“It’s a powerhouse performance by March who is on stage with dialogue for nearly the entire show…”
Jon March is no stranger to Civic Theatre’s stage. He wowed audiences in performances like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Wizard of Oz. In All The Way, he plays Lyndon B. Johnson a role he has named “the most challenging I have ever undertaken”. He shared how LBJ influenced so much of his life, “No public official has had a bigger impact on my life than LBJ. Due to Johnson increasing our involvement in the Vietnam War, I served three years on active duty in the United States Air Force, and the names of several of my high school classmates are on that wall in Washington D.C. Much of my professional life as an employment trial lawyer involved the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is always a real privilege to appear on the Civic stage, and that is especially true playing such a complex character as LBJ, one of the towering figures in American history.”
What drew you to this show and the role of LBJ?
This is an extremely challenging role (for the reasons noted below). At my stage of life, the opportunities to undertake challenging stage roles is limited. In addition, Lyndon Baines Johnson is not only an iconic American historical figure, but he probably has had more impact on my life than any other politician. Thus, I knew I wanted to audition for the part as soon as All The Way was announced for GRCT’s 2017-2018 schedule, and I worked harder preparing for this audition than any audition in the past.
What have you found most challenging about playing such a robust, complicated individual?
The role is easily the most challenging I have ever undertaken, even more challenging than I had anticipated. There are several reasons for that. First, the sheer number of lines to memorize, far more than any other role I have ever had, including the Stage Manager in Our Town and Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Second, the need to use a Texas Hill Country accent, enough to flavor my portrayal historically, but still be understandable to the audience, something very difficult for an amateur actor to accomplish. Third, to try and portray the contrasts in LBJ, a man who sought and utilized power ruthlessly, but who wanted to be loved; a man who could treat people very badly, including those close to him, but who genuinely wanted to help the poor and powerless in our society. If not carefully done, the script could easily result in a caricature portrayal of a profane and nasty man, so it is difficult to find the necessary contrast, balance, and nuance. Director Bruce Tinker has helped me greatly in that search. Whether I have found it remains to be seen. Fourth, the physical and mental demands of the role are extraordinary, at least for a person of my age. I am physically exhausted at the end of each performance, and in fact, pretty close to that state at the end of Act I. The burden is far more than I had anticipated. But, knowing all this, I would still have auditioned.
Besides acting, what are other hobbies or activities you enjoy?
As I tell people, acting is my “golf game.” I have also enjoyed preparing and presenting lectures at Aquinas College’s OLLI program on the subject of Drama and the Courtroom. I hope to put together some new ones once All The Way is finished. I love to spend time with my family. And, I am not entirely retired, and I still have an active mediation practice.
How has your career influenced your work as an actor?
Many people assume that being a trial lawyer and an actor go hand in glove, but they are far different disciplines. Being accustomed to stand up in front of people and talk, as I do as a lawyer, may be of some help, but I know many outstanding actors who are on the shy side in real life. But give them a role, and they breathe life into it. So my answer is, not much. Interestingly, as a high school graduate, I wanted to become a professional actor, and I was accepted at Northwestern University’s school of drama. But, things didn’t work out financially, so I went to Michigan and then Harvard Law School, shelved my acting aspirations, and did not take them out again until decades later, when I enrolled in acting lessons at Civic Theatre.
What is your favorite line from the show?
“All my life as a Southerner, I have had to bite my tongue on this issue [racism] until my mouth was full of blood. But not anymore. What’s the point of being President if you can’t do what you know is right?”
You have a wonderful history with Civic Theatre. What does this organization mean to you?
I love it. I have a wonderful wife of 51+ years, a great family, and I have had a good career, but my involvement with Civic Theatre, and the entire Grand Rapids theatre community, has provided a richness that is priceless. I cannot imagine not having been part of it. When you are on the Civic stage, and connecting with the audience in that historic theatre, it is something very special indeed. My heartfelt thanks to everyone who helps make that possible, for myself and others.
Thanks to Jon for all of the intentional time he has dedicated to bringing a complicated figure to life. We at Civic Theatre are grateful for his friendship and what his support means to the entire theatre community in Grand Rapids. Don’t miss him as LBJ in All The Way on stage through January 28th.