical theatre producers have now taken to moving a long-running show which feels like it is nearing the end of its run, they’ll take it out of one of the big Winter Garden-like theatres and put it into a small space that typically had previously been used for drama, because then you can sell it out and extend the life of the show. It’s great for musicals, but it’s terrible for legitimate theatre. There are fewer and fewer legitimate theatres in New York.

What gives you the most pleasure in terms of interacting with the audience?

I enjoy standing in the back of the house and watching the audience through certain parts of these plays, or at the end of the show as they come out and hearing their conversations as they leave. The subsequent anecdotal evidence that gets relayed to me I do find interesting, particularly if the person knew LBJ or was part of this history. Several of the Civil Rights activists who were mentioned in the play came and saw it, and it was very meaningful to me that these people felt that I had done them justice, that I had gotten this right. You worry about that a lot.

I’m working within limitations, I’m not Bob Caro, I’m not producing thousand page books one every six years where you have the leisure to stretch out and examine these events and their minutiae. I have two hours and 40 minutes to tell my story. Not only that, but it needs to be compelling and surprising and entertaining. So a lot of things get left out.

And of course I am not a historian, I’m a dramatist, so I change the story. I change events. I write scenes that never happened, I write dialogue that certainly was never said, I put people together who weren’t necessarily together in this moment because I’m creating a certain kind of story with a certain intention that is very different than a historian or scholar. And I worry sometimes, will that be understood?

By and large, the feedback has been almost universally positive. I think from the LBJ camp, people have qualms about this and that, but they feel it’s by and large a very fair presentation of LBJ.

Can you say anything about any future projects on your list?

I sold the television rights to ALL THE WAY to HBO and Steven Spielberg. So I am just about to turn in the first draft of that, and we hope to be in production next year. That’s the main thing past getting THE GREAT SOCIETY where I want it to be and hopefully into New York in the next year as well. More likely early 2016.

I have a production at the Denver Theatre Center of a new musical called THE TWELVE that I did the book and co-lyrics for. That happens in March. And then I’m looking at a variety of feature projects and I will choose one in the next couple of weeks. I have ideas for other plays. I owe Denver Theatre Center a commission.

Theatre is an inherently activist form. You can bring people together for a communal, witnessing experience in a way you can’t on the big or small screens. Does that aspect have any resonance for you?

Absolutely. I think of myself as a very political writer. That’s not exclusively what I do, but I think all of my work is informed by my political sensibility, whether it’s explicit in the work or not. I’m more interested in asking good questions than providing answers – more provocation than lecture. I’ve been doing this a long time, and the pleasure of this shared experience that is absolutely unique, that only happens once in this particular way and will never be replicated again is still intensely pleasurable and still surprising, still delightful in that way. And for that I’m very grateful.

Do you see a fair amount of theatre by other writers?

I try to see as much as I can. I never see everything. I’m never seeing enough. Tonight I will probably go down to ACT and see Sandbox Theatre’s radio performance. Sandbox is a theatrical commune that I’ve just become part of. Wednesday I’ll see part 1 of ANGELS, the revival at Intiman. And then I go to Ashland. So in the three days I’m here I’m seeing two very different pieces.

Now that THE GREAT SOCIETY has been on (at OSF), are you doing much additional work on the script?

Yes, I’m headed down to Ashland for an all day meeting with director Bill Rauch and dramaturg Tom Bryant to discuss exactly what the next step should be in the evolution of the text and design. Based on the conclusions we reach, I will begin revisions which hopefully we’ll be able to implement most of in the Seattle production. The play is not done.

OSF seems to be the perfect place to germinate large plays like these.

Certainly large size plays, yes, multi-parters not so much. They seem interestingly skittish about producing multi-parters in the same season. In separate seasons yes, but not in the same season. Of course they have a mission to do the entire canon every 15 years. But if you’re writing a big play with a big cast, yes they are a perfect place for that. They’re probably the last remaining true repertory theatre in the country.

I have been lobbying for decades for them to do a revival of THE KENTUCKY CYCLE on that outdoor stage. They’ve never done it, and I think it would be magnificent in that space. It’s a tough sell.

Are there other theatres like OSF that offer a similar development process?

Denver Theatre Center is doing very good work. They are very committed to new work. They commission a lot of new plays, and they produce a lot of the plays they commission – that’s really the key. My relationship with the Seattle Children’s Theatre has been very gratifying over the years. I’ve done two world premieres there and we’re in discussion about a third. The productions are very good, a consistently high level of quality.

If THE GREAT SOCIETY goes to New York, would Bryan Cranston be in it?

I’d love that. It’s kind of a no-brainer and it certainly would make it easy. We got a very good review from the New York Times of the OSF production, so there’s a lot of interest. The original Broadway producer is on, I think his primary investor has already indicated she is willing to commit. Bryan has expressed interest, and he’ll read the play this fall and let us know whether he’s interested in returning to New York. I would love to work with Bryan again, I had a great experience with him, and I think of him as a friend not just a colleague. But I don’t think it depends on Bryan’s participation, I think we can take the play to New York even without Bryan, because the play is now a thing itself, and there’s sufficient interest. You would still need a star.

Robert, thank you so much for your time!

Catch ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY at Seattle Rep from November 14 – January 4.