Kyle Donnelly

Headshot of a woman.
Photo courtesy of Arena Stage
Music Credit: “Appetite” written and performed by Proviant Audio from the album Mushrooms Jo Reed: That was Jack Willis as President Lyndon Johnson and Bowman Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King in a scene from the Arena Stage production of Robert Schenkkan’s play, The Great Society. Directed by Kyle Donnelly and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. In April 2016, Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award-winning drama, All the Way, about President Lyndon Johnson’s struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, made its' Washington, D.C. debut at Arena Stage. Directed by Kyle Donnelly and starring Jack Willis as LBJ and Bowman Wright as Dr. King, All the Way takes us from President Johnson’s sudden ascent to the White House with the assassination of John Kennedy, to his landslide election in 1964. The Great Society brings us the second half of Schenkkan’s story of Johnson, King, an America divided by the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War, and LBJ’s determination to complete far-reaching social policy legislation. The Great Society opens at Arena Stage on February 2nd and reunites many members of the cast and creative team from All the Way—including actors Jack Willis, Bowman Wright and director Kyle Donnelly. Because they were generous enough to allow me to sit in on an early rehearsal, I was able to see the process of a creating a scene with the actors and director Kyle Donnelly at work— Kyle Donnelly has been a professional director for the 30 years-- working in Amrica's top regional theaters. She has a long association with Arena Stage, serving as associate artistic director from 1992 to 1996 and directing over twenty productions at the theater throughout the years. So, it was a no-brainer that she would continue the story of LBJ and Dr. King and direct The Great Society. Kyle Donnelly: Well, when I did All the Way, which was a great experience, a lot to do with the company were very committed and very interested in bringing that story forth. Once I finished that, you feel like there's a lot more story to tell. And that's always true of a historical piece. But it was-- I thought it was important to be able to see what happened to Johnson's Presidency, you know? The good and the thrust of "The Great Society," but then how the Vietnam, I mean, I think the Vietnam War is still sort of this tragic mystery to u-- it's not a mystery. We sort of understand now, I think, what went wrong. But it was such the beginning of war being seen in such a different way than Americans saw it before. And it was sort of, "What happened?" I mean, "How did those decisions get made?" And to see a man on a kind of tragic spiral, and to see the country, many people in the country seeing him as a baby killer. And it's only-- I'm not a historian. But it seems like only recently they were saying, "Yeah, The Great Society actually really was a great set of programs." And many of them have lasted. So, it's interesting to go back and see how that happened. Jo Reed: And is that what attracted you to All the Way to begin with? Kyle Donnelly: Yes. You know, I grew up in a very activist family. In a very liberal family. And so, to begin to look at the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement-- it wasn't-- and to begin to understand how that movement interacted with the government was interesting to me. And I didn't know much about LBJ when I started All the Way. I was young at the time, and he was kind of a blip between Kennedy, who was, you know, "a god," I grew up in a Irish Catholic family, and Nixon, who was, you know, "Tricky Dick." So, it was like this period of time I didn't know that much about. So, I do a lot of shows to learn about something. Jo Reed: On the first day of rehearsal with All the Way you asked the cast what made someone enter politics? Kyle Donnelly: It's a really good question, isn't it? Jo Reed: Yeah! Kyle Donnelly: I mean, to me, it's like the last thing in the world I'd want to do! Jo Reed: Completely. Kyle Donnelly: Yeah. And so, I think these people who are good at it have a hunger for it. It's like LBJ says in this play to-- I think it's Nixon? He says, "I'll run till I drop." And that's a hunger. That's a desire for a lot of different things. And I don't understand it at all! And I think an actor has to find the passion that their character has. Jo Reed: Did you ask that same question for The Great Society, or did you ask another? Kyle Donnelly: I didn't ask any big questions for this one. One of the things that was really fun for me is there's a lot of the All the Way cast who's come back for The Great Society. And some of them are playing their same roles, and some of them are playing different roles. Either because their roles don't exist or for whatever reason. And so, there was a sort of a common ground to begin with. Especially my major players of LBJ and Martin Luther King and Cameron, who's playing Wallace/Nixon, and we already had established a lot of common ground as colleagues and as colleagues and as people with that interest. So, the questions are different now. Jo Reed: And what questions are there? Kyle Donnelly: Well <laughs>, I like to ask the really, really basic questions, like, you know, today it came up-- " Why did they have the first Pettus Bridge and the marchers got