Thursday, November 18, 2010

Playwrights in Person, part 3: Tony Kushner

I hope neither Brooke Berman nor Liz Duffy Adams would feel offended if I said that, in retrospect, seeing them in person felt like the soup and salad courses of a fancy dinner, and seeing Tony Kushner speak at the Herbst Theater on November 6 felt like the main dish. (This, despite the fact that I chatted with Berman and asked Adams a question during a talk-back, whereas I didn't directly communicate with Kushner at all.) Face it, Tony Kushner is the author of the most important and influential American play of my lifetime, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to hear him speak in person.

Kushner had come to town for the opening of a new exhibit at the Museum of Performance and Design, "More Life! Angels in America at Twenty" (which I have not yet seen). His talk on Saturday took the form of an hour-long chat with the museum director, with some time for questions from the audience.

I was disappointed that the Herbst Theater was only half full--I'd thought that the San Francisco gay community would have turned out in force. I sat with about six of my friends toward the back of the theater; so the "young San Francisco theater community" made a respectable showing, at least.

One gets the impression from reading Kushner's work, or articles about him, that he is extremely intelligent, agonizingly self-conscious, and never quite at his ease. Seeing him in person bore this out; the applause embarrassed him, and his three-piece suit was a little too big for him. And yet, it is so fascinating to listen to him talk and argue, to hear him employ million-dollar words and instantly quotable phrases. For instance, he said that if he were writing Angels in America now, he'd have a harder time feeling sympathy for the Mormon characters, because the Mormon church nowadays is so much more politically active than it used to be (cf. Prop. 8). But, twenty years ago, the Mormon church "did not yet engage in the kind of sulfurous evangelism that has come to define them." Yes, Tony Kushner can come up with phrases like "sulfurous evangelism" when speaking off the cuff. I was dazzled.

I'm always fascinated to learn what shaped my favorite works of art, especially when it happened in unexpected ways. Kushner talked about how the Eureka Theater, in San Francisco, commissioned him to write Angels in America when all he had was the seed of an idea for a play about AIDS and Roy Cohn. Even though this original idea implied a lot of gay male characters, the Eureka had three resident actresses, and Kushner was instructed to include parts for all of them. Thus, we get Hannah, Harper, and a female Angel. And I think the play is immeasurably stronger--it becomes universal--because it includes such great roles for women.

He wrote the early drafts of the play while living in San Francisco, going to the Café Flore (an always-bustling café on a street corner in the Castro--it still exists) and doing his writing there. Evidently, early drafts of the play have a whole parallel plotline that takes place in S.F., before Kushner decided to set all of it in New York City (and assorted metaphysical realms). I've always wondered, though, if he ever considered having any of Angels in America take place in Los Angeles--the City of Angels?

San Francisco is still a presence in the finished script; there's the Angel's "Heaven is a City Much Like San Francisco speech" (sound familiar?), and Harper's decision to move there at the end of the play--where San Francisco is presented as a place of hope and healing.

"Poor Harper," joked Kushner, "someone pointed out to me once that she leaves her gay husband only to move to San Francisco... I mean, what was she thinking?"

At one point during the talk, Kushner defended himself against the charge that he "preaches to the choir" by saying "Historically, haven't some of the most renowned preachers been the ones who preached to the choir?" This must be one of his new "things" to work into his speeches; I found a similar quote in a recent LA Times article. "A great preacher starts with the doubt and uncertainty and skepticism that are the necessary concomitants of faith... He starts in the scary places, in the places where God is silent, in the places where God seems cruel, in the places where the world is not just and where people are ground to dust by monstrous, even satanic, forces where God doesn't intervene. Or where you ceaselessly betray God in your heart and your actions. You start there and progress toward whatever hope for change and light you can find. It's true of the prophets, it's true of John Donne, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King. And it's true of artists."

(Of course Kushner didn't put it quite the same way when I heard him speak, though I do recall that he specifically mentioned John Donne that time, too.)

One of the audience members asked whether Kushner tries to convey a message with his plays, and if so, what it is. Kushner replied that he doesn't think the theater is the right place to convey messages. "If I really had a message," he said, "if all I were trying to do with my plays were to say something like You Should Be Nicer to Gay People, Because Gay People are People Too, I'd put it on a billboard... I'd write it on a fortune cookie! I wouldn't make people sit through a seven-hour play! And then everyone could read their fortune cookies and see the message and go home and watch Project Runway. And they'd probably be a lot happier... although maybe not this year." Whereupon Kushner launched on a hilarious tangent about how much he adores Project Runway, how excited he was when he met Michael Kors recently, and how much he disagrees with the most recent choice of winner. I must say, I had expected Kushner would talk about his disappointment with recent election results... but the results of the 2010 midterm elections, not the results of Project Runway!

I think it is disingenuous of Kushner to say that his plays are not meant to convey any message. Because I think that drama can be a subtler, but more effective way, of getting a message across. Reading a slogan like "Gay People Are People Too" takes five seconds and is quickly forgotten. But to see a seven-hour drama about the lives of five gay men--all of them fascinating, complex characters who are defined by so much more than their sexual orientation--that conveys the message "gay people are people too," and in a much more compelling way. I feel like Kushner probably knows this, but for whatever reason, he won't say it in public.

Kushner concluded by saying something similar to this passage from the above-mentioned LA Times article: "I don't think my plays are polemical. I don't think you can be if you deal in paradox and contradiction. Everyone has principles, an ideological program to which they are more or less consciously adherent, ways in which they fail or ways in which their lives don't fit comfortably with what they profess to believe. And if you're not nuts and you have some kind of inner life, you experience those contradictions as internal stresses that have to be reconciled."

But I recall it as being even more beautifully phrased than this. Something about how it's terrible to write a play about something that you have a black-and-white opinion about... but the only thing that's worse is to write a play about something that you don't have a black-and-white opinion about. It's a contradiction, a paradox, and if you're going to be a playwright, you have to embrace this ambiguity.

It was the perfect note on which to end the talk. I turned to my friend in the seat next to me and we both breathed "Wow..." simultaneously. Tony Kushner. There's no one like him.

For more on Kushner and his unique position in the American theatre, I also recommend this New York Magazine profile of him from last month.

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