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Meeting the Man Behind "Angels in America"

Written by Alexandra Evans
4/8/2011

Tony Kushner answers questions as Professor Claire Gleitman looks on.

Tony Kushner illustrates his words with his hands, making bold gestures that balance his slightly soft-spoken voice as he responds to questions on the success of his Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” He talks about the play with surprising modesty. But ask him about anything else and his demeanor seems to shift elsewhere.

His voice gets a little louder. His hands move a little faster, a physical extension of thoughts that seem to come from every direction in his mind. He interrupts himself to begin another point, starting with “did you know that…?” and proceeding to tell us something that, no, in fact, we did not know. He illustrates intelligence and spunky personality not only through his writing, but in his physical presence, as well.

The School of Humanities and Sciences at Ithaca College chose Tony Kushner for the Distinguished Speaker in the Humanities Lecture Series, and the playwright visited the college April 4 for “An Interview with Tony Kushner.”

As a member of the Honors Program at the college, my preparation for Kushner’s visit started at the beginning of the spring semester in a one-credit honors course where we read, studied, and discussed “Angels in America.” I knew I’d love the class the minute I met the professor, Claire Gleitman, who is considered an authority on the play. She’s taught “Angels” before, and from the first class, her knowledge of the play and its creator provided us with a deeper understanding of the positive impact “Angels” had on society.

The class felt more like relaxation than a course. The only homework was to read the play and come to class ready to dive into discussion. Such experiences are typical of the Honors Program. Last year, a one-credit honors course was offered on the political philosophy of Martha Nussbaum, the 2010 Distinguished Speaker. Instead of stressing about exams and final grades, these courses offer honors students a chance to truly become immersed in the material and background of that year’s Distinguished Speaker.

The Honors perks didn’t stop there. Anyone from the general public could see the 7:30 p.m. interview with Kushner in Hoerner Theatre, but my class got to speak with him earlier in the day. We spent an hour and a half getting to know Kushner in a more intimate setting.

First, Kushner asked us questions about our majors and career plans, and he offered us his advice and opinion on how to educationally prepare for a career in writing and theatre. “I don’t think playwriting needs graduate training,” he told us. "Having peers say what one should and shouldn’t do with a draft of their play is a horrible thing to subject a young writer to."

Kushner majored in Medieval Studies in college, not writing -- yet he wrote a piece that Frank Rich of the New York Times described as "the most thrilling American play in years." As a journalism major and aspiring playwright myself, I took these words to heart. I can write a play without sitting in some expensive MBA program. I can write a play by studying other things and observing the world.

“I don’t think plays have messages,” he told us. “If I had a message, I’d write an essay or a fortune in a fortune cookie.” We all laughed. Kushner has a quirky sense of humor (as evidenced by the title of one of his books, “The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures”), and he knows how to keep an audience’s attention.

In class, we had talked about the questions we wanted to ask Kushner, and one was about his feeling of the play’s success within audiences from different generations. Here we were, 20-somethings who didn’t grow up during the AIDS outbreak. We weren’t alive for the downfall of Roy Cohn, chief council to Joseph McCarthy, or the spark of Reaganism — just a couple of the “national themes” the play addresses. However, we all embraced the play and were able to read it not only with historical perspective, but also as a timeless piece whose themes still apply today.

“That’s been a great surprise to me and one of the greatest things that’s ever happened,” he said about my generation embracing the play.

The 7:30 p.m. interview was full of people, but Kushner still seemed like he was talking in an intimate session. He wasn’t professing, he was conversing with Gleitman on stage, and he kept the larger audience’s attention just as much as he had kept our class' earlier in the day.

The interview made it clear that Kushner doesn’t write for the fame — he has a sense of profound passion behind why he writes.

“Anybody who’s done theatre, anybody who’s done a play or written a play or directed a play knows the experience is wildly changeable and it has everything to do with that dynamic of what’s happening on stage and what’s happening on the audience,” he said. “I love the way the audience constitutes itself as a creature of the dark.”



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