beat up, when what they were doing was not illegal, and no one was arrested for it-- either the marchers or the police-- there were no consequences to it, but what made it historic, more than anything is it was televised. So, it got spread all over the world, when so many actions that happened before were not seen by the world. And so, it's kind of a mystery to me-- the whole Jim Crow thing, the whole, "We can beat up this person because they're not a person," is something that I struggle with, and we all should, because it's a part of our history as Americans. Jo Reed: And it's interesting because we see it played out with another iteration of media through iPhones now. Kyle Donnelly: Yes, yeah. Jo Reed: And a new and added awareness. Kyle Donnelly: So much of the events and the incidences that we learn about is because they're recorded. And, you know, people should record things. People should-- you have to catch people in the act. Jo Reed: Let me ask you this. How do you rehearse with the cast? Do you get them on their feet early? Do you sit at table for a while and discuss? How do you approach it? Kyle Donnelly: Well with this—with All the Way and this play, we have a first rehearsal where we ready through and talk and show designs and all that. I spent two days at the table where we talk through the text, and ask questions, and fill in detail. And you know, we don't do it that extensively, but we do it so that everyone's got a common language, and we sort of begin to understand the sequence of events of the play-- which is very tricky in this play. I like to then stage right away. And by that, I don't mean, "You move here, you move there." But with this play we had to develop a whole stack of ground plans, so each scene has its own furniture placement, you know, location placement. So, I like to kind of get through that, so that I have all the scenes sort of up on their feet. Really starting today-- this is the fun part for me-- is digging into the scenes. So, we already have a physical shape, which I will change all the time as we go, eventually settle down. But we start to really talk about character, what are they doing there? What's happened before this? All-- filling in the details, and then being very specific about text. So, we do that for the next week-and-a-half, two weeks, and then we move onstage and then we go into tech. So, it's a matter of, for me, I like to have what I call "the skeleton," and then I like to fill in "the flesh and muscle," and then we put it together. But I don't-- when I stage, I will put out furniture and tell people, "This is the entrance; this is the exit," and then I see where they go, and then I start to use what the actors have to shape. I like it to see how they naturally want to move in a space. And sometimes that works, and sometimes you have to really adjust it. So. (Music Up) Jo Reed: What about deepening our understanding, or even the actor's understanding of the relationship between LBJ and Dr. King? I mean, how does that happen in this play? Kyle Donnelly: Well, you know, we've all done a certain amount of research and we all understand a certain amount of the story and what happened behind it. And I always think that actors know more about their characters than I will know, because they will pursue that one character deeply. But then in rehearsal we have to base what we're doing a lot on what they say, and what they don't say, you know? So that if a character says a very particular thing to the President, that's meaningful. You know? We can add layers of preparation and history behind it, so we know what point of view a character might come into a scene with. So, in this play, I often ask the question, "Why is this meeting taking place?” -- if it's an Oval Office scene--"Did you ask to meet the President? Or did the President call you to this meeting?" That makes a big difference in how someone enters a scene, what their expectations are of that scene. And so that preparation and that point of view becomes very important to then what happens and what they say in the scene. Jo Reed: Yeah, I heard that it was very interesting in the rehearsal that I just observed of you asking the actor who plays Stokely Carmichael, "Is the first time you're suggesting non-violence might not be the answer?" Kyle Donnelly: Right! Exactly, exactly. And actors-- or smart actors often have a lot of very complicated answers to those questions, and that's great, except you got to hone it down to what's playable. Jo Reed: I'm curious about the challenges that you must face, and the actors as well. You're portraying people who, because of television, because of movies, because of YouTube, we all pretty much know who they are, not just what they look like, but also what they sound like. And you clearly want to reference that, but you don't want to mimic it. Kyle Donnelly: No, no. That's the thing. I mean, we're not doing a-- I can't think of the right word for it. Jo Reed: Docudrama. Kyle Donnelly: It's not a docudrama. It's an interpretation of history. So, my way of looking at it is we work with costumes to give a sense of who that person was. Whether it's through hair, you know, facial hair, costuming, of course, all the stuff to give them a sense of transformation, but not fully transformed, because we're not using full prosthetics or anything like that that movies do. But and then to try to understand why the character speaks