From the Issue: Favorite Son
Written by Bwog Staff
The magazine will be posted online later tonight, but for those brave enough to emerge from Butler, the print version is already scattered around campus.
Emmy and Pulitzer winning playwright Tony Kushner, CC ‘78, had to cancel our first interview when the Writers Guild of America strike called him to the picket lines. When we finally corralled him at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, the Angels in America author arrived on a little folding bike to regale us with tales of activism, experimentation, and a room near and dear to his heart (residents of 1013 Furnald, you’ve been warned).
THE BLUE AND WHITE: How involved have you been in the strike?
Tony Kushner: Well, I’ve been on the picket line pretty much every day there’s been a picket line. I’ve been a responsible member. I’m not writing a screenplay that I was in the middle of writing when this started.
B&W: What’s that been like for you? To completely step away from something you’re immersed in?
TK: It’s been tough because it’s a script for Steven Spielberg and I’d been working on it for a year before the strike happened. I think it’s important that it’s in basically the same shape that it was in when the strike started, so that people running things in Hollywood understand that it’s not like a lot of work is secretly getting done while we’re on strike.
B&W: One of the things you mentioned in your 2004 Class Day speech is that you wouldn’t have been there unless the grad students were taking a rest from their strike. Were you involved in activism as a student?
TK: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons why I came. I had a fantasy that I would walk on campus and May ‘68 would still be going on, and I had really powerful romantic feelings about Columbia’s history of student unrest. This was 1974, so I was somewhat surprised by what I found when I got here. But there was still actually a lot going on, and I think about a month after I arrived, Abe Beame, the mayor of New York, announced that they were closing all the branch libraries in the public library system, because this was at a point when the city was completely bankrupt. And a bunch of old people who were all 1930s radicals who used the library as a place to sit on cold days announced that they were going to sit in and not allow the libraries to close. And then somebody, I don’t know who, put up posters saying, “Let’s go support the old people.” And so it became, every day, this amazing gathering of 80-year-old communists who still lived in rent-controlled apartments on the Upper West Side and student radicals who had occupied Grayson Kirk’s office in ‘68 and one guy who claimed to have put acid in the water cooler in Low Library—and people like me who were interested in being part of that tradition at Columbia.
B&W: Would you say that the activism was one of the more formative parts of your experience?
TK: No, because I had done political stuff in Louisiana when I was growing up, and I learned certain things about activism from my days at Columbia, but I certainly learned a lot more about activism when I left school and came out of the closet and got involved in various gay political issues. I wasn’t out when I was on campus—I could have been, there were dances at Earl Hall, but I was just trying to become a straight person, so I sort of missed that.
The most important thing to me was the education. The Core Curriculum and all of those classes did what they were supposed to do, they laid a firm foundation for me, both knowledge and also analytic skills. And a few other classes I took at Columbia, like Edward Tayler’s Shakespeare class, Kenneth Coates’ 20th Century American poetry class. They were transformative. I wasn’t a particularly diligent student, but I got an enormous amount from my education here, and I feel a deep gratitude to the place. There were no arts majors at Columbia at that point, which unfortunately is no longer the case, right?
B&W: Yeah, I think you can major in music, and dance…
TK: I think there should be no undergraduate arts majors, except maybe if you’re a dancer or instrumentalist, then I think you sort of have to train at a very early age. But I feel very strongly that arts training is vocational training. Acting classes in undergraduate colleges are ridiculous; you don’t actually have the emotional capacity in your first four years away from home to do acting training, which is really a very painful and difficult thing. So thank God people who teach acting to undergraduates don’t go near any of that, and instead just teach them bad habits, which if they’re really talented they’ll unlearn.
B&W: Was the Varsity Show a big deal when you were in school?
TK: It wasn’t. I think the Varsity Show existed, but I certainly never saw one. We were very into [Jean-Claude] Artaud and Peter Brook, and were very serious—there was a lot of interesting experimentation of various kinds going on. It was the golden age of American experimental theater, really. There really was just astonishing stuff going on downtown, and we were all in awe of it, reading a lot of high modernist theory and figuring out what we wanted to do. So things like the Varsity Show were beneath us.
B&W: Do you mind if I probe a little more into why coming out was difficult for you, and why it only happened towards the end of your college years?
TK: Well, I came here from a small town in Louisiana, and I was very close to both of my parents, my father especially. My father had sort of known that I was gay, but was very eager to believe that I could do something about it, and fix it. In Lake Charles there were no analysts, and so at Columbia I went to Health Services my second week here, and said “I need to talk to somebody, I have a terrible problem.” And I certainly had never had sex with anyone, but I knew that I wanted to have sex with men. I got very lucky—because in 1974, it was sort of hit and miss, you could easily end up with some wizened old homophobe—and instead I got a guy who was a very gifted analyst. After about a year that we’d worked together, he said “I’m not sure the real problem is your homosexuality, I think the real problem might be your relationship with your father.” And I was reassured to hear that, but I still found the idea terrifying. I didn’t want to be a member of a marginal group. I’m sure ultimately it was all rooted in my father’s disapproval. I remember walking in Central Park at one point when I was a student at Columbia and there was a march of gay people, and I sort of watched them go by, and I was very moved by the thought that they were marching, and I thought to myself, “Well, when I work all this out and I become straight, I will be very nice to them.”
