The last time the nation lurched rightward, left-leaning artists were disoriented as much as they were energized. Many did rise fiercely to the occasion, though it took some time. It was in the depths of the Reagan-Bush era, amid the full death blossom of the AIDS crisis, that Tony Taccone and Oskar Eustis, two young directors who ran the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, were sniffing around for bold new plays by American writers that would challenge the conservative status quo—both theatrically and politically speaking—in the way of Thatcher-era Brits like Caryl Churchill and David Edgar.
Their search lit on a young Jewish intellectual from Louisiana, Tony Kushner, who had trained as a director and was writing and staging political plays with a small company in New York City, including A Bright Room Called Day, which roughly analogized the Reagan administration to the Third Reich. Taccone and Eustis, fired up by Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, secured a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for Kushner to write a play about the AIDS crisis. One requirement: It should run no longer than two hours.
That was in 1987. Within four years Kushner had written a two-part epic that ran closer to seven-plus hours and would change American theatre forever, both thematically and formally. His double-headed masterwork was groundbreaking in many ways: It put gay men at the center of a cosmic interrogation of our national character, at a time when they were under mortal siege from the twin plagues of AIDS and hostile indifference. It boldly leapt onto the perennial third rails of politics, sex, and religion, in a theatre culture that, then as now, too often hews to dinner-party politesse in its subject matter. Most amazingly, it met with huge popular and critical success, commensurate with, or well beyond, its outsized ambitions.
Tony Taccone was there at the birth of this American classic, and he remembers the labor well. After the premiere of Millennium Approaches and Perestroika at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1992, which he co-directed with Eustis in an infamously fractious, high-stakes creative process, the plays headed to Broadway with George C. Wolfe taking the director’s reins. Now Taccone will get another crack at Angels in a new revival, April 17-July 22, at his home theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where he’s been artistic director since 1997 (and associate artistic for 11 years before that).
I spoke to him late last year, while he was in the midst of casting and preproduction. He was about to announce big news: that Stephen Spinella, Angels’ original Prior Walter, would be playing the amoral fixer Roy Cohn in his revival, and that Caldwell Tidicue (a.k.a. Bob the Drag Queen) would be playing Belize. (Note: The following interview appears in a different form in the March print issue.)
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: You’re in the midst of it already, right?
TONY TACCONE: The mountain is about to be scaled. I mean, you know, good luck to us all.
Are you having…
Massive amounts of meetings? Yeah.
Actually, I’m wondering if you’re having any sort of flashbacks, like, “Oh, this is what it’s like to work on this play.”
You know, one of the things I’m trying really hard to do this time around is try to come at it assuming that I don’t know the play—which is a complete lie, because I know it very well. But trying to actually approach it in a fresh way, because I don’t want to be sitting in rehearsal telling the actors, “This is how we did it back in the day…Now, from what I remember…Here’s the old stories.” I mean, nobody’s interested in that, you know?
One of the first things I asked myself was, how is the play still relevant? And reading it again I found it amazingly relevant—although I have to say, I didn’t know if I was going to do the play again. It’s always been the Berkeley Rep season playlist, but the urgency wasn’t there until Trump got elected. And then I came out of the shock of that event—even though we had just produced It Can’t Happen Here and closed the night before the election, having carefully watched the tsunami of anger that propelled Trump into office.
After that sort of wore off, which took a couple of months, I literally woke up one day and thought: Angels in America. You know, what the play does so astonishingly well is that it demands inclusion—it allows you to enter this vast, complicated, and fantastic world on utterly human terms. You are absolutely and fully engaged with these characters over the course of seven and a half hours. You come to share their most traumatic experiences that they’re going through. The sense of empathy that Angels evokes is remarkable, empathy for the Other, the disenfranchised—in this case, people afflicted with AIDS, people alienated from the dominant culture, from themselves, all the while relentlessly asking the basic question, Can we change? Too often I feel that human beings seem hell-bent on self-implosion, and with all the rancor and the current economic and social systems that are at work, the human race is not really advertising well for itself right now.
So yes, the play keeps asking that question in a way that feels really relevant. And it’s hopeful, at a time when I think people need that. I need that! So I really felt like I wanted to work on it again, because of what it does for me, and hopefully for lots of other folks, too.
You co-directed the premiere with Oskar Eustis in L.A. I had a question about that. One theory I had after reading The World Only Spins Forward is that Tony Kushner trained as a director, and that’s one reason why he gives such extensive notes—he’s the playwright, sure, but he’s also sort of shadow directing throughout. It’s almost as if there were three directors in L.A., right?