the way they are, that hopefully is close to the original person. A lot of the actors go off and listen to the original people to try to get a sense of their rhythm, perhaps their dialect, perhaps their-- the pitch of their voice, you know? And where it becomes tricky is when an actor has to play more than one significant role is finding the differentiation between those roles, so that the audience are getting clues that, not only do they look different, but they're a different person. And some-- and usually that's based on what we now about the character. One thing that's fun nowadays is you can go on YouTube and see most of these people behave, at least in that format, and get a sense of how their energy was, how they gestured, you know, and it's not to restrict the actors to that, but to get inspiration from it. Jo Reed: And as you mentioned, many of the actors were in All the Way, and now they're in The Great Society, and on one hand they know the part, but it's at a different point in these characters' lives. Kyle Donnelly: Yeah. Exactly. Jo Reed: Which is, you know, I can imagine can be challenging for everybody. Kyle Donnelly: But it's also fun for the actor, because they get to continue the work on that person. And you often don't get that opportunity to contin-- unless you're doing it a series television show or something, where you get to continue developing the same character late-- a bit-- it's not that much later, actually, because The Great Society really starts when All the Way ended. Jo Reed: In '65. Kyle Donnelly: Yes, January '65. So that it's just as he's been inaugurated as President. So, it's not that big of a leap in time. Jo Reed: But what a difference. Kyle Donnelly: Yeah, oh! It's tragic. I mean, it's scary to see-- the '60s really were as turbulent as-- and it gets worse after this play ends, with Nixon and the war and everything that we know about what happened. Jo Reed: Yeah, yeah. Did you always love theater? Kyle Donnelly: I've done theater since I was a kid. Yeah, so that's all I ever wanted to do. Jo Reed: Directing, particularly, or-- Kyle Donnelly: No. I mean, like a lot of people, I started doing, like performing, and-- but I directed at a young age, and I also did-- I did a lot of different things like you have to, if you want to learn theater. I did costume design, I did all sorts of stuff. And it wasn't until the end of my undergraduate career that I discovered directing. And that's when I went, "Ah, that's it. That's how I see it." But a lot of people started as performers, because that's what you know. You know? But I really didn't like-- I didn't want to be an actor. Not really. Doesn't appeal to me. Jo Reed: What skill set do you think a director needs to bring to the table? Kyle Donnelly: Well, you know, there's a lot of different kinds of directors. And there are directors who have a very strong visual sense, and their work is very moving actors into position, and sculpting, and you know. I'm a director who is very interactive with the cast, and so I have to be good at talking with ac-- speaking with actors, speaking to them, offering suggestions, but giving them a certain amount of freedom. So, there's a lot of people skills, clearly, that are involved. You also have to be willing to be the leader. It doesn't mean that you have to be dictatorial-- there are directors like that, too-- but you have to be willing to lead the room. And you have to be able to be inspiring and get down to business, and stick to a deadline, because we are under a deadline. You know, opening nights don't get changed usually. So, there's a certain amount of organizational skills you have to stick with, or at least get the right people to help you with. And I think you have to have a vision. You have to have a vision to see “Why am I doing this piece, and what makes it important to me, and how do I want to do it?” Because there's no given how a play should be done. And if someone thinks that, that's too bad, because it's-- that's a shame. Because we're an interpretive art form. So, you have to go in going, "What's my way of doing this particular thing?" I also think directing is very personal. People don't realize that. But you're expressing a certain level-- not necessarily the point of view of the play, or the opinions of the characters. But there's a part of you in that. And I think you have to-- I think that's important to access as a director. Kyle Donnelly: It’s funny, we are in communication with Robert Schenkkan. Jo Reed: And Robert Schenkkan wrote All the Way and The Great Society. Kyle Donnelly: We are doing the first production of this play since he cut it. He's cut it. It was originally a three-act with two intermissions. And now we're a two-act with one intermission. So, there's a lot of changes in it. So, we are in communication about that. I think that you work intensively with the playwright when it's a new play, clearly, because it can go through a lot of changes, and feedback. My philosophy on a play that's already been produced and I'm doing it, whether it's revival or whatever it is, I feel like it should be clear on the page what needs to be done. And it's up to me to interpret that. So, I don't tend to have long conversations with playwrights, because I feel like they did their job. And now I get to go ahead and do my version of their words. And you have to honor that; but obviously, if something is really unclear, or