It’s rarely just one thing for playwright Tony Kushner. Speaking before a packed Memorial Chapel last Friday evening, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such works as “Angels in America” and “Caroline, or Change” shared his thoughts on everything from national politics to his personal creative process with a mixture of ruminative ambivalence, unapologetic humor and guarded optimism characteristic of his acclaimed style.
Kushner, who was interviewed by longtime collaborator and theater luminary Oskar Eustis, often touched on the tension between political idealism and human fallibility—a tension explored within his plays–throughout the wide-ranging conversation. An outspoken gay rights advocate and longtime socialist whose theatrical work frequently tackles the thornier political and social issues of the day, Kushner reflected on the pitfalls of personal ideology even as he bluntly—and often humorously— poked fun at those to the right of himself on the political spectrum.
“I think we all have to stay aware of the fact that being a progressive person is not a guarantee that you’re not going to make terrible mistakes,” Kushner said. “I mean, being a conservative person is a guarantee that you’re going to make nothing but terrible mistakes.”
Large and seemingly intractable current events lie at the heart of many of Kushner’s plays: the AIDS epidemic in the two-part, seven-hour epic “Angels,” for example, or Afghanistan under Taliban rule in “Homebody/Kabul” (which had its New York premiere just two months after U.S. forces entered Afghanistan following the September 11th attacks). Kushner observed that his artistic responses to these events stem from a sense of responsibility to grapple with issues that frustrate him or make him uncomfortable.
“There are things that you turn away from because they frighten you,” Kushner said. “There’s too much cognitive dissonance and friction between what you want to be true and what you desire to happen in order to be safe, and what’s actually happening in the world.”
Such “cognitive dissonance” between his loyalty to socialist principles and the sobering realities of their implementation throughout the world drove Kushner to follow Afghanistan’s development–from the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979 to the establishment of a de facto theocracy by the Taliban in the 1990s. Writing “Homebody” became a way of working through this friction between personal beliefs and international events.
Similarly, Kushner wrote “Angels” earlier in his career as a partial response to the tension between the selfless responses by the gay community to the AIDS epidemic in New York City and the individualism espoused by President Ronald Reagan.
“How interesting, politically, that people were having to learn sacrifice and learn caregiving at a moment when we had just elected this wizened old horror who was telling us that the greatest virtue was to be selfish,” Kushner said.
These contradictions and conflicts form the core of Kushner’s plays, with characters whose (often progressive) beliefs come coupled with deep-seated traumas and insecurities that turn the enactment of personal change into a perennial struggle. Dramatizing ambivalence and stasis on stage, however, can have its share of difficulties. Kushner recalled with a laugh a conversation he had with actor Jeff King, who played closeted Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt in the world premiere production of “Angels” at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum in 1992. King pointed out that Joe did not seem to change in any significant way over the course of the play.
“I got very huffy, you know, and said, ‘How does Hamlet change?’” Kushner recalled. “‘He dies in the end. Maybe Joe doesn’t change. Change takes a long time.’ And Jeff says, ‘You know, it’s seven hours long, this play. It’s enough time for him to learn trigonometry.’”
Eustis directed that production of “Angels,” and he originally commissioned the play while at the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco. In addition to “Angels,” Eustis— who currently serves as Artistic Director of The Public Theater in New York—has also directed “Homebody/Kabul” at Trinity Rep in Providence, RI. The two men have remained close throughout their professional lives, with Kushner at one point saying that he shows anything he writes to Eustis, who then proceeds to “make it better.”
Though the evening’s focus remained on Kushner, Visiting Professor of Theater David Jaffe paid tribute to Eustis in his introduction to the event, praising his role in shepherding and developing original theatrical works over the last two decades.
“Above all, Oskar Eustis is a nurturer of new voices and new visionaries in the American theater,” Jaffe said. “They have a big, strong, bearded advocate in this man.”
Their comfort level with one another was evident throughout the evening, with Kushner recalling shared experiences the two had while working on “Angels” and Eustis occasionally extrapolating and even augmenting Kushner’s statements. At one point in the conversation, Kushner began making the case for collective voting, saying that individuals who lived in cities and other concentrated areas were more intelligent and politically active than those who didn’t. Eustis gently reminded him of the long history of populist activism amongst American farmers. With a sly smile, Kushner acquiesced.
“Yes, yes, that is true,” Kushner said in response to Eustis’ comment, before adding with a laugh, “But that’s not my point.”
Director of the Center for the Arts Pamela Tatge commented after the event that this level of rapport between the two artists made for a richer viewing experience as well.
