My Evening With Tony Kushner. The One-Way Conversation That (Fortunately) Didn’t Happen

Luckily, I didn’t use my 25 notecards.  But for posterity’s sake, here are the contents that I wisely didn’t refer to in interviewing Tony Kushner at The George Washington University yesterday in their Jack Morton Auditorium in the School of Media and Public Affairs. To learn how I got the gig, click here.


By all accounts, it was a good session, and Tony was generous, erudite, unpretentious and deeply insightful. In time, we’ll annotate his answers. Here are the questions, framed by a bit of an introduction, and ending with some crowd-sourced questions culled from my facebook page comments.

Notes in preparation for an April 9th conversation with Tony Kushner on the night of the final preview of ANDY AND THE SHADOWS…

GWU President Steven Knapp, Tony Kushner and Ari Roth

GWU President Steven Knapp, Tony Kushner and Ari Roth

The pleasure, the honor, the excitement, and the nervousness… the unworthiness and feelings of massive unpreparedness are all mine now before you—As we all gather (and good it is to be together as brothers and sisters, as the Hebrew “Hiney Ma-Tov” goes) to keep company with Tony Kushner, model and mentor, artist, activist, citizen, author, History Buff, and Current Events Scribe, commencement speaker extraordinaire, ubiquitous and then for months reclusive and illusive, agnostic, Jew, embattled-Israel engager, editor, screenwriter, best friend of Steven Spielberg AND Maurice Sendack (ala v’shalom) Intelligent Homosexual, and so much more.

My job tonight is to effectively represent the myriads of us who look up to you, Tony; the colleagues who are inspired by you, the activists who beseech you to lend a hand, to show up, to write… We all have relationships with you, of which you know only a little about. So we’ll share a bit of that; what you’ve meant to us and how you’ve inspired and emboldened us, but also perhaps confused us; how we’ve possibly misinterpreted you (and the trouble you’ve gotten into, from time to time); tonight let’s set some records straight. And since we’re on a college campus, and since I’m opening a show tomorrow night that’s very much about a 50-something year old man looking back on a younger self—let’s make some effort to remember yourself as a striving young artist as you reflect on where you and we are now.

As a writer cut from some of the same cloth—that of The School Of Over-Sharing—perhaps my job here tonight is get to know the less revealed and articulated parts of the public you; the parts that draw inspiration from the private/personal/familial you; a reservoir that’s been always there for you to draw upon but perhaps—because your other achievements have been so singular; so necessary; and your prowess so conspicuous, we haven’t as much time as we might like looking at the portrait of the artist looking back to when he was a young man…

Or (since, of course we have, in CAROLINE, and ANGELS) perhaps we haven’t spent as much time as we’d like looking back at the artist as young questing artist; the striving, hungry, frustrated artist and how he nourishes the soul (and slurps from the same trough) of the older practitioner—always an extraordinary artist, but perhaps one who’s DNA is less well-known.

What you’ve meant to playwrights in the field — those who were coming along and coming of age as you were bursting forth on the scene:

-My own Memories of first learning of Tony…. Reading the A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY review in the lit manager’s office at Arena Stage in 199o while in rehearsal for BORN GUILTY — a project Zelda interviewed you for but you couldn’t do it…

– On the M4 bus on Central Park North, 1991, reading ANGELS part 1 in American Theatre Magazine, just before or after the LA production… Socked in the solar plexus on the line “My wife.” Roy: “Your wife.” How disappointing… What a non-starter for a career boost.

– Later, playwright Donald Margulies reflecting that Kushner “has moved the goal posts back,” defining success and ambition and the playwright as public intellectual — “it just got that much harder to impress.” So there was initially this jealous intimidation… But in time, above and beyond the admiration and inspiration, came this permission to equally audacious; to fuse the political more explicitly; to be more rampaging and innovative… Kushner’s success has been good for the diversification and proliferation of the American playwriting field.

With all that, it hasn’t been this intimate a dialogue as we’re having tonight. It’s been a dialogue conducted from afar; virtually before there was internet or facebook. We’ve known you and haven’t known you, and so it will remain when we’re done today. But we’re gonna get closer, we’re gonna try. Because your success and your astonishing contributions to our culture matter tremendously to all of us. No one has made the Lincoln/Obama connection more expressed, more deeply explored, more politically urgent than you. Tonight, we students and faculty, artists and administrators, activists and appreciators, say thank you–but we have our questions. So let’s begin with them.

1) Talk about family growing up and how we’ve seen that in the art you’ve made, transformed/contorted and when you’ve set the record straight. What are the autobiographical works? Caroline and Angels… and…?
Portraits of Mother (and the pocket watch) and Father and his instrument… to clarinetist and conductor William Kushner and bassoonist Sylvia Deutscher in Lake Charles, Louisiana

2) – Portraits of you as an undiscovered artist; undergrad at Columbia (Medieval Studies); Grad Student at NYU… let’s talk about who you were once you graduated. Getting started. Founding that theater company. Bring us back there, and how have you carried those dreams, ambitions, and relationships going forward?

