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Written by Katherine Brodsky Mar 23, 2010

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Tony Kushner has become one of the preeminent playwrights of our times by charting the slow, contentious, progressive growth of the human heart.
Tony Kushner is one of the most renowned American playwrights, having received a slew of prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1993). The play was later adapted into an acclaimed Tony Kushner HBO miniseries and directed by Mike Nichols. His diverse body of work includes short plays, movies and even includes a musical—Caroline, or Change . He is also known for his outspoken nature and refusal to shy away from difficult topics—such as AIDS, the Taliban and homosexuality and scripture. His work’s inherent theatricality and its ability to engage an audience’s emotions, despite how uncomfortable those emotions might be, have earned him a place as one of America’s greatest playwrights. Kushner’s love for the theatre stems from its ability to engage emotion and the imagination, combined with his sense of political sensibility and community. “I like the challenge of trying to write a world, a community, or an event purely out of human direction and dialogue,” he says. He’s also interested in the dialectical nature of theatre: the contradiction, debate and argumentation, all of which are commonly found in his work. This structuring concept comes from his sense that a serious crisis is happening, and must be understood to be defused. “More and more and more as I have gotten older I feel that we are rounding a corner into something—onto a new highway—and that you have got to remember different directions. And I think some of those directions could—without any hyperbole —lead to the end of at least human life if not all life on the planet. I feel that we are at a very significant crossroads.”

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March 2010
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Juxtaposition and Politics Kushner’s storytelling structure can be considered unusual. He frequently uses shorter episodes in his plays, a departure from conventional structure.
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Left to right: Valeri “I’m interested in stories that have a real stretch and Mudek and Kate sprawl and aren’t tightly focused,” he says. “So there is something Eifrig in Tiny about the short scene that has that quality to me where you show Kushner at quick snapshots of reality. They are sort of spliced against one Berkeley Rep another. It’s the audiences’ job to piece them together and into a narrative and to figure out the way in which the action is continued from scene to scene. And also to realize the kind of disjuncture and the jumps and skips and juxtapositions—it feels more real to me. My life feels chopped up in that way and I think life in general is chopped up in that way. It’s not one seamless, smoothly flowing narrative.” A lot of Kushner’s work contains political themes and it’s difficult to accuse it of being just “pure entertainment.” “There is no such thing as pure entertainment,” responds Kushner. “I mean, all entertainment has substance and all substance has politics. So there is no entertainment that isn’t political. The silliest campiest musical has its politics—it just depends on what they are. And also how overtly they are worn.” That said, he doesn’t believe the role of art is merely to deliver messages— there are more effective ways of doing that. Still, Kushner has no problem with art having a propagandistic or educational function. Homebody/Kabul’s purpose, for example, was to remind the world about Afghanistan and pay attention to it when nobody was thinking about it at all. “I was happy that people would learn things about Afghanistan from the play,” while ensuring that there was more to the play than merely tedious education. “I said this a million times but I think that the purpose of art is always on some level to preach to the converted,” add Kushner. “I think that if you’re a playwright and you write a play that is intended to lecture people who don’t know as much as you do and who aren’t converted to your way of thinking about the world—you are going to be condescending and boring. You’re going to bore yourself and that’s how you bore other people. You say things that you already know and it’s hard to keep awake while you’re doing that.” Preaching to the converted, however, isn’t about repeating the same thing over and over again to those who know it already. “I think that when you’re a preacher —if you’re a good preacher—you go in front of your congregation and you want to give them something to think about.” In Kushner’s view, although this “congregation” shares a common faith, it also shares many doubts and questions. The playwright and audience both walk out on a terrain that perhaps neither fully understands. “You are wandering out into the darkness with the audience, or asking them to join you as you wander out,” Kushner explains. “All art has one achievable, or at least partially achievable goal, which is to try and tell the truth. And if you’re in any way an intelligent, self-aware person then you know that the hardest thing to get around in telling the truth is not exterior censorship. For most of us, the real censor, the real trickster, the real impulse to lie or to hide the truth and to be afraid to seek the truth is what we do to ourselves.” Kushner believes it is this communal experience of pursuing the truth and the meaning of life that brings people to the theatre. “As long as you’re really struggling to break through to some kind of understanding you’re doing your job as an artist,” says Kushner, adding, “Don’t make it easy on yourself, and don’t be boring.”

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Transformation of the Heart Throughout Kushner’s work, there are certain themes that seem to reappear. The relationship between theory and action appears
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to be central to most his writing. How does transformation happen in people? What is the relationship between the world outside and the world within? What is the role of a progressive person in the world? Jim Lichtscheidl in the West Coast premiere of Tiny Kushner at Berkeley Rep “The human heart is a progressive thing. I believe that it is also enormously slow. And cautious. And in some ways conservative in the sense that it doesn’t like to let go of what it loves. It can’t let go that easily—or necessarily bravely. There is a contradiction in people that makes change both on the inside and on the outside enormously hard. And I think those are two big themes in my work.” New York Film Academy a film school and acting school