“Because of Tony’s long history with Oskar, Tony was at ease, and was able to express himself in a very deep and moving way,” Tatge said. “I enjoyed watching their interaction.”
Noelle Goodman-Morris, an Artistic Resident at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven who traveled to see the lecture, agreed that the level of familiarity allowed for the sorts of conversational digressions that often prove quite revealing.
“There was the possibility to relate on a more personal level,” Goodman-Morris said after the event. “There’s more room to go off topic and that can be the most fascinating.”
Kushner also proved open to discussing his own creative process, which he fully admitted is full of stops and starts. He recently began asking his assistant to come and meet him at his office at a certain time in the morning, to ensure that he will get there on a regular basis. This has helped, but he added with a laugh that his reputation for pushing past due dates remains largely true.
“I feel like I’m lucky because it’s been a very long time since I’ve had a chance to stop and think, ‘What am I going to work on now,’ because I’m always late with everything,” Kushner said. “It’s more like, ‘Who’s going to sue me?’”
Screenwriting has become a preoccupation of his in the last few years. He received an Academy Award nomination in 2005 for Best Adapted Screenplay—along with Eric Roth—for Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” and is currently working on the script for “Lincoln,” which will also be directed by Spielberg and is slated to star Liam Neeson in the title role. The film is set for release in 2011.
It was while working on this screenplay, Kushner said, that he began to reconsider another Illinois politician making a stratospheric rise within a presidential race. When considering who to vote for in last year’s Democratic primary, Kushner said he was all ready to pull the lever for Hillary Clinton, adding that he was genuinely suspicious of Barack Obama’s post-partisan rhetoric.
“I wasn’t angry at Obama, but this stuff about how we’re not a red country or a blue country: I don’t like that talk,” Kushner said. “What that means is we’ll find common ground and the common ground will be that we’ll all walk across gay rights and, in a way, bodies of gay people.”
As the race progressed and Kushner continued to see persuasive parallels between Lincoln and Obama’s skills as politicians and writers, he was eventually won over and now finds himself in almost in disbelief over how much hope he has for the new president.
“[Obama’s] clearly a politician of the most astonishing talents,” Kushner said. “For the first time in my lifetime, there is somebody who looks like a possible candidate for genuine greatness, and maybe more.”
Part of the Outside the Box Theater Series, the event also included two short readings of Kushner’s work that he himself performed at the beginning of the evening. The first, a short play entitled “A Prayer for New York,” tells of a secular Jewish lawyer presenting a legal brief to God on behalf of a post-9/11 New York City and his vocal, more religiously inclined mother. Kushner enacted both parts with brio, emphasizing key words and moments with hand gestures that reappeared throughout the evening. He also read an untitled poem about the creation of stars from his children’s play, “Yes, Yes, No, No.” Additionally, Kushner had smaller discussions with students and faculty from the Theater and FGSS departments earlier in the day.
Tatge had been trying to get Kushner to come to the University for roughly two-and-a-half years, but writing commitments and a busy schedule prevented it. Kushner was originally scheduled to come to campus last semester on October, but had to postpone the event for personal reasons.
Based upon the reactions of those who attended the event, it seemed to have been worth the wait. Jonathan Silva ’12, a member of the event’s staff as well as an audience member, said that he thought the speaker and environment were well-matched.
“The feeling of the event was warm and welcoming,” he said. “I thought he went into depth about his ideas and the development of his ideas.”
Ben Smolen ’10 enjoyed the talk as well, though he wished the conversation had stayed more focused upon the arts.
“I wish he talked a little more about theater,” he said. “But it was fun hearing him speak.”
And for Todd Yocher, the Assistant to the Artistic Director at the Long Wharf Theatre who traveled with Goodman-Morris to the event, the evening confirmed thoughts and feelings he’d had about Kushner’s work since first encountering it.
“I have been a fan of Tony Kushner ever since I saw “Angels in America” and was completely mesmerized with his words,” Yocher said. “I recall not quite understanding it all, but it made me want to understand because it was so dynamic and exciting. I felt that way tonight.”
Kushner is currently finishing his new play—with the verbose title “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures”—which will have its world premiere at The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis this coming May. He admits the script still has a ways to go, joking that the sprawling title provides the perfect cover to include essentially whatever he wants within the play. Then again, thinking broad and going deep are two ideas that Kushner seems not only comfortable with, but sees as the most effective way to mine those difficult subjects he so values.
“Your job is to risk making a fool of yourself,” Kushner said. “Your job is to risk being wrong. You have to aspire for more than you can attain in order to make something that’s exciting and risky and dangerous for the audience. And that’s entertaining—which is ultimately, of course, your job.”