Go big or go home | One week after opening, Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of ALL THE WAY by Robert Schenkkan sets all time box office record at Seattle Repertory Theatre

12.13.2014 UPDATE Reflections after seeing both shows at Seattle Rep on the first marathon day

8.3.2014 My review of THE GREAT SOCIETY at Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer

You heard it here first: Get ready for that big whooshing sound that says SOLD OUT! Robert Schenkkan’s epic LBJ plays ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY at Seattle Rep are just about to ignite and become what every theatre and playwright dreams of – a full blown cultural phenomenon that captivates a city’s population and rises to the very top of the national must see list.

The man behind the curtain.  Robert Schenkkan.
The man with the stories: Robert Schenkkan.

It’s not a Seahawks game, or a Fleetwood Mac concert, or a marathon performance of Wagner’s entire RING cycle. But it’s turning out to be just as popular in Seattle.

One week after opening, Robert Schenkkan’s play ALL THE WAY, which covers LBJ’s first year in office, has already laid low the former Seattle Rep box office record. It’s impressive, but we’re just getting started.

As LBJ himself might have remarked in trademark blunt style: You ain’t seen shit.

Meaning – the show is only beginning to build. After uniform rave reviews and a few weeks of visibility all over the Seattle media (my Google alert on the show seems to crank out multiple emails an hour at this point), ALL THE WAY is just about to go completely, unreservedly, irreversibly nuclear. And then THE GREAT SOCIETY, part 2 of the cycle (which was sold out all summer in Ashland BTW), will follow suit.

But this blockbuster hit didn’t pop out of left field with no warning. It’s the result of a perfect storm of factors (some years in the making) that have all come together to create one of the most exciting theatrical events Seattle has ever seen.

Meanwhile this thing has major legs and is going to sell out. And if you don’t have tickets yet? You’re taking a risk. If you wait for the moment of total saturation, when you start hearing about the plays from your mailman, bike mechanic, New Seasons checkout gal or commenters on OregonLive.com, it will be too late. So don’t wait. That rhymes.

Remember the moment in Star Wars when the Millenium Falcon hits lightspeed and the stars streak past? We’re just before that moment. So put on the seat belts. The big sonic boom you’ll hear any day now from up north is not a jet lifting off from Boeing field, it’s the sound of what already looks well on its way to becoming one of the most successful and engaging productions of a serious play (or in this case, two plays) in years – and possibly American theatre history.

That uncontrollable whoosh we’re just about to see is what happens when an entire city suddenly focuses in on a must see event. Except this time it’s not a football game or a rock concert. It’s a play. A great playwright reminds us just how powerful live theatre can be. And given the fare that plays on a lot of our stages a lot of the time – we need some reminding.

Luke and Chewie hang on for their lives as Robert Schenkkan's LBJ epic hits lightspeed.
Luke and Chewie hang on for their lives as Robert Schenkkan’s LBJ epic hits lightspeed. They have tickets. Do you?

We have been warning you for quite some time now that something wicked (good) was this way coming.

We tried to convey how big it would be. We sounded the alarm repeatedly. We twittered and posted and pinged and liked. We boarded up the windows, called the kids inside and made sure we had a basement with enough canned goods to last us through a multi week siege. We told you something was coming and you didn’t want to miss out. We even gave you a lengthy interview (in which you can learn, among other things, why Robert Schenkkan calls Austin, Texas “a kind of Fort Apache”) so you could read all about it. And now – voila – it’s here.

This kid should be watching theatre instead of TV.  But you get the idea.
“They’re heeeere.” This kid should be watching a Robert Schenkkan play instead of TV. But you get the idea.

Did you listen? Apparently some of you did. Because one week after opening, ALL THE WAY, which is part one of Schenkkan’s massive study of the presidency of LBJ, has already broken the box office record at Seattle Rep.

We repeat: A three hour history play about an American President has just attracted more interest from Seattleites than any other play Seattle Rep has ever done. EVER.

And if the box office record is a wee bit broken already, after only a week, you can be darn sure the thing will be downright shattered by the time both plays conclude in January. What seems likely is that both of these plays – each on their own – are going to be bigger sellers than any other play in Seattle Rep history. Whaaaaaaaat?

So, yeah. We got a bit of a situation here.