Yes, that’s very true.
And you were sort of almost mediating between Oskar and Tony?
Yeah, that’s fair. I was in between those two very vibrant poles. That’s sort of how magnetism works—and doesn’t work.
So obviously you put a deep stamp on the play from its inception, but does this new production represent your chance finally to do your Angels your way?
The answer to your question is yes. I’d say this is an opportunity for me to revisit the play with a little bit more of a singular vision, while taking advantage of the fact that I was involved in the formative process of getting the play made.
And just to address the elephant in the room, a lot of people have asked me over the years, did you feel ripped off by not being able to take the play to New York? My answer to that is no. Would I have liked to have done it? Of course. Do I think I was qualified to do it? Of course I think I was qualified, whether people agree with me or not. But I have never lost sight of the fact that working on that play with Oskar and Tony, two of the best theatre minds of this or any generation, was an absolute gift from the gods. I mean, it was a singular moment in history, in theatre history, in my history. To be able to say that was part of my DNA in terms of forming my adult vision of what art can be, are you kidding me? I wouldn’t trade that for the world. So I never felt bitter. The feeling that I had been given a tremendous opportunity outweighed whatever kind of hurt feelings I had.
So what’s the Tony Taccone take on Angels?
I mean, first of all you have to consider the objective, historical take. What has changed historically since the play was first made? At the risk of being reductive, but hell, this is an interview so by definition it’s reductive, there’s three aspects of historical change to consider. First there’s the AIDS crisis. And while Larry Kramer’s Normal Heart paved the way, Angels was the first play about AIDS to gain massive popular appeal. It allowed people to hear, on human terms, about a horrendously catastrophic plague that at the time that he wrote it had all the earmarks of an unsolvable, unending, grief-ridden trauma. The situation has thankfully changed in America. It hasn’t changed in sub-Saharan Africa, but it certainly has changed here, where the combination of new medicines and diagnostic advances have allowed the AIDS crisis to recede as a medical event that’s dominant in our consciousness.
But two other topics of the play are more pressing than ever. One is climate change. I have to tell you, when Tony wrote those dystopian speeches coming out of Harper’s head about the state of the world, the notion of climate change hadn’t taken root in the public imagination. Honestly, the idea of Antarctica melting felt more like the stuff of science fiction. It was like, yeah, okay, okay, but hundreds of years away, certainly not in our lifetime. Well, as we sit here, Antarctica’s melting! We watch it on TV!
The third thing that’s happened, obviously, is that the political landscape has changed. We’ve swapped out Ronald Reagan for Donald Trump. And when you think about the sort of devolution of political leadership—obviously we’ve just come off of eight years of Obama and all of the hope that progressive people had for his presidency, which made serious inroads into salvaging and sustaining a liberal agenda. I mean, you can argue about Obama’s effectiveness, but when you look at the great span of history, that man’s going to go down as a great leader. There was a real sense of moral authority involved in his presidency. He stood for something. We didn’t realize quite what he stood for until we lost it so dramatically, and in such an oppositional way, to Donald Trump.
Now obviously, a lot has been made of the fact that Roy Cohn was Donald Trump’s lawyer, that he learned the school of hard knocks in some ways from Roy Cohn. There’s more than something to that. In the play Roy Cohn is on the fringes of power. He’s a power broker, he’s a very powerful man, but he’s not in the White House. He says he gets to go to the White House with a date and be greeted by the President. And now, lo and behold, he’s the one doing the greeting.
When you talk about moral authority, that’s the way a lot of conservatives thought and still think about Reagan. Joe Pitt, the Mormon lawyer in the play, certainly does. Tony gives that version of American idealism its due in the play, or at least takes it seriously.
He really does.
But any pretense of idealism seems gone from the right.
I know. What’s happened, obviously, is that the ruthless metaphysical principles of Cohn’s worldview are now being championed by the President as reality, as the truth, as how human beings really are. So what we’re fighting about now—and I think this is in the play, too, what Roy Cohn is fighting for is the truth, the truth as he sees it about how human beings behave, what we really are, and how to achieve one’s aims. He’s the villain of the play, obviously, but he’s also speaking from experiential knowledge: This is how you move through the world. If you want to attain power, this is how you do it. And Donald Trump agrees. There’s this celebration of gangsterism, because essentially what they’re both saying is that, at heart, bottom line, we’re all gangsters.
It’s a very zero-sum view of the world.
