Interview with Pulitzer Prize Winning Playwright TONY KUSHNER
Known for his groundbreaking works including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America and the Olivier-awarded Caroline, Or Change, Tony Kushner has become one of the most prolific playwrights of our generation. I sat down with Mr. Kushner who was in Chicago to receive the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival.
MJR:Let’s talk about The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, a new work that you developed at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis this past year. How did the concept come to fruition for you?
TK: The way all ideas come about. I had been thinking for a very long time about writing it a play that dealt specifically with LGBT issues and I had also been thinking of dealing with Marxism onstage in the Perestroika era. I’ve always wanted to do something about American Marxism or American Communism specifically so all of that came together when Joe Dowling asked me to do a new play for the celebration that the Guthrie did of my work. They performed Caroline, Or Change and 5 short plays last spring.
MJR: Speaking of Caroline, Or Change, the Chicago production mounted by Court Theatre won four Joseph Jefferson Awards including Best Musical was an unequivocal success. Tell us about your partnership with Jeanine Tesori during the development of Caroline.
TK: Jeanine is an amazingly talented composer. In my opinion [she is] the best composer writing for the theatre living. I am enormously happy and consider myself very fortunate that we hooked up. I never enjoyed working with anyone as much as I enjoyed working with Jeanine. We’re currently working on a new piece together.
MJR: Story-wise, Caroline, or Change explored your upbringing in Louisiana. What was the process of transferring a semi-autobiographical narrative to the musical stage?
TK: Well of course Caroline is a fictional character. The character is loosely based on the woman who worked as a maid for my family when I was a kid. It was actually dedicated to her. She just turned 80. There are episodes and certain details in the play that are absolutely from my childhood. I grew up in Louisiana. But the piece is not autobiographic in any kind of reliable sense. The character of Caroline is some degree based on [her] but many of the details of her life are different.
MJR: As a playwright, what was the most challenging component of musicalizing text to propel a narrative?
TK: I wrote the whole thing before I started working with Jeanine so in a way it was like writing a play. It was in a loosely rhymed and metered verse. To some degree it’s like learning a new language because there’s a lot about musical theatre that requires very specific skills that I do not have. I have very little experience working with the form. So I was guided to a great extent by Jeanine and by George Wolfe [Caroline‘s director]. But there was a lot that I had to learn about how to construct a moment with music.
Caroline is essentially an opera, it’s through-composed. We were both learning a lot while we were doing it. I’m working with Jeanine now on a new piece and I’ve already begun [to learn] things I didn’t know. In some ways Caroline was easier than most of the plays that I’ve done because it was so much more collaborative. Once I had written a libretto in the first draft I began to work with Jeanine very closely; I wrote the words, she wrote the music with much overlap. We went through every word and every note very thoroughly. I had to learn a very different tempo in terms of how to do re-writes because if you’re doing a musical and you exchange a line, that changes any of the music. And in previews you’re dealing with giant and very cumbersome machinery, and orchestrations. The singers have to learn the music which is a very different process than just learning a new line so it was complicated.
MJR: The musical spurred quite a reaction here at Chicago’s Court Theatre. Have audiences received the show differently in varying parts of the country?
TK: I actually haven’t seen it in the South yet. It’s been done in a few places including Lake Charles. Everywhere that it’s been done it’s been very successful, people have responded with great enthusiasm. It was a big hit in London, it won the Olivier award. It’s done very well everywhere. Certainly there are times when it’s felt very different. Jeanine and I came out to see it in Chicago [at the Court Theatre] right before the election, right down the street from the Obama house. That was certainly a different kind of feeling, kind of an electric and exciting feeling to be let into the Court in the anticipation of the election.
Last spring when it was at the Guthrie it was interesting to see the play post-Obama. Obviously the line when Noah says Caroline is the President of the United States meant one thing 45 years ago. Now when there actually is an African American president in the United States it has a slightly different quality. That’s true for most plays today; the surrounding context changes in locale and time, and they become different.
MJR: HBO has been showing Angels in America for the past month. That dramatic sequence was groundbreaking for several communities. How do you think LGBT issues have shaped theatre in the past two decades, and how has theatre informed the community?
TK: Well I don’t think my play [created a social movement]. I think that one could say that with Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. It coincided with [many events] relating to the AIDS epidemic for our community. Angels in America came around later. I have no idea what Angels did or didn’t accomplish beyond the fact that it’s a good play. And that’s the most I ever hoped for.
The question of the relationship between LGBT politics and theatre is an interesting one. Obviously an enormous number of people who work in theatre are from the sexual minority area and community. I think there’s a reason for that. It’s where we’ve been contributing to theatre in percentages disproportionate to our percentage in the normal population. And I think that on one hand it’s the case that communities of the oppressed very often find a home in the theatre because people who are oppressed learn the difference between what something seems to be and what it actually is; irony, which is an important ingredient in the theatre, the shaking of reality- these are all things that are part of the everyday life of everyone who has a lived experience of oppression.
So I think it makes sense that we would be found in greater numbers in the theatre. Theatre is always very quick to respond to moments of social crisis because it doesn’t take any money or particular organization of capital to make a play. You just find a good writer, actors, director, and a theatre willing to do it and you can put together a play about any subject fairly quickly, certainly much more quickly than you can with most instances of film or television. Theatre is always a good quick response. It is also the place that we go to in order to grapple with social issues of real moment.
