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Tony Kushner on Suffering Actors, the Wayward Left and the ‘Dream’ of Revolution

Posted on Jun 18, 2014

By Emily Wilson

  Tony Kushner poses at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2009. AP/Craig Lassig

For someone who finds writing tortuous, Tony Kushner does a lot of it. Probably best known for his two-part epic, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Kushner’s other plays include “Slavs!,” “Homebody/Kabul,” “A Bright Room Called Day” and “Caroline, or Change.” He also wrote the screenplays for Mike Nichols’ film version of “Angels in America” and Steven Spielberg’s films “Munich” and “Lincoln.” Kushner, who has won three Obies, an Emmy and a Pulitzer Prize, recently came back to Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where seven of his plays have been produced, for the West Coast premiere of his latest, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” (his husband nicknamed it “iHo”).

The play, directed by Kushner’s longtime collaborator Tony Taccone, the artistic director of Berkeley Rep who co-directed “Angels in America,” tells the story of a family in Brooklyn whose Communist longshoreman father has decided to commit suicide. It runs in Berkeley through June 29.

Out in Berkeley for rehearsals, Kushner talked about how with plays we watch actors suffer so we don’t have to; Taccone’s fearlessness when collaborating on “Brundibar,” a children’s opera originally performed in a concentration camp; the toll “Death of a Salesman” took on the late Philip Seymour Hoffman; the ability of democracy and elections to bring about radical change; and his frustration with leftists dismissing government rather than trying to transform it. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Emily Wilson: Do you find it fun to get to rework plays like you’re doing with this one?

Tony Kushner: I never find any writing fun. It’s all torture. It’s gratifying—it feels like this is what I didn’t understand the first time out and now I understand—maybe I’m just slow. I love having the opportunity to do that, when you do a film that was one of [the] great shocks. The first time I did a film was Mike’s version of “Angels,” and then I did the two movies with Steven, and I didn’t realize that every day of shooting you put another scene in the can. What that means is one after another, scenes you’ve written are gone, and it’ll take its final shape in the editing room. There’s a constant sense of loss even if the filming was fantastic.

I’ve been really lucky in the three things I’ve done so far, and I’m really proud of them. You know, we’re watching Daniel [Day Lewis] do these unbelievable things in “Lincoln.” Like the big Cabinet speech where he talks a long time for a film, and watching him do that for me and for many of the other actors was one of the most electrifying things I’ve ever sat through because he’s so fantastic, and I’m very proud of that, but no one will ever do it again in another way. You don’t have that experience at all in theater. The play keeps going on. Since I own it, I get to do my thing with it, and it keeps it up in the air in a way I find gratifying or pleasurable, although a show like this is backbreaking in a lot of ways.

EW: How is it backbreaking?

TK: It’s a long play. It’s a very dark play, and I think emotionally it’s the most painful play I’ve ever written. There’s a struggle in the play between despair and hope, and between a belief in progress and a belief in revolution, which I think is a conundrum at the center of the progressive political soul. It’s a family drama, and it’s a pretty unhappy family. It’s pretty dense although you don’t have to know anything at all. If you just come and don’t panic and listen, you’ll be fine. We’ve all worked very hard to make sure people are taken care of. You don’t have to be an expert on any of the pretty arcane things some people are discussing to follow it, but it’s not an easy play to do.

It’s very hard for the actors. I don’t know how actors do it, and they have to do it eight times a week. If you’re really going to do a play, you don’t figure out a shorthand way of doing it. You have to go there every single night. This is what actors do, and I don’t understand how they stay sane, and of course, many of them don’t. You see them at the end of a long rehearsal, and they look like they’ve been run over by a Mack truck.

When Mike’s production of “Death of a Salesman” was on Broadway, I hosted a benefit at the Library of America, and I asked the cast to do a benefit, and they came out and did a Q&A with the audience. With Phil Hoffman especially, it was just incredibly clear the toll that “Death of a Salesman” was taking. He wasn’t playing at somebody who was suicidal. In the part of Willy Loman, he took Arthur Miller at his word and didn’t show a guy nobly suffering but a person who was actively suicidal, which is a very strange mental place to be. You’re actively severing your ties to the earth, and it’s not entirely attractive to look at. It was in some ways the truest versions I’ve ever seen.

Then he came out and one of the first questions was, “Do you think you’ll ever get Willy Loman out of your head?” and he said, “Well, there’s a thought.” He looked like someone had spoken his worst nightmare. So it’s very costly. They’re going to a place emotionally, and it’s not possible that on some level that doesn’t take a toll. There’s the sacrificial animal part of theater. We’re watching people suffer so we don’t have to.


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