Tony Kushner may be revered as one of the most creative and successful playwrights of recent years, but that doesn’t mean he can’t piss people off. Take his appearance in last Friday’s Dramatic Arts 1 class, filled with eager young minds looking to leach any and all advice from someone who had lived their very dream. “I think majoring in theater is a mistake,” he asserted. Thirty smooth faces grew pale. “It’s vocational training.” A silence permeated the room and you could hear the crushing of energetic theater major souls. Kushner went on to explain how young people need four years to develop intellectually, not focus so directly on a career goal, but become complete people. Kushner, a former medieval studies major at Columbia University in New York City, uses the subjects and skills he learned in college to influence and inform the work he produces now. At the tender age of 18, however, one cannot comprehend the importance of a well-rounded education.
Though his method may have been harsh, he was trying to create a reality for the students, too awe-struck by the mere idea of theater to realize that it isn’t everything. And it isn’t. As Kushner so aptly pointed out, artists, especially young ones, tend to isolate themselves from the rest of society – living in a metaphoric bubble, separated from real life experiences. Kushner’s audience happened to be more the over-eager drama crew, and he was none too happy about it, refusing to cater to the answers they so obviously wanted to hear. “Well what do you suggest I major in, then?” asked one, obviously distraught theater-phile.
“It doesn’t matter” Kushner quipped.
Cut to Friday evening, Kushner awkwardly sidled onto the Campbell Hall stage, his bushy brown hair bouncing to each step. The packed audience roared with approval, having seen productions of or read his numerous acclaimed plays including the Emmy Award winning “Angels in America.” He began with a reading from a work-in-progress about First Lady Laura Bush and her love of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a tale about the repercussions that come from murder, justified or not. The reading touched on many controversial topics, aiming decidedly to the political Left. Applause ensued. Though political in nature, it was theater, what the audience thought they were there to see.
Enter stage right Jeff Bridges, known more for his quirky roles that weasel their way into the cultural vernacular. He wore earth tones and long hair reminiscent of “the Dude.” They sat around a prop coffee table in uncomfortable chairs. Kushner looked star-struck. Being an agnostic Jew from the South, in a committed same-sex relationship, an outspoken liberal, a columnist and a playwright, Kushner is full of dimension and it was obvious that theater was not at the forefront of his interests or abilities.
The hour-long conversation between actor and playwright delved deeply into the political venue, straying from characterization in Kushner’s plays, and theatre in general. Both liberals, the punches by the two produced a sting felt by the conservatives in the audience. “I won’t say [Republicanism is a] mental illness,” said Kushner half-jokingly. An elderly couple squeezed through the row and made for the exit. Citing names, dates and events, Kushner skillfully backed up his opinion, considering opposing views, but settling on his own. Trading views on the role of the celebrity in the political arena, hip hop and rap music, but mostly the unpopular decisions made by President Bush, the conversation both drew in and repulsed the diverse audience, but ultimately got them all thinking.
In a post-conversation Q&A session, a struggling playwright approached the microphone at the front of the auditorium. “I am a playwright myself, and I have to say I am terribly disappointed that you didn’t talk about the theater.” A spattering of applause followed. Kushner looked annoyed, but politely listened and answered her subsequent question.
Another aspiring playwright questioned Kushner; “I want to know how I can change the world with my plays.”
“You can’t,” he asserted. Though that may not be entirely true, Kushner used this forum to inform his audience, theatrical or not, about the importance of involvement – in politics, in society and in life. Though there were the few who reviled the mentioning of politics at a theatrical talk, he required an open mind, a working brain and a sense of self from all who attended. For those seeking Kushner’s guidance, it inadvertently bit them in the ass.