Midway through the first marathon performance day of the sold out Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions of Robert Schenkkan’s two play LBJ epic at Seattle Rep last weekend, as the closing moment of ALL THE WAY faded into darkness and one of the most roof-shaking, riotous standing ovations I have ever seen made the Bagley Wright Theatre feel like CenturyLink Field after a hometown win, one thing was clear.
What the Jet City has playing right now at center stage is no ordinary regional theatre experience. This is something different. OSF’s road show of two towering new plays about America is nothing less than a high water mark in the national theatre of our lifetime.
They built it. We came. And the result is what the theatre can be.
The scope and ambition of Schenkkan’s vision paired with OSF’s almost unique (in America) ability to bring an undertaking of this size to life has created an experience that reminds all of us what the theatre should be. This is what it looks like, in our day and age, when you go back to basics and start not from the artistically deadening, fear-driven “What can we put on for the cheapest cost that will still make them come?”, but rather from the powerful and soaring, “What is the story – of whatever size or cost – that we want to share with our audience and the world?”
When you turn off the first well trodden path and start crashing through the more adventurous underbrush of the second, when you bypass the disposable one person shows that American playwrights desperate for production have been reduced to writing and that theatres short on vision repeat year after year (wrongly thinking their audience won’t notice), then you can instead turn to creating something real.
Setting off on the other less travelled path and focusing on the art and the story, and doing whatever else you need to do to support that vision, is an entirely different proposition. And the audience knows it. When you go that way, our regional theatres, instead of functioning like over-leveraged strip malls on Long Island that have to bring in franchised product of whatever kind to drive traffic (not to mention rent out their actual facilities – which should be shrines – for dentist conventions, weddings and Mary Kay pep talks by day), can create important art that will last a lifetime – and beyond.
And as Seattle Rep is finding out, real art and high sales numbers are not mutually exclusive at all.
Not to say we told you so. But we called this one a mile away. Actually 170 miles away.
The reason that Schenkkan’s plays are causing grown Seattleites to wait outside in line in the hopes that they MAY get a standing room only ticket is because the playwright, along with director Bill Rauch and a star-studded OSF cast and crew, has created the real thing. Not only are the plays good, but they appear with no warning in an environment all too often dominated by the bland and the mediocre. From out of a clear blue sky (or, in Seattle’s case, a perpetually gray one) comes – something completely different.
Seattleites who weren’t paying attention could be forgiven for not getting the advance message that this was not just another lifeless recycled New York show playing in every other American city. Instead, this is an utterly unique production you can find nowhere else on earth – and that will likely never be done again in this way. Ever. Now that’s exciting. That’s worth traveling for. That’s worth getting on a plane for – as my New York theatre blitz comrade for the weekend did. His verdict: “This exceeded all my expectations.” Wow. He is one tough grader, too.
Seattleites have gotten the message now though. And unfortunately for a lot of them it’s too late. Because these shows are SELLING OUT. The talk of the town is Schenkkan’s plays. And it looks like they are both going to sell out in entirety. I got an email from a non theatre person friend in Seattle asking about these plays and how he could get tickets to them. How did he hear about them? When something is in demand, you hear about it. It’s hard enough for a play in America to sell out for A SINGLE NIGHT. But for an entire run of two plays to sell out? That NEVER happens. Which tells you how good they are.
And when it’s good, the audience responds. It was pure joy watching playwright Robert Schenkkan weave through the crowd during intermissions at Sunday’s first marathon day, besieged on all sides by people who know him, who love his work, who have something they must tell him about the experience they are having right now in the theatre – the one he made possible for them. It doesn’t get any better than that.
These are not your grandparents’ theatuh shows, where amateur actors swan around cracking hundred year old jokes in broken British accents and the audience sits still as stacked firewood, wondering if it’s over. Seeing Schenkkan’s plays is like getting a blast of sea water in the face or an air horn in the ear. At first it hurts. Then you realize, hey, we needed that. It is a major, major wake up call that if theatre wants to remain relevant, it needs to go as big as it can possibly go.