Yeah, it’s every man for himself, and as soon as you get clear about that, you can grow up. So I think there’s that war going on, and one of the ways that war happens in the play is brokered throughRoy Cohn and Joe, where you see Roy, who’s desperate to maintain his reputation and his standing, even as he’s dying, placing Joe in a position where Joe can effectively execute Roy’s plans.
I want to be clear in saying that Roy Cohn is not Donald Trump. They are born of two different moments in history, so it’s not the same thing. But clearly their view of reality is very much the same. And when I woke up that day and said, “I want to do Angels in America,” I felt like I wanted to look at the play again from this lens of political truth and historical fact and trying to understand what has happened to us. I mean, Tony has always been one of the few playwrights, and there are others, who are brilliant students of history. And because they are students of history, and they’re studying it more rigorously and more carefully than the vast majority of the rest of us, they have, on occasion, looked like prophets.
I know, there’s the joke about his drag name, “Eera Lee Prescient.” Do you think of him as a prophet?
I think of him as a very funny rabbi. Seriously. He’s got all the jokes that come off the Borscht Belt circuit, he’s a big fan of vaudeville, he loves a rubber chicken joke. And he’s really good at it. And at the same time he’s like a Talmudist scholar who has an advanced degree in political theory. He’s got this appetite for learning about the world. It’s deeply satisfying as an audience member because you feel like, “He’s talking to me about these subjects because he expects and assumes and knows that I can understand them.” That’s thrilling for an audience, because the audience is going, “Oh, this guy really thinks we’re smart.” And we are, because we do get it.
Since you brought up jokes, I want to ask you about a pet theory of mine. One thing that many productions I’ve seen since the original have missed is how funny the play is. It’s my observation that Roy and Prior, who are the ones with AIDS and are closest to death, also happen to have the biggest laugh lines. Does that ring true to you?
I think in Tony’s world, the closer one gets to dying, the more one must rely on one’s funny bone to carry the day. The first play I ever did at Berkeley Rep when I became artistic director was Tony’s Hydriotaphia, which is three-hour-and-45-minute farce about death. It is really funny. I’m surprised it hasn’t been done—I think it’s really seaworthy. But it is an encapsulation of everything you just said: The guy who’s dying is hysterical, literally and figuratively.
How do you cast the revival of a play you were there at the beginning of? Are you trying to banish Stephen Spinella and Joe Mantello and Ron Liebman, et al., from your mind?
Honestly, going back and looking at the play, it’s a little daunting how much I remember the original production. It was a long time ago now, but I don’t know—maybe it’s because of the way we work on theatre, the intimacy of it, the obsessive nature of it, where it lands in our unconscious, but we tend to brand shows pretty boldly into our minds. And I guess because I also worked on it for a long time—you know, there were workshops, there were lots of drafts of the play that I read, it was a long process, and he took over four years to write the play.
What was really insightful for me was going back and reading Perestroika, because Tony had done a lot of changes on Perestroika after the Taper, where he really resolved a number of the relationships in a way that hadn’t been quite finished—Joe’s journey in particular. So I think he’s tried to make it more clear without losing the vast unknowingness of some things.
I mean, part of the trick of being a playwright is connecting to the unknowingness—I’m trying not to speak in psychobabble, but I do think that there’s a difference between mystery and confusion. Frequently when you’re in a new-play process the demand is for clarity, and I think sometimes it robs plays of mystery, which is one of their greatest virtues. So I think that there’s a dance that goes on. And Tony, I don’t think he’s going to ever quite worry about that because his mind is so expansive.
But, to answer your question, the cast we have is phenomenal. And I don’t have to worry about hearing Spinella in my mind… since he’s in the cast! You need a great cast, because this play is one helluva challenge.
So, we’ve been talking about it as a play, but obviously it’s two plays.
It’s one play.
Okay, it’s one work. I mean, I think of it the way I do Godfather I and II: I know they’re very different but in my mind I get mixed up what thing happens in which. I feel the same way about Angels, like, “Oh, is that part from the second or the first?” But they really are very different plays. Could you compare and contrast them? Tony Kushner has said how surprised he’s been over the years to hear how many people prefer Perestroika or found it more interesting and moving.
You know, we all have different experiences. We just convened this Angels in America support group at Berkeley Rep, because there’s a whole bunch of Bay Area folks who are poised to storm the world as advocates for the play. These people have all have seen the play, some of them many, many times, and there was this collective sense around the table that after Millennium people felt depressed and after Perestroika they felt enlivened. And I was like, “Really?” Because for me, Millennium plays like a bit like Oscar Wilde. Yeah, people are getting horrendously bad news, but it’s a fun ride, you know! And then when the Angel crashes through that ceiling, and we get very Steven Spielberg—I mean, for me it’s a kind of a joy ride. It clips along because, as Tony says, Part One is about what’s coming. It’s like the world’s biggest build-up in any play ever written.
