PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Robert Schenkkan, the Kentucky Cycle Playwright With a New Passion for LBJ

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21 Jul 2012

Robert Schenkkan
Robert Schenkkan

Robert Schenkkan covered 200 years of American history in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Kentucky Cycle. His new world-premiere play, All the Way, at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, focuses on the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.


Playwright Robert Schenkkan hasn't been seen in New York City since The Kentucky Cycle — the sprawling nine-play work which made his name when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992 — played Broadway. But to the West Coast of the country, he is a familiar face. His work Handler played the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2002. By the Waters of Babylon followed in 2005. During that time, he has also had plays produced at the Mark Taper Forum and Seattle Children's Theatre. He's now back at Oregon Shakespeare Festival with his latest look at American history, a take on erstwhile Schenkkan family acquaintance Lyndon Baines Johnson called All the Way.

You have a real artistic home at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, haven't you?
Robert Schenkkan: I do. I really do. This is my third show and second world premiere, all of which have been directed by [artistic director] Bill Rauch. I'm really happy with this relationship.

How did it come about?
RS: Libby Appel, who was the then-artistic director, was very excited about a play of mine called Handler that she wanted to produce. Bill Rauch was her suggestion as a director. That was a spectacular experience. That is still a show that a lot of people who come to the festival mention as a highlight. That was the first show Bill directed here. Libby announced her retirement and Bill was her strong recommendation to the board as her replacement.

Schenkkan in rehearsal
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Your new play, All the Way, is part of a series of plays dealing with U.S. history at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
RS: It's a commissioned work as part of their "American Revolutions" series. They have commissioned 20-something works. I would guess this is easily the largest commissioning series in the country right now. The intention of the series was based loosely out of the idea that Shakespeare obviously borrowed generously out of Tudor history and English history for the plays we now call his "History Plays." Why shouldn't an American theatre do the same? The commission is very generously worded. The writers are invited to pick any subject, as long as it has bearing on the history of the United States, socially, politically, whatever. For me, when Bill approached me, I said I was interested in writing about LBJ.

RS: I grew up in Austin, Texas. My parents knew LBJ casually. My father knew him professionally. My father was a pioneer in public television and radio in this country. He had been hired by the University of Texas in Austin to set up their educational television and radio stations. That meant he actually had to go to then-Senator LBJ and get his blessing, because an educational station would have been in direct competition with LBJ's own radio station in Austin, which was the controversial source of his fortune. I'm glad to say that he not only gave his blessing but contributed generously to the station. Of course, he would go on to sign the Public Broadcasting Act that would create education television and radio in this country.

In researching this book, did you consult Robert Caro's famous biographies?
RS: Well, of course. How could one not? But LBJ was actually quite extensively written about, even before Caro. And the LBJ Presidential Library is in Austin, and the collection is quite extensive. I have read widely, and Caro is probably my favorite. The thoroughness of detail. And he's a wonderful writer. The part of LBJ's life that I'm writing about preceded any published work of Caro's. This last volume that he just released this summer actually covered some of the material I've written in this play.


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