In Conversation with Tony Kushner
On the first day of rehearsal for Angels in America, an unseasonably warm day in February, Director Charles Newell and the cast were joined by playwright Tony Kushner. Before an audience of staff, crew, donors, and university professors and students, Mr. Kushner and Mr. Newell chatted about Angels in America and their working relationship to date.
Charlie Newell: Thank you everyone for being here today. This is a glorious moment for Court Theatre, and we’re so glad you’re here to share it with us. (Pause) Hi Tony. (Laughter) I guess the first thing, perhaps the obvious question, is: Tony, why Angels in America now?
Tony Kushner: Well, you’re the one who’s doing it. (Laughter) I can’t answer it because why any play ever? You know the play has an identity with—not the early days but the late early days—of the epidemic, and the arrival of the play on Broadway coincided with a turning in public consciousness and certainly the end of a criminal level of denial of the epidemic in the United States, if not an actual genuine shouldering of the requirements needed to really address the consequences of the epidemic nationally (or, God knows, globally). That connection means a lot to me. I felt at the time—the play opened on Broadway in ’93—that it was clear that one of the things it provided—one place, the AIDS quilt was certainly another—was a kind of collective mourning process. Everyone had been going through private levels of grief, and in certain communities there was an organized form of it, but there was clearly a great need for any sort of public gathering to be with a large group of people and acknowledge that at that point we were more than ten years into the epidemic and a large percentage of a couple of generations was lost, and it was a source of great pride to me that Angels functioned as that.
But I’ve never thought of the play as a play about AIDS. We were reading Millennium Approaches yesterday and Rob [Lindley] read the line when Prior’s in bed when the Angel’s about to—spoiler alert—(Laughter) something scary is about to happen, and he says “my name is Prior and I live here and now,” and in the way that things do, that line really jumped out at me. That was really the mission I gave myself when I started the play in 1988—it was my second play and my first play had been set in Weimar, Germany—so I wanted to write about being alive in the here and now, and what that felt like, and so I wrote about the biological catastrophe of the epidemic and the political catastrophe of Reaganism, and the way in which those things [were] what seemed to me to be the beginnings of a really terrifying transformation of the relationship between people and the planet and the sustainability of life on the planet. So those were sort of concerns, but it really felt like my job was to raise public awareness about the epidemic, and in a way, I don’t feel that my play or any play has the job of advocating for a particular group. I mean, I’m a gay man, I’m very happy that I’m a gay man, and I’ve participated—to the extent that I’ve been an activist—helping end homophobia and advance the enfranchisement of the LGBT community. But I don’t think that a play that has as its objectives sort of teaching people to feel one way or shed a prejudice is going to be a good or interesting play, because an essay is a much more efficient way of doing it. The power of a play is a kind of indirect power, and if you don’t agree with that, as a playwright you’re likely to write a play [where], you know, people can just sign a pledge card and stay at home and watch RuPaul’s Drag Race on television.
So there are things in the play that feel relevant, there are things in the play that are very sadly still relevant, I mean neither the biological catastrophe or the political catastrophe I described have passed from our midst. It’s been twenty years since Angels first appeared, and I’m feeling more confident than I’ve felt about many other things that the play has a certain kind of lasting…—there’s something in there that works—so I feel having seen your work and knowing that you’re a serious artist that the real purpose is just to figure out what’s going on with Joe and Harper and why are they having this problem, and to arrive at those answers in the most specific moment-to-moment way, and then hopefully the play will speak and will speak to every audience it’s performed for: both individually, in very private ways, and also communally and collectively. It’s Act 5, Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the thing that it does is really much like—Shakespeare was right—it really is the relationship of the sleeper to the dream. The choice to make those connections is really not our responsibility, as much as it is the choice of the audience: because, like a sleeper, you wake up and you can remember the dream, you can forget the dream, you can understand the dream, you can be baffled by the dream, you can have the dream for forty years until you understand the dream, and then you can choose to act on what your unconscious is very cleverly trying to set up for you. I think that it’s that connection. The real [answer to your question] for us is: now, because we’re doing it now, and, you know—why not?
CN: Why Angels here at Court Theatre?
TK: Well I loved your production of Caroline, or Change, I loved your production of The Illusion… I’ve found the working relationship wonderful, and your relationship with the community of scholars. You go to great universities, and theatres that are closely associated with great universities, and you always think, “Oh God, this is going to be great because we’re going to get this really smart audience,” but for some weird reason, a number of these theatres have notoriously some of the worst audiences on the planet, and they’re people who really don’t want to be there, and students who have all been forced in by Freshman Drama 101, and they really got excited about Dames at Sea but they’re sitting through your long and very intelligent play and bored out of their mind. (Laughter) Whenever you go to a theater for the first time that’s doing one of your plays, the first thing you pay attention to is what’s the audience like, if it’s in a city other than yours. I’ve done a lot of work in Chicago, so I know that this is a great theatre city, and the audiences are eager for complexity and difficulty and very smart and wonderful audiences. But I’ve found in the Court a thrilling mix of people from the local community, people from the academic community, and a lot of the professors I’ve spoken to at these meetings, are people who really genuinely love theater and genuinely love theater as an art, rather than—and of course, everyone loves to hear gossip—but it’s not just about who won the Tony Award this year, which means it’s an academic community that actually takes theater seriously. I think that a lot of what happens in some of these other places is that they’re all incredibly brilliant people who think that theater is a kind of inferior and antiquated luxury for people who don’t have anything better to do with their time or who aren’t good enough to teach at their university. And I really have felt with the scholars that I’ve met, the people who are studying and writing about theater, that they’re not only writing about it but they have an actual vital engagement with the process of making it. I think that everyone without exception has said to me that the connection with the Court is a big part of that, which is thrilling.
Angels is a very long—and it’s legitimately called an epic—play, but it’s really seventy-one incredibly intimate little scenes, so it needs size, but it also needs… it’s terrifying, it’ll go by like that, I promise. I mean part of an epic, the idea of an epic, I think, is it’s not really an epic unless it wears you out at some point, you should get to the finish line happy but really tired. If you haven’t, then you haven’t yourself replicated the epic journey. An epic shouldn’t be easy, and it should hurt your butt and cause various kinds of circulatory problems, but it needs both a kind of size and a kind of intimacy, and theatres like the Court are beautifully designed to have room to [have] that kind of scale, but the person farthest away in the audience from the stage is still right there, [and] that makes all the difference in the world. And you guys [the cast] I’m sure would agree with me about that, that you’re not pushing it against a vast sea of blue carpet. It’s a great space. ◼