Writing and Research on Angels in America by Tony Kushner.
I wrote my PhD on Angels in America and am turning some of that into a book. Here are some ramblings in the meantime.
A lot of this work focuses on the National Theatre revival directed by Marianne Elliott and the Broadway transfer. Hang around for more historical entries.
Subscribe to this blog
Follow by Email
A kind of painful progress...Angels in America and me.
Almost a week ago now, Prior Walter bid the Lyttleton
theatre ‘More Life’ one last time. Twenty-four years earlier it had opened next
door in the Cottesloe. And some 14 or so years earlier they Angel first crashed
into my life. Since then it’s been a labour of love, of 100, 000 words of PhD
thesis and thousands more words in blog posts, message board comments, emails,
tweets and arguments with wanker academics who obviously know better. And
finally, this year, hours of conversation with my favourite director, hours of
talking to an audience at the NT, kind words with the cast (and hugs!) and
words committed to the programme. It’s been one hell of a ride, it hasn’t
always been easy, but finally all the work to this point feels worth it.
I keep coming back to Harper’s final monologue, ‘In this
world there is a kind of painful progress, a longing for what’s left behind,
and dreaming ahead.’ And as much as I’m already longing for it what this
production also gave me is a chance to dream ahead again. To that end people keep asking if I’m sad or
broken. And I have to keep saying no, I’m incredibly happy. Happy that it
happened, that I was a part of it, and that I got back a thing that I loved.
Like Harper’s ‘souls rising’ towards the ozone layer, I feel like I absorbed
this production, and was repaired. And like Harper, I am finally after what
feels like an eternity stuck in a far less fun place than a Valium induced
daydream, I’m finally dreaming ahead again.
A lot of people do wonder why this play means so much.
Honestly there’s no easy way to answer other than to explain how it’s woven
into the fabric of my life. From not to
over-romanticise, a snowy night in Montreal, where we rented the DVDs because
we didn’t have a TV that worked. To that film becoming one of those ‘comfort
blanket’ films you watch over and over again. I don’t remember exactly when I
then read the play, but it must have been around then. I was 19, living 1000s
of miles from home, my Father had either just died or was about to die, it
doesn’t take the world’s greatest psychiatrist to work out that Kushner’s big
sprawling play of love, loss and politics was something that would speak to me.
But, the bigger themes and ideas washed over me at first, who knows how many
times, but it was the characters, the humanity of the piece I latched
Flash forward ten years, and I’m meeting a friend who I
speak to every single day, who lives on the other side of the world to walk to
the Bethesda Fountain, because it’s our ‘favourite place in the park’ because
we only know each other because of this play. Leap to another moment and I’m
throwing coins in that fountain the first time I went there after finishing my
PhD. I greet her as Prior does in the film, an involuntary tic by now. Another
time I’m telling someone ‘That was an editorial you’ mid-argument, insisting
that ‘the world only spins forward’ or unable to hold in a smile if someone
mentions a night flight to San Francisco. In short, this play like Prior’s
Prophecy, is in me.
I spent years wrestling with the PhD, much like that Angel. Creating
versions of it out of archive dust and still absorbing it. Learning every
scene, in every version (thanks Tony!) by heart and backwards. Fighting for it,
fighting against PhD supervisors who couldn’t, wouldn’t see its value. Who
wouldn’t even read this thing that I loved so dearly. Being told by academics
this thing I’d written wasn’t good enough, that nobody cared, that I wasn’t
good enough. The fierce love of it dragged it through the PhD, but I had
nothing left at the end of it. I don’t remember consciously falling out of love
with it, I just feel like it was somewhere in a dusty cupboard in my mind. I
had the confidence, but more importantly the love of it all beaten out of me by
academia. I lost it and I barely noticed, I was so tired.
“Oh how I hate Heaven, but I’ve got no resistance left.
Except to run.”
And so, I ran, retreated into failure rejected that part of
my life. And tried to become someone else. I let myself forget the thing I
love, because I had to in order to stay sane. Lose the passion, because I got
knocked back, knocked out by academia and theatre so many times, I had no choice
but to run and preserve myself. Angels and the rest of it had become a part of
an old life, and an old me.
And somewhere…somehow…on the bank of the Thames in that
concrete bunker…I started to find it again.
There are of course wonderful special things about the
production that will stay with me- some big some small. Some a part of it, some
little quirks I noticed on seeing it multiple times (the time Andrew Garfield
accidentally threw his sunglasses at James McArdle, but styled it in real Prior
Walter style is a great one). If someone
asks me in 10 years what was the thing I remember I’ll probably say: The Angel,
Snow, Rain Machine, House Lights. Those specifics are for another blog, just
snapshots of what I loved, what made it special for me. Those actors, what can
I say about those actors? That while Andrew Garfield seemed to grow into Prior
over the run, that James McArdle flipped what Louis is on its head, that Nathan
Stewart Jarret was just too damn perfect, that Denise Gough ripped out her
heart and the audience’s every night and the Susan Brown was doing quietly
brilliant work. All of it has, and will be catalogued in different ways. That’s
not what this is about.
