Panning for Gold: In Conversation with Dramaturge Tom Bryant

The dramaturge Tom Bryant has been working with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan for a quarter of a century, and this year he will see the world premiere of their newest effort, The Great Society (opening at the Seattle Rep December 5), as well as the production of their Tony Award-winning All The Way (opening November 14).  

A specialist in historical drama, Bryant works closely with Schenkkan from early in the script-writing process all the way through to the final production, reading the same sources, mining for “nuggets” of dramatic possibility from those texts, and molding the theatrical elements to create a work that remains true to the historical record while also pointing at greater human truths.

I talked to Bryant about the upcoming plays from his home in LA.  

You’ve been collaborating with Robert Shenkkan for almost a quarter of a century now?

[Laughs] Basically. Robert and I first started working together on The Kentucky Cycle in ’89. Way, way back. We went through that whole process of development through the Intiman Theatre and finally the Kennedy Center on Broadway.

A Pulitzer Prize right out the gate.

Sometimes these projects pay off I suppose, huh?

I’d imagine that would cement a collaboration pretty well.

Yeah. It was so great to work with Robert. He’s such an amazing writer, and that type of historical play is kinda my specialty.

I’d imagine the LBJ plays are a dramaturge-heavy field, because there’s a historical record of everything. How do you balance the dramatic needs of the play with obligations to actual history?

I think Robert gets it very much right. He’s always quick to state that this is his dramatization of history, so it’s not as if this is meant to be an absolutely correct historical account. Of course, historical accounts themselves vary, given different points of view and disputations about fact. I think the clear bright line is, what we’re selecting are moments, nuggets of history that dramatize the dilemmas of the characters. That’s what Robert is after, and I think it’s mostly true in terms of those accounts. Certain scenes, conversations between people, perhaps we don’t know what happened, but in general it’s very faithful to the basic history itself.

And what does your role look like in the workshopping process, day to day?

It depends on the stage of the process. I started working with Robert on Great Society and All the Way before they were written. There’s a huge research phase that happens first; we go through tons and tons of material. It’s kind of like panning for gold. You’re looking thru history and coming up with these nuggets and going, Oh boy, that’s a wonderful anecdote, that’s an important event, this is an amazing possibility for a scene between two people that would really be dramatically exciting. So Robert and I are both reading the same books and looking for this kind of material.

Then a lot of the stage that follows is outlining, with a lot of discussions about what would be a great dramatic structure to the thing. Then Robert goes into his writing process.   

So that’s the first phase, poring over research and trying to find things that are usable. The second part is refining the various drafts through the workshop process and looking at how things land. You’re hearing them read out loud and then making decisions about structure and form. Generally that’s what I’m focusing on.

And looking at how the thing would play in front of an audience, trying to troubleshoot that process. Then production is something else, you’re looking at the whole thing in terms of the production values and seeing how that is playing in front of an audience. It’s trying to gauge how the piece is dramatically effective, how it’s coming across and how to maximize its potential.

All the Way was a Tony Award-winning show starring Bryan Cranston at the white-hot nuclear peak of his massive fame. No pressure there, right?

Bryan was absolutely wonderful, and of course, like everyone else I’m a huge fan. That was an incredibly fortuitous meeting of that project, which he really embraced, with his just coming off Breaking Bad at the time. A wonderfully fortunate convergence.

I read that Robert Caro didn’t want to meet with Bryan Cranston because he didn’t want it to color or infect his view of LBJ. I’d imagine as a dramaturg it’s the opposite; you have to confront those two elements, the actor and the real man.

I hadn’t heard that. As a dramaturg I’ve read voluminous amounts of material. Caro’s books are really wonderful. There’s any number of books that were such great accounts of LBJ: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s, Nick Kotz’s Judgment Days. I had five shelves with about 100 books that I’ve gone through looking for these various nuggets of dramatizable events and information.

What are these nuggets? Clarifying moments of actual dialogue? What are you looking for in a nugget?

A lot of it would be key events, like Pettus Bridge and the march to Montgomery. You look at an event like that—what an amazing thing to put on the stage. Or a lot of times it’s confrontations between characters. In All the Way there’s a wonderful scene between LBJ and Judge Smith, who at the time was in charge of the rules committee in the House and had the power to block civil rights legislation. There are a number of accounts in the books of that dialogue between them in which LBJ deliciously outmaneuvers Smith.

Another classic example is the meeting with George Wallace and LBJ during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Selma campaign in 1965. This was a two-hour conversation between the men that was quite heated, and the various anecdotal accounts from many different sources are just wonderful. You couldn’t ask for better material—rich in character, the things the men said to each other, the sense how of LBJ outmaneuvered people. Those are the kinds of moments you’re looking for.

How much do current events figure into it? Something about these plays has really struck a chord in this time of the first black president, the events in Ferguson. How much are you informed by contemporary events as you’re making this historical play?

I think indeed Robert’s initial selection of LBJ for the American Revolutions Project was based on what he considered contemporary relevance. Since that selection, we see things constantly happening which reference that period. For instance, the Supreme Court recently struck down many of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Looking at that, you realize how hard it was to get the civil rights bills passed, and then you look at now. You see various forms of voter suppressions starting to happen. In that sense there is very literal resonance.

In a larger sense, you see a lot of the same arguments today about government; how big or small it should be, how much government should intervene on behalf of minorities in various situations. All these issues are still with us. We’re still dealing with them.

Have we learned anything?

The amazing thing about LBJ was the amount he accomplished. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 completely changed the South forever. Racism is ongoing in our country, but the state-mandated policies of segregation and unequal treatment were struck down in that period. Those achievements are amazing.

Take Medicare: this has become an absolute fact of American life now. Lyndon Baines Johnsons was the person who made that possible.

So absolutely, things have changed for the better. There are entire institutions that didn’t exist when he took office in November 1963 that are now taken to be the bedrock of government policy in the US.

What are you working on now? Do you stay with the play or move onto other things?

All the Way has been on Broadway and is done as far as development. It remains to be seen what kind of changes might happen with The Great Society. I’m going up there in December and we’re gonna take a look at some things, but boy, it seems to be incredibly effective. We’ll see what happens.

I’m working a bit with Robert on the adaptation of All the Way for HBO, and right now I’m working with Bill Rauch and Lisa Loomer on a play called Roe about Roe v. Wade.

Staying in the political-historical vein, your wheelhouse.

That’s kind of how I roll!