if I feel like there's a real problem in the script, I would communicate with them. But in general, I don't. Jo Reed: You have had such a long and fruitful relationship with Arena Stage. Kyle Donnelly: Yes, I have. Jo Reed: What keeps bringing you back? Kyle Donnelly: I love working in this theater. I love the staff here. I and I also fell in love with the Fichandler, the theater in the round. And it's a very unique space, and I love doing shows in there. I've worked in round spaces that, you know, I didn't have as much fondness for. I have a particular fondness for this one, probably because I learned how to stage in the round in this one. Jo Reed: What do you like about doing shows in the round? Because that always seems very difficult to me. Kyle Donnelly: It is difficult. It's not just any in the round, I have to say, although I do like doing stuff in the round. I like the fact that the central element has to be the actor. And you can't hide anything. So, you see the actor all the way around. You see everything they do. You have to accept their backs, their fronts, their sides, everything. And you don't want to do small plays. You have to do a sort of epic kind of play. Not-- doesn't mean big. But it has to have an epic theme or feel to it, because of the demands of the space. And so, I like that a lot. And it's a challenge. I learn new things every time I work in there. I think the fun for me as a director is I get to think sculpturally, not pictorially, working in the round, because you're really looking at a sculpture. And when you're doing straight-on proscenium, you're looking at a picture. And I find the sculpture to be very appealing, and I feel like the audience is never that far away from what's going on. And so that's very engaging. It's a real learning curve. You know? Staging in the round is unlike any other form. It's not like thrust, it's not lie proscenium. It's a very different way of thinking. Yeah. Jo Reed: I like with the analogy of picture versus sculpture that makes perfect sense-- You're a teacher! Kyle Donnelly: Yes. Jo Reed: And wasn't Bowman one of your students? Kyle Donnelly: Yes, yep! Yep! Jo Reed: As a teacher, what do you try to get your students to understand, not only about their art, but also about this business? Kyle Donnelly: Well, my perspective is changing slightly now, because I don't-- I just left my job at University of California San Diego, this past summer. So, I was there almost 20 years, and I ran the MFA Acting Program there. So that job is different from what I teach now. Now I teach professional studio classes in New York, on my own. So, when I'm in charge of an MFA program, it's a lot to do with the ongoing training over a three-year period that an actor needs. It's about production and presenting them and the life of the theater. There's only so much you can teach somebody about what it really is to get out there and do it. I think the most successful part of what we did was giving them enough feedback and enough craft and toolkits that they came out with a certain level of confidence. They weren't terrified of getting into auditions and getting the work. They knew they had a skill set. Now my job as a teacher, it's not dissimilar, and I did this also in an MFA program is getting people to use themselves as effectively as possible. That doesn't mean they only play a character that's close to them. It means listening to themselves and listening to their impulses, and then applying that to character. If you can get that going with somebody-- if somebody really has that as the root of who they are, they have a much-- I wouldn't say better time as an actor-- but they have a grounding. So those are the things that I really believe in. I mean, there's a lot of skills people learn. You know, voice, speech, movement, combat, you know, acting on the camera, all those things. But at the heart of it, good acting is good acting. Jo Reed: I wonder because you teach, and then here you are a director. And obviously, you know, the casting director will make suggestions about who you see. But then you have to sit there and make these decisions about people. Obviously, you're a professional, you're going to do what's best for the play, but it has to rip at your heart a little! Kyle Donnelly: Oh, yeah, I mean, you're always having to reject somebody. I mean, that's just a fact. Because I've done this for so long, because I've taught it for so long and directed for so long, I have a pretty good instinct about actors. So, it doesn't take me a long exhaustive process to decide if I wanted to work with somebody. The good side of that is I don't put actors through long exhaustive auditions. I do see them. I do audition them. Unless they're somebody I know-- I love to give offers to people I know, you know? But bottom line, and this is where you, as a director you can be friends with actors, but bottom line you can't cast somebody unless they're right for the part. And that has to be a clearly drawn line. It's skill, it's talent, it's also does this person right for this project? You know, do they fit? Does their energy their rhythm, their sense of being in the world, you know, someone can be-- do extremely well at high style comedy, Noel Coward, you know, and try to put them in an Irish rural play-- some actors can do that, but some can't. You know, it's a very different world. Jo Reed: And it's also working as part of an