Lately, Kushner has been drawn into the world of film, most recently collaborating on the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Munich with Eric Roth, earning him an Academy Award nomination. He loved working with Spielberg so much that he is now working on a screenplay about Abraham Lincoln for him. It is a rewarding experience, but is also perhaps “the hardest thing” he had ever had to do. “And it pays really well,” he laughs. Even with highly successful musicals like his Caroline, or Change , by the time the royalties are split with all involved parties, the checks shrink significantly. Despite it’s lack of a rich paycheck, though, Kushner still loves the process of theatre. Although movies are seen by millions of people, he believes plays tend to stay out in the world and get reinvented over and over. As an example he offer his own Angels in America, which has been running for nearly 20 years, all over the world. When it comes to success, Kushner has some advice: “Your only hope at succeeding, I think, is to not lie. It’s hardest to be brave and honest. And not try and trick people. Sometimes that is rewarded. Sometimes it’s punished... You have to be willing to make a fool of Jackson M. Hurst yourself in public. If you’re going to perform in public— (Jackie Thibodeaux), Nikki and playwriting, any writing that is published, that is Renée Daniels (Emmie produced, that is performed is an act of self-exposure— you have got to be comfortable with it.” Thibodeaux) and Zadir King (Joe Thibodeaux) in Which is not to say Kushner rushes into that the Guthrie Theater exposure. Though he is currently working on a rewrite for production of Caroline, Or Change, at the Guthrie’s his new play, a new musical and two films at the same 2009 Kushner Celebration time—he hedges when discussing whether he’ll meet the deadlines necessary to place the projects in the public view. “Well, I didn’t say I was going to meet any deadlines,” laughs Kushner, “Deadlines are...kind of interesting—It will be ready when it’s ready.”

Kushner on the Details of His Process Kushner’s writing process involves a notebook that gradually becomes filled with random ideas, names of characters, and possible situations. If the subject of a play requires research, Kushner is glad to read some books for background.

Actors Michael Esper (Eli “It’s time spent just avoiding getting down to work,” he Wolcott) and jokes, “but it feels like it’s slowly getting into the work.” Stephen Spinella (Pier Luigi When the research phase is done (some call it Marcantonio [Pill]) procrastination), Kushner begins to sketch out the plot, then a in the world scene-by-scene outline, followed by actual scenes. premiere of The Intelligent “That’s always the hardest part of writing a play for me— Homosexual’s
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“The direction you strike out in at first is going to have a very powerful impact with what you ultimately wind up with. So that is just a very scary time for me,” he says. “It certainly feels to me that if I could be less nervous about that beginning section of the work—I’d be able to get more work done.” While his plays burst with ideas, Kushner admits that where they come from is problematic, and though his characters may rattle through them, sometimes it’s not so easy for the writer. Some days Kushner says to himself, “Okay, you don’t have any ideas today, but don’t freak out...The ideas will come.” You have to write even if you don’t have ideas, he insists: “That is where the ideas come from—from the actual moving of you hands across a keyboard or across a piece of paper—It doesn’t come from the ether sitting in your head.” Each writer has their way of dealing with the anxiety of staring at a blank page, and for Kushner, his weapon of choice to defeat it is a fountain pen. It’s a bit of a fetish, in fact. “I like the way it feels. I like the scratchiness. I like the flexibility of the line. I like looking at the lines that I have made with the fountain pen. I like the way that they vary. And I just love fountain pens.” Besides, when it runs out of ink, it’s a good excuse for stopping. “You feel like you have accomplished something when you have used up all the ink in your pen.” As for the canvas? Yellow legal pads. When he’s not in his office, Kushner prefers writing in public libraries. What moves Kushner to write ranges from something as simple as a newspaper article to the things that downright torture him. Whether it is as a gay man, or a Jew, or an American, some issues for Kushner feel like they need addressing. “Those are the things that will move me into the direction of writing something in particular,” he says. Sometimes he comes back to these ideas five, 10 or as many as 20 years later. “Something about it will move me and make me feel intrigued by it,” he explains, “If it sits around long enough then it has a chance of becoming a play.” Writers often struggle with the notion of knowing whether what they’ve got down on the page is any “good.” At first Kushner begins to say that he never knows that, but quickly corrects himself. “Well, that’s not true,” he begins, “I shouldn’t say that.” It’s not so much as not knowing if something is good, as it is about not judging it while writing. “I think that’s always a mistake. I think that you really can’t—or at least I can’t—write and edit at the same time. And I certainly can’t write and critique at the same time. I need to lose myself in what I am doing and not try and second guess myself or try and judge what I am doing. A lot of work that I do psychologically is in the service of letting go of judgment. I mean—you’ve written something and then you look at it and then you go —‘Okay, that’s new. I’ve never done that before. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody else do that before.’ That’s really complicated or rich. You find a connection that you didn’t know was there. And that makes you feel like you’ve really done something.” Everything that Kushner writes, he says, is meant for others. “It is my way of talking to other people—of communicating.” He considers himself to be an unbelievably lucky person to be able to do it for a living.

Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures last spring at the Guthrie Theater.

the beginning,” he admits. Pulling characters and plots out of thin air is often a matter of intuition, or instinct. Writers can always make changes if they “guessed” wrong, but that’s not always so easy for Kushner.

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