That’s what OSF’s two play cycle is doing. It is going as big as it can possibly, possibly go. How could they go any bigger with this thing? Let’s recap. In a world where playwrights write for 1-4 characters, Schenkkan decided he needed about 20. Instead of writing within the new non format of an intermissionless 70-90 minutes, Schenkkan decided he needed over three hours. Oh – and there are two plays. Not one. Instead of making the heart of his story a series of profane fart jokes or other forgettable inside TV/celebrity references that fall flat for the vast majority of the audience, Schenkkan decided he wanted to tell a story about the American experience that could speak to all Americans about who we are. And then instead of just premiering a play in Ashland, what if we take it to Boston and then Broadway. And then what if we bring both plays together to Seattle to play in rep.
You with me? Whatever Ashland authorities are putting in the town water supply, the rest of us need to start drinking it as well, because what the status quo theatre world (which is dying) sees as impossibly ambitious and over the top looks downright doable to OSF-ers.
The result on this particular project is six hours plus of theatre, playing to standing room only audiences in the largest theatre in the playwright’s home town (which serendipitously happens to be one of America’s greatest contemporary cities). It doesn’t get any bigger than that. Anywhere. Sure, it could go to London. But that would be nowhere near as local and genuine an experience as seeing the plays on the home town field. New York? The only comparable experience to what you have right now in Seattle in New York would be if Lincoln Center did both shows in rep.
And actually, the real home town field here is Ashland. The place you absolutely need to be when these new American plays of our time hit the stage is Ashland, Oregon. There is no other theatre anywhere (and believe me, I’ve looked) where you get the same experience of settling into your seat and watching as the lights come up to reveal – a new story. One you have never seen before. That is the magic. You can’t fake it.
Which brings up a potential problem. OSF can’t do everything and be everything and go everywhere at once. OSF cannot support the entire American new play ecosystem singlehandedly. People have to sleep now and then. The goal here is not to make OSF into a Broadway-like behemoth whose shows are then brought in to every theatre across the country. Though, yes, the goal is to create important new shows that other theatres will restage and reinterpret on their own. The goal is instead to make other theatres more like OSF. Other theatres should look at OSF and realize, they can do this, too.
What OSF has shown is that in a few years with the whole crew pulling on the oars together, with a serious visionary at the helm, incredible things can be done. Now that Seattle Rep has seen how successful the result can be, it’s time for them to create and develop their own shows from scratch – not just bring in existing ones. It’s time for regional theatres all over the country to realize that they should be building their own unique brands that will attract tourists from all over the world. Because when it’s good, people will come from anywhere and everywhere (witness the RING phenomenon at Seattle Opera every four years). If all your local theatre is doing is trucking in canned ham you can find in any other theatre in America, what you have is an Olive Garden.
The idea that only OSF can do this is wrong. Any theatre, potentially, could dedicate itself to creating new, genuinely unforgettable experiences for the audience as part of their remit and start actually doing that on a relatively short time scale. With America deep into another gilded tech age, all it takes is one new titan to write a check for a rounding error amount (to them), and a whole new theatre could be created. Go look at the Theatre for a New Audience building in Brooklyn and see what happens when someone writes a check. All that is needed is vision. And writing talent. Over and above everything else, what is needed is raw, blinding writing talent that creates stories that are too good not to tell. In the theatre, the writer reigns supreme. That’s why we endure so many bad shows – because if the writer isn’t good, it doesn’t matter how much money or talent you throw at a show, you’re still in for heavy sledding. But when the writer is good, when the story is real and relevant – strap on the seat belt and let ‘er buck.
With 2014 almost in the books, one of the major theatre highlights of the regional Northwest and also national scene is Robert Schenkkan’s two part LBJ cycle, currently on at Seattle Rep through January 4. It’s mostly sold out. But where there’s a will there’s a way. Go camp in front of Seattle Rep like you used to do for WHO tickets in the 70’s. Pretend you’re waiting for Target to open on Thanksgiving. Get a sandwich sign that says “I have a dream” and circulate up and back on Denny. Scour StubHub. Block traffic, juggle bowling pins, unravel a four hundred foot long banner off the Space Needle that says “Will work for Schenkkan tickets”. Pull any kind of stunt you can think of. But get there.
Make the trek, call whoever you need to. Remember the golden rule of theatre. There is always – ALWAYS – one more ticket. If you ask nicely. Stand in the back, partly behind that pole. Not ideal, but it will work.
Whatever you do, get into that room and hear the words and see the story. And don’t miss this chance to see what the future of American theatre looks like.