Robert Schenkkan’s “All The Way” Wins Steinberg/ATCA New Play Prize

Humana Festival, Louisville, Kentucky, April 6, 2013 11 p.m.

Robert Schenkkan

Robert Schenkkan

I’ve mentioned in prior pieces that I think one of the best indicators of a good play is when I find myself thinking about it weeks after I see it. Well, I saw Robert Schenkkan’s play All The Way at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland last September and I’ve thought about it over and over again in the seven months since then. Apparently, so have many people responsible for awarding prestigious prizes for drama.

Tonight,  All The Way won the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award for 2012, which was announced and presented here at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville.   Just a few weeks ago, All The Way was also announced as one of two inaugural winners of the new Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History.

All The Way  portrays the complex Lyndon Johnson in the turbulent and historically important first eleven months of  his “accidental presidency”:  his ends- justify- the- means efforts to pass The Civil Rights Act and the closed doors stories behind his subsequent re-election.  I remember it as a riveting lesson in the political trading and extortion and procedural manipulation necessary to accomplish so much in our political history — a precursor to hard truths I was led to re-examine a few months later in Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” and that are unfortunately all too relevant today.

Before coming to Louisville, I had rather vaguely arranged by email to meet  Robert Schenkkan at the Humana Festival and then fortuitously ended up lunching a few tables away from him today.  I was therefore able to catch up with him before the Steinberg/ATCA award announcement (I couldn’t have come within an inch afterwards!)  and we had a chance to talk a little about his play and the upcoming Part 2.

Jack Willis as LBJ in OSF production; Photo by J. Graham

Jack Willis as LBJ in OSF production;
Photo by J. Graham

SF:  I was totally engrossed by All the Way and I’ve been hoping that it would get a second production after its premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland last year.  Any possibilities? 

RS: Yes! We are remounting the show at A.R.T. in Boston in September under the direction of Bill Rauch. [The American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, Loeb Drama Center --  performances begin September 13, 2013.]

SF:  I’m so glad more people will get a chance to see this great play! I thought it was so effective in showing multiple and often conflicting motives behind Johnson’s political maneuverings and what a complicated man he was.

RS:   He was extremely complex — he could be cruel, he could be generous, he could be magnanimous, tender, petty, arrogant, vulnerable, he could be brutal — often within the same 30 minutes. A very, very complicated man.

SF:  I was delighted to hear that All The Way is the first of a planned two-part work.  What can you tell me about the second installment?

RS:  Part 2 is called The Great Society and will open in July 2014 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival under the direction of Bill Rauch. We hope Jack Willis will again play LBJ and we’ll keep a lot of the same company.

SF: This  play will pick up where All The Way left off and, I assume, covers Johnson’s work on poverty and the controversy over the Viet Nam war?

RS: Yes, it begins in November 1964 following his landslide victory and culminates in March 1968 when Johnson makes the shocking public announcement that he will not run for re-election.  It’s a great story — a tragic one really.  Now he really begins to go full bore on his social programs.  He had an astounding legislative track record — he transforms the country.  Simultaneously of course, there’s the ramp up in Viet Nam, which was the tragedy for LBJ.  His heart was in his domestic programs; he didn’t really care about the war in Viet Nam; he felt he had to lie about Viet Nam to protect the domestic programs, and it was the lies that undid everything he tried to do domestically.  The wheel comes full circle in Shakespearean terms — a man who has nothing rises to absolute power and then through his own complicated personality and moral failings loses everything.  

SF: I’ve told you I that I felt I learned, or re-learned, a lot of history from your play. You have said it’s important to you to be clear that you are not a historian, and are not writing a docudrama, but have a point of view and take liberties to tell a particular story.

RS: Yes, because I’m interested in certain themes — themes that have to do with power and the morality of power and individual conscience. What it takes to get things done and where is the line — the line you cross at your own peril in order to get good things done.

SF: And of course that’s a theme that’s been important in drama since . . .

CHORUS: since the Greeks.

Liberties or not, it’s a great story and Robert Schenkkan’s  All The Way and, I have no doubt, The Great Society,  should not be missed by lovers of great American theatre.

I’m hoping that winning the Steinberg/ATCA Prize will make these plays more widely produced throughout the country. Maybe, if I’m lucky, it might even help revitalize Schenkkan’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize winning The Kentucky Cycle which I have never had the chance to see.  Maybe we should all suggest that to our regional theatre companies.

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Also honored with citations at the Steinberg/ATCA Awards were two other nominated plays:  Death Tax by Lucas Hnath and Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams and both sounded like plays I’d love to see if I ever get the chance.

 

 

 

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