Remembering August Wilson, Seattle’s Shakespeare

Tribute to August Wilson

Tribute to August Wilson February 13, 2006

The following post was written by Marketing Intern Amelia Peacock.

Our production of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, now onstage in the Bagley Wright Theatre through February 8, marks the first Seattle production of Wilson’s work in ten years. 2015 also marks the 10-year anniversary of August Wilson’s death. Though Wilson’s physical presence may be absent from Seattle Rep and his favorite haunts in the surrounding neighborhood, his legacy lives stronger than ever before. To help inaugurate these formidable milestones, the Rep is hosting two special community conversations in the final week of The Piano Lesson run.

The first conversation, Story Swap: August Wilson in Seattle, takes place tomorrow, Saturday January 31, following the matinee performance of The Piano Lesson. Audience members and the general public are invited to listen to personal stories and memories about August Wilson’s time in Seattle told by four people who knew him well: Sharon Williams, playwright and solo performer and Executive Director for the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas; Chic Streetman, actor and blues artist; Al Frank, playwright and longtime friend of Wilson’s; and Dena Levitin, Wilson’s former personal assistant.

As we prepare for this nostalgic event, I took a look in the Seattle Rep archives for more walks down memory lane, or should I say August Wilson Way. Sharon Ott, Seattle Rep Artistic Director from 1997-2005, admits, “Several of my fondest theatre memories of all time have to do with August and Seattle.” Ott remembers a particular occasion discussing two characters Wilson was working on at the Mecca Café, Wilson’s “usual haunt” in Lower Queen Anne. Ott didn’t know it at the time, but these two characters would eventually become the leads in Wilson’s King Hedley II, which premiered at Seattle Rep as part of the 1999-2000 season. As Ott remembers, “I left the Mecca and had to just walk around the block a couple of times. I felt like I was back in Elizabethan times, and I had just had the privilege of listening to Shakespeare ramble on about a character who might later become Hamlet or something!”

“Seattle’s Shakespeare” is a fitting title for Wilson who considered Seattle Rep his adopted artistic home. Seattle Rep’s unique relationship with America’s most beloved African American playwright gives us the privilege and duty to ensure that Wilson’s work continues to be produced on the national stage and we are excited for this opportunity to remember and honor his legacy in the city he loved so much.

Do you have a memory or story about August Wilson or his work? Did you meet the playwright in person or see one of his productions at Seattle Rep? We invite you to share your anecdotes in the comments section on our blog. We also hope you will join us for Story Swap: August Wilson in Seattle Saturday, January 31 in the Rotunda following the matinee performance of The Piano Lesson. For more information about this event and upcoming community conversations, visit the ‘Dates to Note’ section on The Piano Lesson web page here.




What did you think of The Piano Lesson

Post-Banner-PLWe want to know! What did you think of The Piano Lesson?

History Matters: A Little More on Some Lesser-Known Civil Rights Leaders

Civil rights meeting

Civil rights meeting with MLK, LBJ, Whitney Young, and James Farmer.

The following post was written by Artistic Literary Intern Eric Werner.

At intermission or after the show, the lobbies are abuzz with audience feedback: “I never knew…” from younger patrons; “I remember when…” from the more experienced audience members. Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way and The Great Society dramatize a specific and turbulent time in this nation’s history with borrowed speeches and dialogue and characters that audiences will remember from television or history books.

The plays present a staggering amount of characters (upwards of 50 in The Great Society alone!), giving viewers just enough of a sense of history without beating them over the head with a textbook. While the plays center on LBJ and MLK, there are a slew of stories in the swarm of people that surround them—characters whose lives stories continued beyond the scope of Schenkkan’s scripts. This is especially true for the civil rights leaders that advise MLK, who continued the movement after King’s death in 1968.

If six and a half hours of staged history isn’t enough for you, here’s a bit more information about what happened to some of the civil rights leaders that are featured in All the Way and The Great Society.


Building the LBJ Plays

Kenajuan set

It took a surprising amount of work to make the set crumble so easily! Pictured: Kenajuan Bentley. Photo: Chris Bennion.

Last week we gave you a rough count of 109 staffers involved here at the Rep in putting All the Way and The Great Society onstage. Ten of those people were props artisans, painters, and carpenters. Here we give you a quick breakdown of the labor and materials involved in constructing the set for these two plays.

Hours of Labor

Carpenters: 1,721 hours

Paints: 667 hours

Drafting: 240 hours

  • This is the amount of time our Technical Director (Brian Fauska) and Assistant Technical Director (Adam Wiley) spent drawing out the plans to build the set.

Number of 11×17 sheets of drawings (or blueprints): 70


Sheets of wood: 210

Solid wood: 2,408 linear feet

Molding: 1,872 linear feet

Steel: 2,560 linear feet (or 128 sticks)

Gallons of paint: 24

Quarts of paint: 59.5

Cans of spray paint: 5

Fun fact: If all the wood and steel were laid end to end they would be 1.6 miles long. That is longer than the monorail (.96mi)!

If that’s not some large scale theatre-building, we don’t know what is. Of course, we couldn’t build productions of this size without support from our donors. If you would like to join theatre history-in-the-making with a gift of any size, please go here.