ensemble, and I would think there's also a skill in understanding, "Okay, this is how they're auditioning, but how are they going to fit?" Kyle Donnelly: Oh, it's very important to me that I learn about somebody before I hire them. That they're not someone who causes problems. And by that, I mean, I don't mean good work, I mean, someone who brings in negative energy in the room, or is not disciplined, or has caused problems before. We check into people. I mean I don't want the psycho in the room. I want the people who really are going to step up. And this ensemble is particularly good. You know? It's particularly good. Because this has to be an ensemble effort. It’s about LBJ and Martin Luther King, but everyone's around onstage the whole time. And they have to cooperatively work, and you can't afford divas in something like this. Jo Reed: Yeah, in the scene I just saw in rehearsal-- the four actors who were playing Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King, Stokely Carmichael and Bob Moses-- it was almost as though they were a chorus the way they played that scene. Kyle Donnelly: Exactly, it is. And so, you want actors who are not, "Me, me, me, me!" I don't tend to work with those kind of people anyway. You know, there's a sort of generosity with actors who know what their job is. And I don't mean stepping back, I just mean being part of the whole world. I think when we sit around and talk a lot about the play, and early on, that tends to bond people in the same world, too because everyone's learning a lot of the same things, and coming from a very similar point of view, and great actors that are fun to work with. Jo Reed: What compels you to choose to direct one play over another? Kyle Donnelly: That's a tricky question, because it's not just the play. Although the play is the most important thing. It's the play, it's the venue, it's where it is, what kind of space it's going to be in. What kind of talent can the theater attract? What's the budget, you know? All those factors-- and I have plays, you know, that I want to do at some point, but in terms of an actual job, it's all those factors combined. It's not just "the play." Jo Reed: You've been at Arena for so many plays. Is there something distinctive about a Washington audience? And even broadening this out, because you've directed around the country, do cities have distinctive audiences? Kyle Donnelly: Yes, definitely. I have to say that was a-- I didn't bring this up before, but that was another thing I knew would be the most fun about doing a play like this was doing it in Washington. Because with All the Way, people got references that I don't think other cities would get. And that was fun. It's really fun, because this audience is so sharp, especially with the political environment, so you don't have to explain. There's nothing-- people aren't going to be in the dark about the historical/political aspect of the play. And that makes me more comfortable. It’s all-- it's very complicated. And so that's really part of the fun. Yeah, I've done shows where-- I did a show in a very kind of sparkly English comedy in one city, and the audiences went, "Wah-ha-ha!" crazy for it! We took the exact same production into another city and people were sitting there going, "Should we laugh? I'm not sure if we should laugh." And it was-- it had to be the audience, you know? And it wasn't any less funny in the second city, it was just a different place. So yes, cities have their own character, their own audience. They laugh at different things as far as comedy goes. Or they get offended at different things, or they are eager to see different things. So, there's no question in my mind that there's a big diff-- because I've worked all over the country. Jo Reed: I find that fascinating! Kyle Donnelly: Yeah, it's really interesting. Jo Reed: I mean-- from country to country, that would make sense. Kyle Donnelly: Yeah. Jo Reed: Because humor, it's so hard to translate from one language to another. But within the country-- well, we're a vast country. Kyle Donnelly: I was going to say, we're such a big country, that we're like a lot of little countries. You know, so I lived in California for a long time, and California is about three countries. You know, at least. You know, you've got Northern, you've got the Juaquin Valley, and the whole East side of California, and then you've got Southern. And I'm sure there's other areas, but those are very distinct temperature, climate, population, you know, education. It's amazing the difference. And that's one state. Jo Reed: Well, Kyle, I will let you go. You've had a long day. Kyle Donnelly: Oh, thank you! Jo Reed: And I really thank you for giving me your time. Kyle Donnelly: Oh, thank you! Jo Reed: I appreciate it. Kyle Donnelly: Okay. Jo Reed: And I loved watching the rehearsal and I can't wait to see the play. Kyle Donnelly: Great, thanks! That’s Kyle Donnelly, she’s the director of The Great Society which is running at Arena Stage from February 2nd through March 11th. You can find out more at You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. And the Art Works podcast is now available on iTunes. So please, subscribe and if you like us—leave us a rating—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. Music Credit: “Appetite,” composed and performed by Proviant Audio from the album, Mushroom.

Interpreting history with All the Way and The Great Society.