As the whoosh kicks in.  One fight Seattle's greens are going to lose....
As the whoosh kicks in. One fight Seattle’s greens are going to lose….

What does this mean? A number of things.

In the spirit of addressing the most pressing concerns first, it means that if you don’t have tickets and want to take part in not just regional but national theatre history being made in the US of A, you had better get on the horn to the engine room or start kayaking up the coast. Pronto.

"I...I forgot to get tickets.  I was going to.  I'm sorry!  Please!"
“I…I forgot to get tickets. I was going to. I’m sorry! Please!”

You heard it here first and you’ll no doubt hear it again (way, way too many times): The double header all star production of OSF’s ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY at Seattle Rep is one of the biggest and most important (and most enjoyable – always a plus!) theatre events occurring anywhere inside these 50 states during the 2014-15 season. That’s right. Forget New York. Forget Chicago. Forget Burns. Because it’s happening in Seattle right now.

Get ye up north to the Jet City – a mere 170 miles away – and settle in for the show people will be talking about for years. You don’t want to be that guy or gal who has to tell the grand kids (who turn out to be theatre majors), “Yeah, I knew one of the most exciting theatrical events of our era was right next door, but it didn’t seem worth the trip.”

What else does this sold out, end of year epic theatre experience tell us about the American theatre landscape?

1 – It turns out that the supposed dreaded holiday death zone of late November and the month of December is in fact one of the best slots of the year for a real show. Third Rail showed us this last year with their box office-busting NOISES OFF. When many big regional theatres are too nervous or unambitious to try anything other than cliched, threadbare solo retreads or over the top holiday-themed ham during this end of year slot (effectively turning over a quarter of their season to dancing elves or profane reinventions of old classics), how utterly refreshing (and, we hope, inspiring) to see Seattle Rep taking their audience and artistic mission seriously and aiming for the stars. AND getting a hit like you dream about that can pay for the next two years. Looks like Santa came early this year. Apparently Seattle Rep didn’t get the memo that doing real plays during the holidays won’t work. Maybe it got hung up in their spam filters. Thank god they didn’t get it.

2 – The audience is hungry for story, for scope, for ambition – for the real thing. No one wants to go to all the effort of arranging a night out – getting a baby sitter, driving downtown, and making a reservation to eat out – in order to take in some forgettable 70 minute non-play that has absolutely nothing to say. Yet all too often that is the experience that awaits the hapless regional theatre goer. Who wants that? The audience wants the big stuff. The good stuff. The best stuff. No one wants to go home and tell their friends: “I just saw the 145th least relevant play of the year. Wait – I mean decade.” They want to see an unforgettable show of consequence, something that speaks to them. When it’s good, the audience will sit there for hours (even days – hello Seattle Opera RING fever) and pay any price. Because nothing comes close to live theatre when it’s good. And when the play itself is an epic, searching look at the American experiment and whether the thing even has a future? It doesn’t get any better than that. That’s what real arts institutions deliver: ART.

3 – The audience loves a home town hero. If you saw Seattle after whatever-their-team-is-called won the World Series last year, you know they’ve got some serious fans up in rain city. Seattleite Robert Schenkkan wrote two plays about LBJ, the first of which went on to Broadway with Bryan Cranston. And won a Tony. Make that two Tonys. And is being made into an HBO movie by Steven Spielberg. Translation: It did kinda well. The future for the second, latest play (sold out all summer in Ashland) is equally bright. And now they are both coming home for a major victory lap together. That’s unheard of.

The entire country is talking about these plays. But right now they belong to Seattle. Talk about home town street cred. People will line up 1000 deep to support their local artists – especially when they happen to cut a national and international profile. Instead of turning out to see just another play by some New York playwright that has already been done everywhere else all over the country in exactly the same way and is making the west coast rounds, Seattleites are heading down to the Seattle Center (if they can get through a construction zone that is every bit as epic as these plays) to witness a ground-breaking double header that has never been done anywhere else in this way (and likely never will again) penned by THEIR playwright. Seattle makes, the world takes. That’s the way it should be. Real cities should export – not import – their culture. Because it’s so good that the world wants it.