But all that aside, at different points in the performance,
the run I have sat open mouthed in awe, laughed so deeply, sobbed to the point
I squeaked, walked out of a theatre shaking so much I had to sit down and
smiled with such joy that I thought I could do anything- ‘More Life’ indeed
Tony. Something odd happened in the last performance that I’ve never personally
experienced- due to always seeing it in ‘analytical’ mode- I was just swept
away in Prior’s story, I’ve never been so completely ‘with’ him watching it,
always some jigsaw puzzle of theatrical analysis. But for eight hours, for the
first time I just sat and lived it. It was like someone giving you a gift of
the thing you missed most in the world.
This production snuck in and re-wrote what I thought I knew.
There are so many thoughts to write on how why, and who in that equation and
again, I’m not being artistically or academically blind, I can and at some point,
will have critical thoughts (in the ‘editorial’ use of the word critical). But
stepping aside from that, in the most honest way, who care when a production
gives you magic. As much as I could, and will dissect performance choices and
staging and set ultimately these are so insignificant in the personal sense.
“But still….bless me anyway”
Because I don’t want to talk here of imperfections and
choices and things others would do differently. I’m capable of doing that but
right now I say ‘Bless me anyway’ the spirit of that line is ‘so what, keep
going anyway.’ This was ultimately “My” production, the version of the play I will
forever keep in my heart. And in the end, isn’t that what matters? The works
that change us, not the ones that are technically, artistically brilliant
(though this one is both) but it’s the ones that latch onto a part of our soul
and refuse to let go.
And that’s why, when Andrew Garfield/Prior stood and
declared ‘More Life’ at the final performance, I didn’t crumple and cry I
soared with joy. I was on my feel celebrating what they had achieved over the
run, but also what had happened to me. And in all this, I kind of feel, and
hope that indirectly that’s what Kushner had intended for all of us; change in
whatever form. The real purpose of Kushner’s play, after the eight hours of
emotional labour, is to push us as an audience out in the world to make that
‘Great Work’. We can’t do that if we are left in despair, if we feel it was all
for nothing. For Prior’s innovation to the audience to work we must be
propelled forward with a sense of purpose. And for me, finding that purpose
again that I thought I’d lost. My love for it, and over that last year a little
bit more of who I was.
The day the revival was announced I was sitting at my desk,
in possibly the worst job I have ever had (which frankly, is saying something).
Sitting in that office, I was in the worst place imaginable (I mean literally,
it was in Pontypridd…). I’d finished my PhD after disaster upon disaster, I’d
taken a job in research support after knowing I’d always fail to get an
academic job. I hated that job. My colleagues hated me. And I felt like the
biggest failure. All that work, all the years of trying all for nothing. And to
go from having such passion for my work, to feeling like nothing would ever
matter again, and that there was no point to any of it. In my flurry of twitter
excitement, I half-jokingly said ‘Do you think they want some help’ to which a
friend (to whom I’m very grateful) said ‘No seriously, email Elliot’s agent’. I’m
grateful to that friend (I introduced her to Elliot on closing night so I feel
my debt is repaid) But most of all I’m so grateful to Marianne herself, for not
ignoring that email when it made its way to her.
I set myself four ‘secrets dreams’ when I heard Angels was
coming back: I wanted to give research to the production, I wanted to sit in on
a rehearsal, I wanted to run an education event and I wanted to write something
for the programme. I honestly thought I didn’t stand a chance. If I got 2 out
of 4 it would be something. I got all four. Another story, Hugh Jackman is the
reason I got into musical theatre and AIDS theatre (don’t ask) there’s a story
of how he asked his Mum to take a picture outside the National Theatre, saying ‘I’ll
work there one day.’ And he did. I did
the same thing, about 10 years ago. It might have only been for a blink of an
eye. But it’s a damn good start. Likewise, my 4 things might be a drop in the
ocean. But it’s a damn good start. Sheer force of will and tenacity played a
part, but for once, for once in my life I went after something and I damn well
Having spent nearly a decade being knocked back from
everything I tried- from theatre, to academia and back again I can’t begin to
articulate what it’s like to have someone finally, finally listen to you. Of
course, when that someone also happens to be one of the best theatre directors
in the country…well even I in my most Louis-esque verbal incontinence don’t
actually have words for that. The point
(the point dear the point) being that someone finally looked at me and said
‘Yes, you do have something to contribute’ it’s that simple. Instead of
knocking me back, knocking me down, criticising, dismissing, taking someone
else whose face fit better or the million other reasons there might be, someone
finally listened. And even more importantly for myself, I proved myself. If I’d
sent that email and been utterly appalling, a complete charlatan who really
knew nothing I’d have deserved to get laughed right out of the National Theatre
foyer. Instead, I picked myself up went in there and showed what I could do.