If you allow Angels to be anything other than a good play, [one could say] it allowed for a moment in the early 90s at the end of the first chapter [of the AIDS epidemic] to provide a public place for mourning the people who had died in the phase of the epidemic. It was also way of celebrating the end of the Reagan era; there was a great deal of release when Clinton beat the first Bush. We thought, however incorrectly, that we had closed the door on the nightmare of Reaganism which was a pernicious ideology that appeared at the same time as the AIDS virus. So I think that the play was about those things, connected to those things, and provided a public opportunity.
MJR: You just finished wrapping up a new screenplay on both the life and work of Abraham Lincoln for Steven Spielberg. What provokes your interest in this particular era of our nation’s history?
TK: I worked on [the screenplay] for the last three years. We’re working on moving it into the next phase. It’s the time period where every tension and every unresolved conflict in American history prior to the Civil War came to a boil, and eventual explosion. Everything that this country is struggling to become [today] emerges from the crucible of the Civil War. I think Abraham Lincoln, in my opinion, is inarguably our greatest president and one of the greatest people that ever lived- just a completely remarkable figure. I am tremendously interested in him and in his era.
MJR: Your stage works are inherently both dialogic and dialectic in form. What keeps your interest in film as a narrative medium, especially since it is often one that focuses on the monologic story?
TK: I think film is an extraordinary medium. Many great works of art in the 20th century were created by filmmakers. I feel that’s it’s more narrative driven than theatre, it’s certainly more all-encompassing kind of illusion. I think it doesn’t play as much as theatre does with questions of illusion and reality. To a certain extent I feel as though film is a degree more isolating, it’s perhaps less of a communal experience, though certainly the thing that all the audience’s attention is focused on does not respond to what the audience is telling it.
It’s the same from one showing to the next. Obviously there are some stories that cannot be told onstage that can be told on film, there’s just a mathematical question of how many individuals can be reached by a film or television show as opposed to theatre. For me there’s a certain pleasure in surrendering the absolute authority; a playwright in the theatre has, if nothing else, the authority that comes from property ownership. I own the play, I rent the play to the producers, directors, and actors to perform, but it’s mine.
When people get together to do a play one of the only common grounds [upon which] they have to stand is the script. In film, it’s much more the director. The playwright doesn’t own his or her own words. It’s interesting to me and in some ways enjoyable to hand that authority over to somebody else and to be one person among a number who is working to create this final product, but not the person who finally has the decisive say in what it’s going to be. I’ve gotten to work with a few artists I admire enormously [such as] Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols…that’s been thrilling. I got to watch both of them make a movie and I’ve learned a lot from doing that.
MJR: You’ve noted before your concern of reducing characters, specifically individuals like Lincoln, into dramatic figures. Do you employ a different approach in humanizing characters for the stage as opposed to a screen medium?
TK: Hamlet is a dramatic character, but there’s no reduction in Hamlet. I could think of a dozen film characters as rich as any human being could be. Lincoln is a genius on the level of Mozart or Shakespeare and it’s very difficult and possibly impossible for someone who isn’t a genius to come to any kind of understanding of how Lincoln did what he did. I think that it’s probably impossible for us to know those things.
To try and create a dramatic device that is going to deliver the secret of Lincoln’s inner genius or the secret of how Mozart wrote the Requiem or how Shakespeare wrote Hamlet is kind of nonsense. You can’t do that. These are leaps of the human imagination that are so vast and so extraordinary, and rare, that they’re really in a certain sense immeasurable and incomprehensible. What we have is the consequence which is [also] somewhat immeasurable and incomprehensible.
There is no one who will ever say everything there is to say about Hamlet, it’s infinite as much as any human creation can be called infinite. I don’t feel that there is any necessary for dumbing down or reducing my ambition as a playwright because I am writing a screenplay. I feel that I can write characters that are just as rich onscreen as they are onstage. There are certain requirements that the forms have that are very different; language is different, the way you construct a character for a script that hopefully many different people will use or perform is different than when you’re writing a script for a director for one movie. So you have a sense that what you are doing is much more for a specific moment.
MJR: Tell us about your process of developing a new work for stage production.
TK: I don’t feel that I ever get inspired to do anything. Various impulses come at me during the course of a day just as they came at anybody. I read stories or I remember things that I’ve seen that seem of interest to me because I’m a playwright, that’s my job. I take note of those things and I write them down. If something that I’ve seen or been intrigued by sticks around, I’ll start to wonder if there is something in it that might become a play. If I feel clearer and clearer about why it’s interesting to me- whether it be a person, image, or event in history- I’ll start to keep a separate notebook about it and start to think of what could come as the basis of a play. You mull over five or six things at a time and for one reason or another one of them will [come to] the surface.
MJR: Do you often find yourself become reclusive during this process?
TK: I certainly try to [become reclusive]. You should. It’s a good idea to do that. It’s always a mistake to not make that kind of time, but it’s one of the hard things about being a playwright. Part of our time is spent in rooms with a lot of people. Isolation is hard for everybody but for some people it’s easier. If you can’t handle isolation you certainly should not be a novelist or a poet.
Playwrights I think in general have a tricky balancing act to do between providing material for the excitement and electricity and sexual heat of a rehearsal room-also the fun and terror of being in the theatre with an audience- and being alone in a room. When I’m really deep in the first draft of a play or screenplay I become slightly antisocial. It’s very hard to talk to people, to be out in the world. I think that everybody who writes experiences this to some extent.
You have to kind of smooth your skin away and become available to becoming other people, so you lower boundaries and you remove skin and you make yourself slightly less well-organized than you are in everyday life. It’s hard to go out in public that way. I think it’s easier if you can get the play done in the first draft and then resume your public life; otherwise I think you feel sort of unpresentable and you probably are [laughs].