The very first thing I did in terms of theater at Columbia was I went to an audition for Marat/Sade, which Columbia Players was doing a production of. And there were two guys, students, I later came to know them both very well. And they were sitting next to each other holding hands, and they kissed, and I was shocked. I was really frightened. I avoided making friends with gay men, which is weird because most of my friends were in theater at Columbia. I wasn’t sexually active in any way. And then I finally had sex with somebody about a week before graduating.
B&W: A lot of people do that.
TK: 1013 Furnald.
B&W: OK. Wow. You said that the ‘70s were definitely the age of experimental theater in New York. Do you feel like there’s any sort of age that we’re living in now?
TK: I certainly think there’s a lot of very interesting experimentation that’s going on now. It seems to me that at some point—and people disagree about what point this was—when I was starting out in theater, The New York Times simply didn’t review anything below 14th Street. They weren’t interested in it. It wasn’t what everyone aspired to as much. The city was so much cheaper to live in. You could find places to do theater for nothing. So as a result you had people who were sort of middle aged and who had arrived at a maturity of vision and were still doing downtown experimental work. And that’s changed to a certain extent. I think it’s mostly now people who are really willing to put up with the deprivation that comes with not being commercially successful— it’s primarily young people. And there’s an automatic, well-laid and well-trodden path from doing experimental work downtown to something like commercial success.
B&W: I think it’s interesting that you didn’t say anything negative about the theatergoer. Do you think young people are still interested?
TK: I think a lot of the not-so-young people in their 20s and 30s who were sort of trained by their parents [are interested]. Like my partner, who’s 44, subscribes to, like, six different theaters. My aunts and uncles who lived in New York, his parents, bought tickets for the whole season, and went to see what they had to offer. Some of it was shit (a lot of it was shit), but some of it was great, and you knew that you were giving your money to fund not just your own entertainment but also a cultural milieu from which your society would derive benefit. Now, the mentality has shifted much more towards consumer expectation and criticism written from that point of view. The New York Times— it’s an appalling sort of rag now—there’s no sense of history, no sense of antecedents.
I’m a little bit afraid there’s a generation passing from this earth of people who have a connection to culture as being an absolutely essential part of life. Those people are going away, and I worry a little bit whether we’re worthy successors to that generation. These were people who really believed that the point of civilization is getting a cheap theater seat and going to see something good and difficult. I don’t know how you have a civilization without people like that.
B&W: You’ve also made a shift recently in starting to work on screenplays. What drew you to that?
TK: Mostly I was just interested in what I was asked to write about. I’ve found over the course of working with Spielberg and Mike Nichols that I really enjoy film, not as much as plays, but I really do like to be on a film set, and I find the difference to be both frustrating but also really exhilarating.
B&W: You recently became the subject of a film yourself, a documentary that came out in October 2006. The reviews around it suggest that you hadn’t seen it. Have you seen it yet?
TK: I haven’t seen it. I promised Freda Mock, who made it, that I would watch it before we have to do one big interview together the day before it airs. The idea of staring at myself and watching myself talk… It’s hard to watch how much you don’t resemble what you [think you] look like and sound like.
B&W: I think that’s interesting, because as a writer, you have to see your work.
TK: But it’s writing, it’s not you. It’s sometimes very hard to listen to your writing— it sounds stupid and you can’t believe you did that— but you’re still not watching yourself. To a certain extent when you read what you’ve written, you start to rewrite it, and the impulse to do that is a kind of progress.
B&W: You mentioned politics and speaking a lot about the war. Do you think your writing is going to get more political?
TK: I have no idea. There are some times when the world is so horrible that it is impossible to write overtly political things, and there are times when suddenly your rage becomes organized, and very clear, and you feel compelled to create something that’s very overtly political. I give myself permission to go with the times. I’d like the work that I do to be useful to those who are struggling for progress or political change, but my main job is always [that] when I come up with a situation that I want to write about, to tell the truth about it. The truth is almost always, among other things, political.
B&W: Are you excited to get back involved with campaigns this year? Do you have a favorite?
TK: I’m not going to say. I just saw John Edwards speaking downtown for the WGA—Hillary and Barack both sent telegrams. Any one of them, including Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, would be such a vast improvement over what we have, or any of the monstrous people who are running for the Republican ticket. I’ve liked a lot of what Edwards has said. I think the choice to go towards a really fierce populism and a Left Democrat approach was admirable, and sort of forced Hillary and Obama away from their centrism a little bit. I wish I was a little bit happier with Obama. I don’t like his whole line about being the non-political politician. I think that’s garbage— it’s sort of a page from the Reagan playbook. There’s nothing wrong with politics, and there’s nothing wrong with being partisan. It’s very clear now that the Republican Party is not going to play along with rectifying the horrendous mess that they’ve sunk the world in. I wish that Obama, who I think in many ways is a very admirable man, would drop this whole fantasy of finding common ground to talk about. As a gay man, I find this deeply offensive. There is no common ground.
B&W: Well thank you so much for meeting us here, Mr. Kushner.
TK: I’m excited being back in the Hungarian Pastry Shop. I used to live here, and it looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since.
Drawing by Julia Butareva
Tags: the blue and white