by Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
It is a great pleasure to have director Kyle Donnelly back at Arena Stage – and back in the Fichandler. No stranger to our flagship in the round theater, Kyle’s approach allows the story to lead the action. And in the tumultuous year of 1963-1964 depicted in All the Way, there’s no shortage of action. Shortly before the company moved out of the rehearsal room and onto stage to begin tech, I sat down with Kyle after a run through to talk about directing in the round, the challenges of historical plays, and, of course, politics. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
What attracts me is doing All the Way in the Fichandler, at Arena Stage, in Washington, D.C. Due to the political nature of All the Way, and the current election environment, the play is incredibly timely. The D.C. audience will get so much of the play – more than any other audience – because of its intimate knowledge of procedure. I love the play because it’s dramatically telling a part of history which has not been delved into as deeply as others. We see a lot about the late ‘60s but we haven’t really examined this period of history on stage.
This is the first time All the Way has been performed in the round. As a director, you’re no stranger to the Fichandler. What about the play lends itself to being performed in the round? And what effect do you think being in the round will have on the play?
The round always makes an audience feel very close to the action. You feel like you’re in the Senate chambers, or the House of Representatives, or the Oval Office. You’re not just looking at them pictorially. You’re there, as a participant. It emphasizes the swirl of history; the hurricane of events. History doesn’t travel in straight lines and linear paths, but goes around and around and around. That’s the way I and the designers have approached the staging of the play as well. We have two turn tables that can move together or separately, in the same or opposing directions. Events and people change but the eddy of air encircling them is constant.
What have you learned or been surprised by since rehearsals began?
I’m surprised by the depth of complexity of directing a play that has a string of short scenes of five minutes or less. You have to switch gears and move. That has proven to be an elaborate jigsaw puzzle.
It’s like creating an elaborate mousetrap, or a Rube Goldberg device. If you move one piece, it has an echo effect on everything else. It’s amazing. I don’t make a change unless I know what the echo effect is going to be Once the machine is placed, you have to be very careful about what you change, because you could change the whole trajectory. All the Way is a very cleverly constructed Goldberg machine.
And, until you’re really in the thick of it, you don’t necessarily understand how intricate it is.
That’s right. When you work in the round, locations don’t have an architectural truth to them, so it’s easy to make changes, normally. But, in this case, it affects so many different things.
Something you talked about on the first day of rehearsal was why somebody would want to be a politician. Have you come up with any answers to that?
I’ve learned the value of thinking politically. You know what your end goal is but there are various ways to get there. As LBJ says, “you’re fighting for your life.” You can never give up but you find all sorts of ways to get there that are not necessarily the most direct way. I respect politicians who work for the greater good, who work for the betterment of society. In this play, you’ve got such a variety of people, some who are working for the greater good, some who move forward with their own agenda. It’s all about looking at it comprehensively, and not just demonizing one group of people. Everyone in the play is operating out of sincerity. Everyone believes in what they’re trying to do. Whether you agree with them or not is another story.
I was listening for the rhythms that they brought to the scenes and characters. I would listen to a YouTube video of the real person, and then I would go into the auditions and listen for the rhythm of the actor as that character, for similarities. That was more important to me than it usually is because they are all playing historical people. But it’s always a factor in casting. When people talk about chemistry, they’re usually talking about people who can meld their rhythms together. Because they’re playing historical people, you don’t want to divorce the rhythm of the real person. The actor wants to pay attention to that. This is the most generous, enthusiastic cast. They are very supportive of each other. They will sit in on rehearsal just to watch each other work. It’s really lovely.
And at the same time, not get so entrenched in it that it becomes like a docudrama.
That’s right. We actually had to break some of those rhythms. There’s a difference between someone giving a speech in a political event and someone doing it onstage.
How do the events of 1964 relate to what we’re going through in 2016?
We have been blown away in rehearsal by numerous speeches in the script that reflect exactly what’s going on with our current election. The fear of division within a party, the emphasis on party unity, the conversations around racism, lines like “This is the most important election of your lifetime.” When those things are said, they resonate. Someone could give this speech right now and it would feel contemporary. Many of the same issues have not been stalled.
David Dennis’ speech in the script could be right out of the Black Lives Matter movement. And there’s talk this election year about the possibility of a floor fight over the nomination at the Republican convention.
Exactly. When LBJ accepts the nomination, he says, “shrill voices have tried to lay claim to the great spirit of the American past, but they long for a past that never was. In their recklessness and their radicalism, they have kidnapped the Republican Party and, if they win, they will bring this country to the brink of disaster.” It’s exactly what’s being said right now.
What creature comforts do you bring with you when you work out of town?
I bring my knitting, I bring my own sheets and towels, books, my Netflix. I’m currently re-watching House of Cards because it’s so much fun while doing this play, with all the procedural stuff in there — I get it more now than I did before!
(Photos: Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the cast of All the Way. Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. in All the Way Photos by Stan Barouh. All the Way performs at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 1-May 8, 2016.)