Tony Kushner: Fast Scenes, Slow Heart (Interview)

A shorter version of my interview with Tony Kushner appears in Stage Directions. You can read it at: http://digital.turn-page.com/issue/8171/17 OR http://www.stage-directions.com/current-issue/106-plays-a-playwriting/2258-fast-scenes-slow-heart.html

Tony Kushner is one of the more 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 HBO miniseries and directed by Mike Nichols. His diverse body of work even includes a musical – Caroline, or Change. Kushner is also known for his outspoken nature and refusal to shy away from difficult topics, in a sense, being the ‘voice’ of his generation.

Kushner’s love for the theatre stems from its ability to engage emotion, 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.

Kushner is interested in the dialectical nature of theatre: the contradiction, debate and argumentation, all of which are commonly found in his work.

His 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. “[It is] time spent just avoiding getting down to work,” he jokes, “but it feels like it’s slowly getting into the work.”  When the research phase is done (some call it procrastination), Kushner begins to sketch out the plot, then a scene-by-scene outline. Then come the actual scenes.

“That’s always the hardest part of writing a play for me – the beginning,” he admits. Pulling characters and plots out of thin air is often a matter of intuition, or instinct. Of course, you can always make changes if you “guessed” wrong, but that’s not always so easy. “It’s 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,” says Kushner, “It certainly feels to me like if I could be less nervous about that beginning section of the work – I’d be able to get more work done.”

Even for award-winning playwrights, at times writing can be a challenge. 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.”

As for Kushner’s choice of weapon? The 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. So if you witness someone scribbling madly with a fountain pen, it might just be Kushner.

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 or ten or as many as twenty 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.”

One of the things that drives Kushner to write is sort of this sense of a serious crisis that is going on. “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.”

Kushner’s storytelling structure can be considered unusual. He frequently uses shorter episodes in his plays, which is a departure from conventional storytelling. “[I'm] interested in stories that have a real stretch and sprawl and aren’t tightly focused.

“So there is something about the short scene that has that quality to me where you show quick snapshots of reality. They are sort of spliced against one 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.”

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 write – 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.”

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.” According to Kushner, 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, the role of art is not to 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. 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 know 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.”

Although this ‘congregation’ shares a common faith, it also shares many doubts and questions. So then, the playwright and audience both walk out on a terrain that perhaps neither fully understands. “You are wandering out into the darkness with them, or asking them to join you as you wander out…

“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.”

Throughout Kushner’s work, there are certain themes that seem to reappear. The relationship between theory and action appears 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?

“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.”

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.

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, appropriately titled Lincoln. It is a rewarding experience, but is also perhaps “the hardest thing” he had ever had to do. “And it pays really well,” he adds. 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.

Kushner, however, loves the process of theatre. Although movies are seen by millions of people, the plays tend to stay out in the world and get reinvented over and over. Angels in America 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 yourself in public. If you’re going to perform in public – and playwriting – any writing that is published, that is produced, that is performed is an act of self-exposure. You have got to be comfortable with it.”

Kushner is currently working on a rewrite for his new play, a new musical and two films at the same time. A busy schedule with many deadlines to meet. “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.”

(c) 2011 Katherine Brodsky

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