3) What remains from those seminal relationships –
– Stephen Spinella, then and now… (these relationships mean something to us; we measure our own artistic relationships in some relation to your relations…)
– Oskar Eustis, then and now
– Michael Greif… EAGER TO HEAR ABOUT BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY then… how it unfolded… where you situated yourself after the reception, and what happened next…

(Reflect on what you miss from that time, in the mid and late 80s as you were developing as an artist — and obviously this is the time that AIDS is radically transforming the artistic landscape and you are responding to that, publicly and privately…)

Those past relations and ideals are with you in so many ways… Extraordinary continuity between past and presemt.

4) We’re aware of the social Tony. Tony aligned with causes. Tony in Relationship to other great artists like ANNA DEVEARE SMITH (and Ariel Dorfman, so many others)

But give us some snapshots of Tony alone with his books and his television, his marriage, and his English muffins. Fascinating to read that portrait in the would-be novel, before I-Ho became a play, it was something else; a memoir; and it revealed the self-questioning, frequently fetishizing Tony Kushner, obssessed with hair length and the aging process. Writing about the private self. You’ve exhibited some restraint. You’re not on facebook. You’re not publishing your diaries. Or did I-Ho, in fact, turn out to be wildly personal and revealing.

How much self-revelation do you disguise? Is disguise important?

5) How have your opening night rituals changed since you share with your readers those Chinese dinners you’d go out on in those unforgettable introductions to both ANGELS and PERESTROIKA

6) Tony and Arthur Miller — Tracing the development of this relationship, and how it speaks to your development/evolution from the empower resistance FRINGE of American Theatre, do being a standard bearer…
Editor of the Library of America series.

Understanding that moment/evolution… or my MISUNDERSTANDING when you were a little bit at war or hostile to Miller (as the White Male Monolith with the big head who sat in front of you at The Tony’s…)

TK from an interview:
As I started to write plays, I reread “Salesman” and “View from a Bridge” and there’s a magnificent sort of erratic construction in these works. They serve as the greatest structure of dramatic events this country’s ever produced. And I think in terms of social advocacy, Arthur is important as a model in two ways. In one way because he doesn’t write polemic, he writes drama, which is really different. And the plays are not plays that present problems and provide answers for those problems, they’re deeper and more complicated and more tortured than that. That’s when they’re at their best. And as it progresses, they become more and more what we would call personal, and less and less obviously political.
At the same time Arthur used his immense fame for social good. He was a brave, tireless fighter, a scrupulous and courageous public intellectual, an advocate. Those are important things. I think he remains the luminous example of a writer as a citizen. It’s always good to have role models and certainly for me, when faced with a choice between doing something political and doing something that I really enjoy doing, I say to myself, “What would Arthur Miller do?” I knew him a little bit but not well, but the Arthur in my head is a very interesting and valuable figure.

Returning to material as it and you have matured…

6) On the use of war wounds, frustrations, and unfinished business (and scripts)

7) Refer to the ANNA DEVEARE SMITH INVERVIEW … “WHY GET OUT OF BED?” (“Because I love life?”) What gets you up now? Is there still the same fire? To remake the American Theatre?

7a) The threat and the gift of Hollywood—What’s aging done to Mamet; What Hollywood taught him; what it’s given you and what conveys back to the theater? (you said recently, unbelieveably, that you can’t make a living in the theater — TRUE? OR FALSE?)

8) The Lincoln Achievements and Debates… Factuality? Would it have been different in the theater? Were you robbed?

9) As a producer of HOMEBODY/KABUL… we’re still in Afghanistan; how have kepy up with an old/new subject? How does the play hold up?

“Theater lasts longer,” Mr. Kushner said when he heard about the Budapest production, “and speaks to more people and travels better over time when it hasn’t been created exclusively for the purposes of provoking.”
His “Angels in America,” after all, was never a piece of agitprop for increased funding for AIDS research or beating on the doors of the Capitol.
Ultimately, the ovation that the Budapest audience gives Mr. Alfoldi and his colleagues may be less a celebration of the play and performance than a demonstration of political support — looking for angels wherever they may find them, even in the theater.

11) Tussling with the right on the presidency, and Israel.

12) Washington then (the 1994 tour of ANGELS — the coldest shoulder) and now…

I would ask him how he thinks we can cultivate the theatre audience of the next generation, and if he’s hopeful or pessimistic!

From Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theatre: Tony, you are passionate about democracy. Your stories ask us to consider our private, public and collective souls. If you imagine artists engaging in the practice of democracy beyond their role as storytellers, bringing their assets as makers of meaning, as collaborators, as problem solvers, into public process, what do you imagine?

Jared Eberlein: Abe Lincoln v. Roy Cohn…who wins in a fight?

David Sinaiko:
1.) If you could have a wish granted that would improve and expand the development of new American plays and playwrights, what would that wish be?

2.) (Dovetailing or elaborating on Brenda Jean Foley’s question, above) As a decidedly analog art form in an increasingly digital age how does theater stay relevant – not just in content, but in the cultural aesthetic?

Eric Peterson: Just my prurient curiosity but … that moment in LINCOLN, when the President’s aide (in bedclothes) asks Abe if he’d “like some company” – was that a nod to those who believe that Lincoln was what we in the 21st century would call gay?

Nicole Burton: Working and middle class Americans, when given encouragement and opportunity, LIKE to attend theater. They they the liberation of ideas. In Tony’s opinion, what does a transformational American theater look like in our times? Cheers.