Twenty-five years ago at the small Eureka Theatre in downtown San Francisco, Tony Kushner pushed forth the first iteration of a play that would become what many feel is not only a great American play but one of only a handful of theatre works which thoroughly captured the zeitgeist of its time. This week Angels in America opens at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, celebrating this big anniversary and, with Parts I and II offered in repertory, representing a joint venture between two local companies. Artistic Directors Jason Loewith (Olney Theatre Center) and Ryan Rilette (Round House Theatre) are directing Millennium Approaches and Perestroika respectively.
I was excited that the team let me have a sneak peak into a tech rehearsal as well as a chance to let these two directors riff on how the whole project had been initiated. It turns out the collaboration and the choice of material came about quite organically.
Susan Galbraith: Please first talk about the context for entering into this collaboration. When people hear theatres collaborating, they mostly think of rolling productions between different cities or due to economic necessity. But this sounds like quite a different impulse, starting with what many people don’t know – that you have known each other well for some time.
Ryan Rilette: We know each other from the National New Play Network. I was on the Executive Committee. I think I was the secretary at the time when we decided to hire a first Executive Director of the organization, and that was Jason. I became the Vice-President and then the President, and, while I was the President, Jason and I were tasked with forging our first strategic plan for the organization. (turning to Jason) You remember that?
Jason Loewith: (something between a guffaw and a wince) Oh man!
Ryan: Creating a strategic plan for a single theatre is one thing. Creating a strategic plan where all the committees are staffed by artistic directors and managing directors is a very complicated beast.
Jason: I started at NPN around 2009. Ryan was my boss.
Susan: So now you are both artistic directors of your respective theatres, but why did you choose to collaborate on this project?
Jason: What’s important about how we got to know each other is that NPN is a radically collaborative network in ways that theatres generally aren’t. Collaboration comes very naturally to both of us. We both came to our current theatres about the same time, within a year of each other, at a time when both of our theatres needed something like a “re-vivication,” if you will. It meant we were already talking about “What challenges are you facing? What challenges am I facing?” We were already problem solving together as colleagues. We were also talking about how we might collaborate in deeper, more meaningful ways. We went to lunch somewhere, in Wheaton I think –
Ryan: I’m quite sure it was Peruvian –
Jason: Good restaurant –
Ryan: And because we’re not competitive in a single market in the way a lot of theatres are —
Angels in America
Part 1: Millennium Approaches
September 7 – October 23, 2016
Part 2: Perestroika
September 25 – October 30, 2016
Details and tickets
Jason: We’re believers in the idea that a rising tide floats all boats. We had this interesting idea about collaborating together artistically. We thought it would be an interesting venture and we wanted to take on a project that was bigger than either of our institutions could handle on its own. Very importantly, we wanted to give our audiences a chance to intermingle. There are certainly a lot of Olney audience members who don’t go to Round House and vice versa. But how it turned to this –
Ryan: If I remember correctly it was “yes, we should work on something together.” And oddly, even though we are both in Montgomery Country and represent the county’s two big theatre organizations, we don’t share as much audience as people might think we do. I have more cross-over in my audience with Arena Stage than I do with Olney right now. So we talked about that. Then we said, “Well what projects could we possibly do?” And both of us immediately said —
Both: Angels in America.
Ryan: It’s not that each of the theatres couldn’t do Angels of America on our own. But we could not do it the way we are doing it. It would have to be a much more stripped-back version of it. And the play is an epic play. To be able to tackle an epic play in an epic way is something I think we could only do with the two of us. At first we talked about doing Part I [Millennium Approaches] in one theatre and Part II [Perestroika] in the other. And who would direct? Eventually we settled on doing it in rep here, but then we knew we wanted to do something of this scale at Olney next year. That’s how the project evolved.
Susan: Have you both leapt in the same way at the obvious choice for the following season?
Ryan: No, we’re hard at work on what that next project is.