A Letter a Day Drives the Loneliness Away

LBJ letter

An example of one of LBJ’s letters to Lady Bird.

The following post was written by Artistic Literary Intern Eric Werner.

LBJ is known for cajoling and arm twisting to get bills and amendments passed—he’s less well known for his downright sentimentality. In his correspondences with Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Taylor, recently released by the LBJ Presidential Library, the aspiring politician puts his relentless campaigning to work wooing his soon-to-be-wife.

The letters, collected over their brief courtship, reveal characteristics that would come to be synonymous with the couple: his impatience, her interest in conservation and nature. They paint a picture of a fairy tale romance, with misspellings and nostalgic anachronisms.

“Knowing you has been one of my greatest pleasures,” Lyndon wrote to Bird after they met at a mutual friend’s office in 1934. Lyndon had a date that night, but asked Lady Bird to breakfast—they spent the whole day together. The next ten weeks would be filled with such declarations in over 90 letters before they quietly married in a San Antonio chapel.

The exchange was fevered, to say the least. The Post Office was too slow for the impetuous Johnson, who wrote, “I’m not fussing, just checking up on Uncle Sams (sic) efficient postal service.”

He was a 26-year-old aide to Texan Congressman Richard Kleberg, she was a recently graduated 22-year-old who had just moved back home. Some 30 years before he would be president, Lady Bird was attracted to Lyndon’s ambition. “I adore you for being so ambitious and dynamic,” she wrote to him.


It Takes a Village: Rough Staff Count Involved in the LBJ Plays

Gnome Day

Some of our props artisans, painters, and carpenters. (You can see the shop in the background.) And oh yeah, it was Gnome Hat Day.

In this week’s installment of our “LBJ plays by the numbers” series, we’re taking a look at the number of people it takes to put All the Way and The Great Society onstage. You might be surprised by the amount of manpower (and womanpower) needed behind-the-scenes!

Actors: 19

  • 10 of which were in the original 2012 production of All the Way at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).

Playwright: 1

Dramaturge: 1

  • Tom Bryant, the dramaturge, was in charge of helping playwright Robert Schenkkan with research and historical accuracy. You can view Tom’s list of suggested further reading here.

Director: 1

Assistant Director: 1

Stage Managers: 2

  • The Production Stage Manager (D. Christian Bolender) sits in the booth behind the orchestra level of the theatre. He has a script with all the light and sound cues written in, and it’s his responsibility to tell the crew when to activate each cue.
  • The second Stage Manager (Stina Lotti) is backstage making sure that all cues, quick changes, etc. happen as they are supposed to.

Voice & Text Director: 1

Fight Director (who doubles as Production Stage Manager): 1

Designers: 6

Costume Department employees (read more about their work here): 10

Stage crew total: 6

  • This is the number of people it takes to run each show. The crew is made up of technicians, sound engineers, electricians, and carpenters. They are responsible for all the logistical and operational aspects of the production (making sure the stage and props are set, operating anything like LBJ’s desk or the beds that need to move during the show, responding to light and sound signals from the stage managers, etc.).

Props artisans, painters, and carpenter total: 10

  • This is the number of people it took to the build the set.

Production Director: 1

Associate Production Director: 1

Production Assistant: 1

  • Our Production Management Intern Meggie Smith has been a huge help on these huge productions!

That’s a total of 51 people who are “directly” involved in the shows on our stages everyday. But if you factor in the people who started working on these plays months (or years) ago and who continue to help them run smoothly—our production, external relations, development, patron services, front of house, artistic, artist relations, education, and leadership staff—that’s a whopping 109 people!

And that’s not even counting all the work our friends at Oregon Shakespeare Festival put into these shows before they came here.

Clearly we couldn’t pull off work on this scale without a robust staff, and that means we couldn’t pull if off without our donor support either. If you would like to join theatre history-in-the-making with a gift of any size, please go here.

Marathon Month: The Actor’s Challenge

LBJ marathon

Cast of THE GREAT SOCIETY. Photo: Chris Bennion.

The following post was written by Artistic Casting Intern Hattie Andres.

Four years ago, playwright Robert Schenkkan sat down with Seattle Rep leaders and planted the seed for what would turn into one of the largest projects in the theatre’s history. Artistic Director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) Bill Rauch had commissioned Schenkkan to write a play about the America’s 36th president, Lyndon B. Johnson, and the ambitious playwright was already dreaming of a sequel. As Seattle Rep commissioned that second part, it was decided that although the two plays, All The Way and The Great Society, would have their world premiers at OSF, Seattle would produce both plays together for the first time. Rotating back and forth between two plays is a practice referred to as “performing in repertory,” which Seattle audiences and actors rarely get to experience.

In a typical Seattle Rep show, actors maintain an impressive schedule of eight performances a week. That alone is enough to keep a performer busy; however, the cast of the LBJ plays is pulling double duty, performing eight shows a week but also switching back and forth between Schenkkan’s two separate plays. Throughout the run of the LBJ plays, there are six “marathon days” where the actors perform both All The Way and The Great Society in one day. The ability to pull off this historic feat is the product of a complex and dedicated creative process with the acting company.