In part, all of this has been about getting that external
validation. Of course, of course that Marianne Elliot and Andrew Garfield said
how much they loved something I wrote and that I helped them create this…thing…of
course that means the world. To look at
that stage and think, a tiny tiny microbe of that came from me. Of course, I’m
proud. But it’s more than that. In having people who know what they’re talking
about say that you make a valuable contribution, after being so beaten down, so
discouraged and having every last ounce of confidence drained from me. Even
given my Kushner-esque powers of sheer volume of writing, I don’t think I can
find the words. Except to say thank you,
which is, to quote Prior ‘So much not enough’.
“I’m almost done”
It’s not just these ‘important’ people, it’s all of the
people- all of you out there reading this (if you’ve got this far) it’s every
single tweet complimenting my programme essay, every question anyone asked me-
every one of you who came up to me in the NT foyer. I don’t know how to explain
how much I thought the work I had done was nothing, and by association, that I
was nothing. To find people interested, in the thing, and what I’ve got to say
about the thing. And not just the compliments (though those are nice!) but the
finding likeminded people, who want to talk and share this thing (ok and share
amusing pictures of the cast with me). In getting this play back, I no longer
feel like the werido alone in the corner, liking the play that you dare not
mention because it’s weird and about AIDS and gay people and your office
colleagues will laugh and talk about you behind your back. I found what theatre
is supposed to give you: community.
So, to anyone, and everyone who stopped and said what I
spent four years of my life working on was worth it, meant something, from
Andrew Garfield, to old friends, anonymous online visitors and new friends:
“You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.”
And what now? It’s hard not to let doubt creep in and think ‘this
was a one off that’s it now’. But as Harper says, ‘nothing’s lost forever’ and there’s
work to do with a renewed sense of …something. I’ve a book to write at last on
Angels, and I feel I can finally do that. And I’ve got my love and drive for
theatre back. And I have to believe that this is just the start of…something.
My academic career might have ended, but maybe all of that was for something else.
“In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing
for what we’ve left behind. And dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”
taken me two weeks to write this. Two weeks since I personally said goodbye to
this production, and to this play for whoever knows how long. Long before I got
on a plane and traveled halfway across the world for it, I asked myself how do
you say goodbye? To a production that’s spent two, almost three years nestled
in my brain. Two years of it in production. Of writing about it again. Of
finding a love for it again. I
think the answer is you don’t. I think I never have, much like Prior’s prophecy
this play has become part of me. Except I didn’t reject it. Which I think
legitimately means I can declare ‘Fuck you I’m a Prophet’ whenever I feel like
I will do instead, is write my own Epilogue. But
of course, it’s longer than these two, almost three years. I’ve lived with this
play for fourteen years. I’ve grown up with this play. I’ve grown into it. When
I started I was over a decade younger than Prior and Louis. This time around I
was their age. Perhaps that’s why it’s so po…
So it's been a while. And when I sat down to write this update that's not an update I thought I wouldn't have anything to say because I haven't been working on the book. But while I haven't been comitting words to a page, I guess there is still work that's been done. Even if it is mostly the 'waving pages around in rage' variety.
Firstly, yes the book has mostly been on pause. This is mostly because for the last 6-8 weeks my life has been consumed with getting a first draft of a play to the page (and juggling temp job, and life). In April it came down to making a decision about which to work on. And the play won simply because timelines of me getting it to the page, impact more people than myself. I could have negotiated an extension, but the knock on effect there is wider than myself, and the book quite frankly isn't. So for the past 8 weeks I've been consumed by that. Anyone interested in that 'journey' can read about …
is going to be about Angels, and why being the most nominated play in Tony
history is important. But it's also a little bit personal. The Tony’s have
book-ended my Theatre Nerd career, and so my research career. When I was 18 I flew to New York the night the Tony’s
were happening. It was my first solo trip to the city, and I was going to see
Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz
again. I'd seen it by accident the December previously, and fallen in love. Not
just with the show, but with theatre, and as every theatre kid does at some
point, with Broadway. That show changed me in that it's the first I really
connected with, but that show also put me on the path to my PhD. It is, for
those who don't know, the story of Peter Allen, Australian Singer-Songwriter
who died of AIDS. (Except they never mention the word AIDS in the show, but
that's another thesis altogether). And to this day I can't explain it but being
a slightly strange kid (evidently) that set me on …