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The Kushner Effect

Will a world premiere from America’s most celebrated playwright change local theater?

The Kushner Effect
Photo by Mark Vancleave

THE GUTHRIE THEATER OPENED in 1963 with Hamlet, directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie himself—a strong statement on the kind of playwrights the new company intended to feature: mostly foreign, almost certainly male, and dead if at all possible.

Over the next three decades, new plays were seen on the famous thrust stage somewhat less regularly than the ghost said to stroll the aisles after hours. “The Guthrie,” wrote a New York drama critic after the theater’s first five seasons, “has tended to confine its experiments to startling productions of an unstartling repertoire.” Garland Wright, the Guthrie’s artistic director from 1986 to 1995, once said his ideal season would be “Molière, Molière, and more Molière.” The French playwright has been dead some 300 years.

By 2003, however, when ground was broken for the new Guthrie Theater, artistic director Joe Dowling had decided on a new course. And he knew exactly how he wanted to announce it. Like everyone else, he had marveled at Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Angels in America, an epic about religion, homosexuality, and AIDS. He was astounded by Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, in which the native New Yorker tackled religious fundamentalism abroad with uncommon command and depth, establishing himself as the nation’s preeminent dramatist, the Arthur Miller of his time. To open the new Guthrie, Dowling wanted to stage a new play by Kushner.

It didn’t happen; the timing didn’t work for Kushner. But this month, Dowling’s dream will be realized on an even larger scale as Kushner’s work is produced on all three stages of the new Guthrie, including the premiere of a play commissioned by Dowling: The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures. The month-long celebration, which will also include productions at other local theaters, talks by Kushner, and a seminar at the University of Minnesota, will immerse the Twin Cities in Kushner’s provocative ideas while attempting to determine his place in the pantheon of playwrights.

The art world will be watching. Not since Miller’s Resurrection Blues premiered at the Guthrie in 2002 has the theater been the site of such national attention. The play could hit or miss—“that will be in the lap of the gods,” Dowling has said. But no matter what happens, he says, the occasion will mark a turning point for the region’s most influential theater.

Joe, what struck you about Tony Kushner’s work the first time you saw it? I was blown away by the quality and depth of the writing, the sheer poise of this very young writer at the time, and his ability to create these extraordinary characters. I like writers that are provocative and political, who treat theater as not simply a bland thing we do from time to time to pass the hours between supper and bedtime. He relates to the world in which we live.

Why do you feel Kushner’s plays are not just good but important? It’s their capacity to last, to speak to their own time and yet move beyond that. Like [George Bernard] Shaw before him, Tony is a polemical writer. He stands on political issues and articulates them. Great theater does not usually generate political change by itself, but it is sometimes the harbinger of change. Angels in America, for instance, changed people’s thinking on AIDS, arguably the greatest health issue of our time. Homebody/Kabul, a play that Tony wrote before 9/11, deals with the effect of the Taliban on Afghanistan—he was interested in those issues before the rest of us took notice.

What does this showcase of a contemporary playwright, on such a massive scale, say about the Guthrie? The Guthrie has not had a great history of developing new work. But one of the reasons for building the new theater with three spaces was so that we could do just this—take individual writers and themes and work our way through them. This is the first time we will be making that happen. The reason we chose Tony is that he is a remarkable writer—the writer of his generation in many ways. And we are making quite a statement in saying that one of the great writers in America is on not just one of our stages but all three.

Is this event a one-time deal, or is the Guthrie now committed to new work? It’s definitely not a one-time thing. Look, we’re very fortunate in this community to have as much new work being staged as we do—at Penumbra Theatre, the Illusion Theater, the Playwrights’ Center. But what we want to do in the next few years is not just produce new work, but bring major playwrights here so that you have the combination of smaller theaters doing new work and the Guthrie doing new work that wider audiences will enjoy. We hope to have an ongoing relationship with many contemporary writers, using this event as a template.

Couldn’t you have staged new works in the old Guthrie space? The problem with doing new plays at the old space was that when you only have a thrust stage it’s difficult to get someone to write for it. They want the play to have a life beyond the premiere and there are few major theaters with a thrust stage on which to do it. We didn’t encourage or engage writers as much for that reason.

What risks are involved for the Guthrie? What’s the worst-case scenario? Doing any play is a risk. We put up our shingle and people choose to come or not to come. I’m not overly worried about people not coming to see it; we have a strong and loyal audience. And I’m hoping that [Kushner’s musical] Caroline, or Change will be of particular interest to the African American community, that the new play will interest the gay community, and that the short plays [on the Dowling Stage] will attract people who like adventurous theater. If we can do the plays well and get the right energy behind them, I think we’ll do all right.

Conventional wisdom once had it that the Twin Cities were a safe bet for premieres, as Minnesotans were kinder than New Yorkers, and a flop wouldn’t make a big splash. Any truth to this anymore? No, we’ve grown up and joined the world. Audiences here will be just as critical as anywhere.

When Arthur Miller premiered Resurrection Blues at the Guthrie in 2002, he did so with the lament that Broadway was not taking risks anymore. Does that sentiment still hang over this premiere? I think Broadway just wasn’t taking Arthur’s plays seriously. If you look at the recent season on Broadway, one of the major events was August: Osage County, which is an extraordinary piece of writing. Granted, it came out of Steppenwolf Theatre Company [in Chicago]—a lot of plays on Broadway do come out of nonprofit theater, but they make it to Broadway eventually.

What do you hope the local impact of this full immersion in Kushner’s ideas will be? As people absorb them, I hope they simply begin to feel less intimidated by the concept of ideas in plays at all—that theater doesn’t always have to be Little House on the Prairie. Not that there weren’t some very good ideas in that, but this is a different kind of entertainment, something of value that makes you think as well as feel. That’s where Tony is at his best—he always does make you think.

The Tony Kushner celebration at the Guthrie Theater begins with Caroline, or Change, opening April 18. The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures opens May 9. And tiny KUSHNER: An Evening of Short Plays opens May 16. For tickets, see guthrietheater.org.

Tim Gihring is the senior writer and arts editor of Minnesota Monthly.


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