Susan: Jason, you spoke to the Footlights Club the other night and said that there was no fight in who was going to direct which play, but in rehearsal has that decision felt challenged, or have either of you waffled about which play was the one for you? Or have you been affirmed in the choice you made.
Jason: I think I tend to be a straight-ahead narrative person. I’m drawn to linear story telling most of the time. So, my first instinct was Millennium is the one for me. And after I re-read it I was “yeah, yeah.” But it’s true that after the company did its first table-reading– and it took us two days to get through the two parts! – and after the second day reading of Perestroika I felt, “Well, now I want to direct Perestroika!” But after working on it, I’ve fallen back in love with my first choice.
Ryan: I didn’t have a strong desire to direct Part II over Part I. It wasn’t like that. Jason wanted to do Part I. And I knew Part I a lot better than Part II, and I’m often drawn to things that scare me a little bit. As an artist, I want to tackle things I’m not sure I know how to do. And when I went back and reread everything, I thought, “Oh wow, I don’t know how any of this stuff works. So, I have to do it. It is also larger than anything I’ve ever done. With the last two plays I’ve directed here, even putting them together doesn’t equal this play length-wise. Part II alone is three hours and forty minutes long and it’s got huge challenges. It has its own theology and whole scenes where Dawn (Dawn Ursula playing the Angel) is flying and lots of magical moments. And I haven’t really been able to think much beyond that. I certainly haven’t had a moment where I said, “Oh I wish I was doing Millennium – except in the really, really hard places and the fantastical moments, where we were trying to figure out heaven and where there are so many questions and weird stuff –
Susan: Copulating angels?
Ryan: Well, there you are. You could right a book about that section.
Jason: You could right a book shorter than that section!
Ryan: Exactly. So there was a moment when I thought, yeah I wish I had the more straightforward play, because I’m tired of trying to answer all these questions. But actually, I’ve really enjoyed everything about working on it so far. And I’m very excited to get into tech for Part II.
Susan: You are both directors, and, while you both have creative teams to give feedback, the more usual venture is that a director is on his own “to answer the questions,” as you put it. Have there been moments where you huddle and say, “I don’t know what to do here” or “In this play the actor makes it look like he’s rolling off a log but in the other part the approach doesn’t seem to fit what the style calls for?” Can you share such useful and unusual directorial collaboration?
Jason: Absolutely, more than we had ever imagined –
Ryan: Of course. There have been a number of places where we might say, “In this play the character seems more like this, and there are things I’m seeing that I want, but in the first play I’m not seeing that, why is that?” There is a character right now – and we have to have a meeting with the actor – where the character doesn’t seem the same yet from one play to the next. There are a number of things like that. The biggest thing for me as a director is that so much of the vocabulary of the play must come from Part I. And a lot of times in tech you figure out the play in the third act. You see something and you say, “That’s what I want to get to and so I need to go back.” But as the director of Part II, I can’t exactly go back six hours into the play. Normally, as Artistic Director, I wouldn’t even be here during Tech. I’d just show up at the end and watch the run. But I’m sticking around a lot because I want to see what they are creating to make sure that it fits with the vocabulary we are building elsewhere.
Jason: It has been incredibly helpful –
Ryan: For both of us –
Jason: It has made me so grateful. I mean, designers learn from other designers on a team, and actors learn from other actors on a project. But as you said, directors are mostly working solo. As you said, Susan, you never get that support, that opportunity to learn from other directors. So that’s a real gift in this collaboration, especially as we see the play the same way –
Ryan: And that’s what we didn’t really know and we have been pleasantly surprised. We knew we liked each other and that we have similar aesthetics in the plays we choose. But we didn’t know how we would be in the room together. We see the characters the same. The thing I wanted to say which I hadn’t thought about is that – well if Jason was the Artistic Director and I was the Director, he might still give me notes, but here I’m giving him notes it’s from the standpoint of someone who is also deeply imbedded in the play. So the notes he gave me the other day in the stumble through, there were some I could go “Yeah, yeah, I’m working on that” but other places I could say, “Yes, I agree with you entirely, but I have no idea how to achieve it.” We are connected because we are on the same plane.
