Tony Kushner Q&A: Angels approaching

tonykushnerPerhaps the most eagerly awaited production of the fall season is Signature Theatre Company's revival of Tony Kushner's two-part masterpiece, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, directed by Michael Grief and featuring a cast led by Christian Borle, Frank Wood and Zachary Quinto. (The run has just been extended by six weeks, through January 30, 2011; tickets are now on sale, but have been selling out instantly, so act fast.) Widely considered one of the most important plays of the past 50 years, Angels has not had a major New York City revival since taking Broadway by hurricane in 1993; we chatted with Kushner about the upcoming revival a few months ago for our annual student guide, where a version of the interview below first appeared.

Time Out New York: It's now been more than 15 years since you wrote Angels, and the climate for gay rights and the issues surrounding the AIDS crisis have changed since then. How does that change the way that the play operates?
Tony Kushner:
To some extent it's a play about a very difficult period that is increasingly remote in time, but it seems to me that the aspects of the play that are not sort of intended to document the way life was lived during that period are aging nicely. People seem to still get a lot out of the play, so it doesn't seem to me that it's being regarded as a period piece—and that's of course my hope, that it doesn't come across that way. I mean, it was never intended to be a simple polemic on the state of gay rights or the AIDS epidemic in the middle of the '80s. It was always aiming for things beyond that, and the side of the play that's explicitly political, I think there's a certain currency to it now. I mean, it sorts of looks at the period right after the second term began for Reagan, but we're still deeply entrapped in the mentality of Reaganism. And progressive people still have, as one of their main obstacles, the 30 years of really dreadful assumptions and political chicanery of the Reagan years. So I feel like to the extent that the play is polemical, the thing it's polemicizing against is still current.

The original Broadway production of Angels in America was epic in scale. How will that play Off Broadway at the much smaller Signature space?
I've never felt that there was only one right way to do the play. Ivo van Hove's astonishing production at the Toneelgroep in Amsterdam was done with no scenery whatsoever—literally, not even chairs. I mean, nothing onstage. And it was kind of extraordinary. There were no special effects, there was no magic—there were video projections, but they were not in any way literal. And I've seen a number of productions of Angels that have worked with very little scenery. You know, when I wrote it, I was having fun asking directors and designers to do things that I felt that the theater had surrendered to the movies, essentially, because we don't have the illusion as well as the movies do—which I felt was kind of a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of theatrical illusion: that it's not intended to be effective on some level. It's intended to be witty or clever or surprising or poetic, but it's always sort of transparently fake. And I felt that we had sort of abandoned the way of making illusion the way stagecraft people did in the 19th century when there was no film to compete with. So I put in a lot of stuff—people disappearing and appearing and climbing ladders and all that—to see what directors would do. Some directors have really grabbed hold of that, and some have paid very little attention to it. But I've never felt that there was only one right way to do the play, you know. Angels, for all its size, is essentially 71 scenes between mostly two characters; it's very intimate. And I love the Signature space for that kind of playing. It's harder to do the intimacy when you're in a gigantic auditorium. And I'm excited about that. I do wish the ceiling were higher; I always feel that it's important to fly the angel in. Although again, in Ivo's production in Amsterdam, the angel just sort of walked onstage, and it was still enormously moving and effective.

To you, what's the most appealing thing about the theater, as opposed to movies or television?
I think the fact that it's not a commodity form and that it's living and alive, that it isn't an object. It isn't a finished thing. It's a process. I certainly expect to do some rewriting on Perestroika when Angels opens, but even if the play is more or less done, the theatrical event, the live event is not. It asks people to engage collectively in a relationship with an event, with an action, with a field of meaning and not with a thing, not with an object—and to engage in an event that will respond and be transformed by the degree of your engagement with it. So it has a fluidity in that sense, and a completely human quality, that I think no recorded event can have—which isn't to say that theater is superior, but it's a different kind of experience, and the difficulties and awkwardnesses and inconveniences and imperfections of theater are all part of the power of theatricality. And maybe now that we're entering into the Avatar age, it's even more true that theater teaches a kind of double consciousness, a critical consciousness: You have to learn, if you're really going to play the game and understand what is going on in front of you, you have to be willing to consider the way in which what you're looking at both is and isn't what it appears to be—what the nature of artifice is, and how it relates to meaning and understanding. You could argue that all art participates in questions of artifice and reality, but I think theater more than any other form is a construct that places that dialectic at the center of an event. And I think what makes theater so essential and irreplaceable is that we desperately need to struggle with those questions. Those are the questions that life presents us with over and over again, and you have to be able to see double to be able to make sense of life.