Angels in Canada

By Jocelyn Grosse

You are Tony Kushner, American playwright,
socialist, and gay rights activist. Your work deals with serious
issues confronting Americans, including the AIDS crisis, the
effects of Reganomics, and the enfranchisement of homosexuals.
Your work, "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches",
which draws from both your Jewish roots and socialist beliefs,
has won you numerous awards and critical acclaim, including a
Pulitzer Prize and
several Tony Awards.

"Angels" has been called everything from the theatre
of the fabulous, to the deepest most searching play of our time.
You have been credited with opening the door to freedom of expression
in theatre, and inspiring other plays to deal with unconventional
subject matter. The productions of "Angels" have met
controversy and praise, from New York to Calgary. And now, for
some fluke reason, you’re in conservative Cowtown as a part of
the University of Calgary’s Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers
Programme. The question is: Do most people here know who you

Many Calgarians will recognize Kushner’s work from Alberta
Theatre Projects
production of Angels two years ago.

In recent times theatre has taken a back seat to cinema. Even
Calgary theatre companies find it difficult to fill all the seats
during a performance.

"Theatre will always be around. I think it’s definitely
suffered in attendance, in a large part because of film and TV.
It’s difficult to compete…economics plays a huge part,"
Kushner says.

Kushner doesn’t believe theatre is able to flourish without government
subsidies, and fears that it is becoming an art form for the
wealthy. With high ticket prices, many people can’t afford a
night of theatre.

"New forms of theatre will emerge as the world changes.
You can put any kind of media into a theatre event, there are
experiments to be done with that–it’s still theatre. It relies
on live performers…anything that relies on stage and audience
interaction is a theatrical event."

Contrary to the trend taking place in Hollywood, Kushner doesn’t
believe technology will ever take the place of the human element
in the arts.

"It doesn’t seem to me that humans can interact with something
simulated with silicone chips," Kushner says.

He writes for those who have no qualms about seeing an actor
strip onstage or watching men simulate anal intercourse. The
nudity in "Angels", however, has no sexual undertones.
It is there to convey the emotional vulnerability a man who suffers
from AIDS.

The nude scene in "Angels" has caused some controversy
surrounding the various productions of the play. A North Carolina
theatre company faced a legal battle in order to bring "Angels"
to the stage. The Calgary and Edmonton productions of "Angels",
which made the cover of the conservative The Alberta Report magazine,
caused controversy themselves. The subscriber base at Calgary’s
ATP plummeted
significantly after their production.

Not surprisingly, Kushner is against any form of censorship when
it comes to the stage.

"Violence on stage is not violence on film," he argues.
"It is more difficult on stage to create the illusion of
mayhem effectively enough."

Kushner acknowledges there is a great deal of violence, especially
in film, but claims that the best way for society to deal with
this is through parental responsibility; "I’m all for over

Art plays a role in politics, according to Kushner. "Angels"
has many political references from Reagan to other right-wingers
of the 20th century.

"The primary function of art is not so much to spread information…
it can call attention to injustices, but that’s not primarily
what it’s about," says Kushner. "It’s really sad what
people know from the Holocaust is what they got from Steven Spielburg.

"Art has a complicated function, it should serve more then
one purpose. Art should strive to be political–if it’s good
art it will accomplish that and other things."

Although his work has generated everything from websites to university
courses (including one at the U of C), Kushner doesn’t read much
of the critism and academia surrounding his work.

"There is an unfortunate tendency to believe criticism is
itself a work of art, [that] a play means nothing beyond what
kind of creative generativity it possesses."

According to Kusher, theatre has a double nature, one to be studied
and performed.

"It’s written for a kinetic event…the scripts is both
what’s on the page and what the actors do with it.

"There is always opportunity for an intelligent, sensitive
person to despair," says Kushner of his works that deal
with the human struggle, which, in "Angels", takes
the form of the aids crisis.

"The are options for how you struggle–that you must struggle
is a given."

The struggle that Kushner speaks of is reflected in Angels’ character
Prior, a man suffering from AIDS. When the play’s overly sexual
angel visits him, Prior demands for "more life," in
spite of her insistence that he should give up. Prior refuses
to give up, despite having no hope for the future. He wrestles
the angel, which turns into a metaphorical struggle for life.

According to Kushner, when we decide to draw breath, we are choosing
life–we are asserting our willingness to live. As the millennium
approaches, with Kushner at the helm of play writing, artistic
expression will hopefully flourish.

Kushner will give a public reading at the Rozsa Centre on Thurs.,
June 10 at 8 p.m.

Leave a comment