Jason: We are learning how the parts talk to each other. And his watching helps me go “Oh! Oh! Now I can go back.” And while he’s watching the stumble through, he can understand that character who goes through both plays. I was completing the emotional argument of that character as if it were only one play. I had to remember that the character has farther to go and the arc has to be bigger – like that (a grand gesture of a rainbow going across the sky)
Susan: In rereading it, I was reminded that between Parts I and II there’s barely a hiccough –
Ryan: It’s that baton pass that is one of the trickiest things for the characters. Starting work for Perestroika, where they are to start their scenes depends totally on where they end up in Millennium. And when Jason saw the run the other day, and this character is in the hospital and he’s coming right from that but I’m asking why he seems to have more energy than he would have, so how do we tie those two things together? It needs to feel cohesive and not miss a step.
Jason: But also recognizing that people may see only one of the plays, and the plays need to stand on their own. Tricky for you – (points to Ryan)
Ryan: Tricky for the actors. We had got to this point, and they were all talking about showing the arc. And I had to remind the actors that they need to think about this more like a Netflix series. A series, think about it, is as long as this show. Actors, you can do much more subtle things because you have the time to build something over a very long period of time in terms of your character. It’s fascinating and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to work on something like this.
Susan: And it’s been twenty-five years, and while progress has been made in the treatment of AIDS, the issues of politics and race seem absolutely, frighteningly even, imminently of our time. Can you speak to why this play may be even more pressing today than when it was written?
Ryan: We talked about this a ton when we did table work. And we are constantly being hit in this play by things that feel very much of the moment. The biggest thing that we keep coming back to is that while this play was and is an AIDS play – and yes AIDS has changed but shockingly we hear people tell us they don’t think AIDS is an issue anymore – reading and working on this play during this campaign year, so much of this play is speaks to opposing belief systems between forward progress vs. stopping movement –
Jason: Stagnation –
Ryan: The Angel and other characters keep talking about stopping, “We have to stop, we need to be of a time where we don’t migrate so much.” It is literally a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook. And Tony Kushner, of course, is suggesting that that is not possible – that it is in our genes to progress. At that macro level you can see the entire election in many ways played out. So the Republican Party wants to pass the most comprehensive bill turning back rights on LGBT. Remember, the character of Roy Cohn was Donald Trump’s mentor in many ways.
Susan: The ferocious speech in the hospital room about power is all the more shocking because it sounds so familiar. “Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual fit in the food chain, in the pecking order?…[it’s about] clout. Not who I f _ _ _ or who f _ _ _ s me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does that sound like me, Henry?”
Jason: We’re opening Millennium with a big projection of Ronald Reagan in front of an American flag. Thirty years on, how far to the right of Ronald Reagan has the Republican Party grown? And I think of all the themes in this play – the theme of race – and the resonance of racism in the year of Black Lives Matter and the response to the killings of Black young men. We have come so far on gay rights, and yet how with a Black president, have we seemed to slip so far back? –
Susan: Or have we just been shown time and again, we never got as far as many thought?
Ryan: I think of Perestroika and how a character says, “I hate America, Louis. I hate that the cracker who set the anthem set the word ‘freedom’ so high we can never reach it.” This play shows us how much farther we have to go.
Jason: And I was thinking about the other great AIDS play, and I think I said to you the other night that The Normal Heart is a really great AIDS play. But I think Angels of America is a really great American play.
Ryan: It’s a great play period. And it’s been an honor. I’m excited about the conversation that will be part of this.
And in the dark I sat and watched actors, designers, crew, and two directors move between their own walk of light and shadow as the play was brought forth. People brought with them their own blends of playfulness, cracking jokes, breaking the tedium of waiting for a light cue to be set up, and earnestly working out details here and there. For one who believes in the delicate alchemy of theatre in these moments, it was magical.