And then it happens, and Part Two is, you’re much more into the chaos of a world falling apart. But it was interesting to me to see what people’s impressions were of the play, and how they did not agree with my own. When you say “funny”—I mean, I remember there are some great big, huge, humongous laughs. It’s amazing there are so many laughs given the content.
You know, Part One is a relatively coherent world. There’s suffering and there’s drama and there’s anticipation, there’s something terrible that might happen, but the world itself feels like people are trying to hold on to what they have, what they know, what’s familiar. Prior is desperate to not let the Angel in, even if he’s had a big ol’ wet dream, but it’s scary. Joe and Harper are obviously in the midst of a massive blow-up, but the world itself feels like it’s fighting very, very, very hard to hold on to what it knows it can’t sustain.
When that angel blows through that roof, it feels like the world has been thrown into chaos, and people are having to sort of frantically and desperately and urgently grapple with new information. The cat’s out of the bag, Pandora’s Box has opened. Okay, now what? People have to scramble, and they don’t know what they’re doing. Nobody knows what they’re doing in Part Two. They have no clue. And when they do… I mean, Joe thinks he knows what he’s doing and he’s just projecting this massive inner terror onto his love for Louis. He’s traded adrenaline for feeling. Harper, her world’s fallen apart; she can no longer sustain the fiction of Antarctica. And Mr. Lies is telling her, “Eh, I can’t really help you with this size of a problem.”
Then you’ve got all the Angel stuff.
All the Principalities. When we finally arrive in Heaven, it’s a total mess. The angels have no idea how to restore their retrogressive, fixed world since God’s gone. All they can do is demand that human life cease. So it’s up to humanity, and Prior Walter of all people, to take agency—to demand life, and to be given the time to reimagine himself in this world that can no longer be put back together in the same way.
From reading about it, it sounds like Perestroika partly reflects or dramatizes the confusion of its creation. Oskar has this great quote in The World Only Spins Forward, that the play’s theme is how hard it is to change, and the play itself embodies that process.
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. The birthing of Angels was not easy. I gotta tell you, the play was rejected by many theatres and producers as being too long, too gay, too political, too this, too that. By the time Gordon Davidson agreed to do it, and by the time we left the Eureka, a lot of things in our personal lives had changed: Oskar was at the Taper; I was at Berkeley Rep; Tony was trying to extract the rights from the Eureka Theatre but they wouldn’t release them, so the Eureka mounted basically a workshop production and then the National did Part One…And by then it was clear that Angels in America was destined for greatness. And then we did the premiere of both parts. Our lives had changed over the course of those five years in a dramatic way, and our ages had something to do with it: We were all between 25 and 35, and people’s lives were kind of exploding. And so the play, as Oskar was saying, mimicked what was going on in our own personal lives.
Another thing about the play’s origins is that it was written for a company, and that it wouldn’t be the play it is if he hadn’t had to write it for the Eureka ensemble.
Right. It was very odd. Our acting company was composed of three straight women and a straight man. So half the characters were created for those people.
Was it Joint Stock that was an inspiration for that approach?
Joint Stock was a company that we admired a lot. We followed the work of Caryl Churchill really closely, and David Edgar and many other British writers. But by the mid-’80s we were hungry to find new American playwrights, people with real imagination and a political perspective, and Tony Kushner was the perfect fit.
The play had a huge influence on the field, at least on writers.
It did. After Angels, you have no idea how many writers would come up to us saying, “I’ve written a new …” and like, the poundage—you know, 800 pages later…
But this is a play the field didn’t know it wanted at the time, and even though it definitely moved the boundaries of what plays could be, and you can trace its influence in many plays since, it remains a challenge to the find theatres that want to stage new political epics with large casts.
The scale of it was something that nobody had thought was possible, and I think many writers were inspired to think larger, both in terms of the ideas and the material scale of what was possible. I think that period has diminished and we’ve gone back to smaller-cast plays. But I have to say that Angels in America let the imaginative cat out of the bag. For American writers—I mean, Caryl Churchill had been doing stuff that was wildly imaginative for a very long time. She has this great quote, “In the theatre, anything is possible.” And when you saw Angels you thought “Anything is possible.”