I know what you’re going to ask next: Why doesn’t Portland have a nationally prominent playwright? Developing local playwrights who go on to make good and hit it big will, in the end, lead to much bigger hometown turnouts (and financial successes) for their shows. That’s what’s going on in Seattle right now. But it takes years of work and support to get there. It takes (see the next point) vision.

Meanwhile Seattle, we remind you not to get too big for your britches, because [asterisk], both of these shows are…

Oregon: Bringing you artisanal hand-crafted theatre from the Rogue Valley.
Oregon: Bringing you artisanal, hand-crafted theatre from the Rogue Valley.

BOOM.

And we’re just loanin’ ’em to ya for the holidays. So please make sure they don’t get dinged up. Because we do need them back.

4 – With vision, anything is possible. ANYTHING. Without vision, no amount of money will move the needle. If you happen to have vision AND money (as originating theatre OSF does), seriously good times lie ahead. But a few years ago we did not have OSF’s American Revolutions commissioning program, which is quite possibly the biggest life ring the American theatre has been thrown in the last 50 years. And today we do. That’s a result of breathtaking vision by Bill Rauch, Alison Carey, and countless other committed OSF-ers. They imagined what could be, and they started working toward it step by step. And now here we are not even ten years later with an outcome that is so incredible, it almost boggles the mind. Just goes to show, if you start with a good idea and create something authentic no one else is doing, there’s no telling where you’ll end up.

It’s perhaps a commentary on how far away so many American theatres have strayed from what they should be doing that OSF’s revolutionary vision is in essence a restatement of the obvious. The project values statement on the wall for #AmRev doesn’t read: “Do the exact same thing everyone else is doing and hope the audience keeps coming.” It says: “Commission big new plays that take on the issues of our time – and all time – and create unforgettable experiences for the audience.” BAM. That’s what your local regional theatre should be doing. Are they?

Do you have any idea what it feels like to walk out on stage and thrill this audience?
Do you have any idea what it feels like to walk out on stage in front of a sold out, world class audience like this and utterly thrill them? The cast of ALL THE WAY does. The energy is off the charts.

One last thing – Your early warning for OSF’s 2015 sold out show

Having thus explained how it is that we got here, to a looming sold out run of two giant new American plays at Seattle Rep. Having shown that this isn’t some fluke, it’s the result of careful and tireless visionary work by literally hundreds of talented theatre pros – here’s looking ahead to the next one.

You didn’t think they were going to stop cranking these out, did you? Oh no.

OSF’s American Revolutions program is going to singlehandedly create more than its fair share of the most important American plays of the 21st century. That’s what they do. And they’re just getting started.

So here’s your early warning for the next one in the pipeline. The next new play from #AmRev to hit the boards at OSF is SWEAT by Brooklynite Lynn Nottage, and it opens in August 2015. Nottage appears to be at the peak of her powers. She has now written several major plays, and the 2010 production of RUINED (Pulitzer, 2009) at OSF was one of the deepest theatrical experiences I have ever witnessed.

But Lynn Nottage is not just a writer who can entertain us, she’s much more. She’s an activist, a seeker. She’s interested in healing, in understanding. She shines the light and asks why. If this, then what about this? What does this mean? If this happens over here, how could it affect us over here? Nottage’s dazzling ability combined with her commitment and the subject matter of SWEAT (which is the fate of de-industrializing America as set in Reading, Pennsylvania) and the resources of the OSF development process are pretty much a recipe for another top flight experience. Just as THE GREAT SOCIETY at OSF was one of the biggest new American plays in 2014, you’re going to have to look long and hard to find a more exciting premiere in 2015 than SWEAT. Count on the entire run selling out (as THE GREAT SOCIETY did) – possibly before it even opens. It’s going to be a major, major US event. People will be coming from all over the world to see it. Right here in Oregon (sorry, Seattle).

As the lights come up in OSF’s Bowmer Theatre on Sunday, August 2 and the first line of a new Lynn Nottage play hits the air for the very first time, as a new theatrical world never before seen by anyone is revealed, as the audience leans forward in their seats to get as close to this new story as they possibly can, because it may not only interest them, it may CHANGE them – believe me, there is nowhere else on god’s green earth you want to be.

So plan ahead. And be there.

Want to find out more about Nottage and her new play?

Stay tuned for an interview in our series.

-Win Goodbody