Angels on Campus

Tony Kushner visits IC and teaches a master class.

By Gillian Smith ’12

For some students, taking a one-credit seminar does not occur to them. Add the prospect of working with a world-renowned author, and it’s a no-brainer. Such was the case with the popular five-week seminar, Tony Kushner and Angels in America, an intensive study of Kushner’s two-part work, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, which included a class with the playwright himself.

Kushner’s drama is widely recognized as one of the greatest American plays in the last several decades, said Claire Gleitman, professor of the seminar and English department chair. She said the goal of the course was to examine the play “both as a portrait of richly realized characters and as a consideration and critique of America at a particular moment in time (mid-1980s).”

The play won two Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize. The HBO film — for which Kushner wrote the screenplay — won an Emmy.

Max Lorn-Krause ’12, an acting major, said the seminar was full of intelligent students who are tackling complicated issues through the various arts.

“As an actor, I find the text extremely challenging but also extremely potent and rewarding,” he said. “I have always been drawn to the scale of the work and the incredible images that Kushner creates. It’s an actor’s dream to sit around and talk about a play.”

On April 4, that dream got even better when Kushner visited the College to meet with the students in this seminar, give them an inside look at the work, and have a discussion on its universal and national themes, which include homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, and prescription drugs. Gleitman said Kushner answered students’ questions about his work expansively and thoughtfully and was enthusiastic about their interests. She described him as “gracious, charming, witty, and immensely generous with his time.”

Kushner was also interviewed the same day before an audience of about 400 in the Hoerner Theatre. Gleitman said the interview was a significant event for the campus community, not only because Kushner is an important voice in contemporary American theater, but also because of how he engaged with students.

“He was a delight at the interview,” she said. “He was funny, fascinating, and far-ranging in his answers. Perhaps most striking: the book signing began at 9:30 and didn’t end until midnight because he spent about 10 to 15 minutes with every single student.”

The majority of the students in this seminar were Honors students, although several acting, writing, English, and film majors who had expressed a deep interest in the class were admitted. More students attended the public event. Jason Brey Dietz, a sophomore business management student, said he went to hear Kushner speak because Angels has been one of his all-time favorite plays ever since he played the role of Roy Cohn in a high school performance.

Gleitman said that in addition to analyzing the play in the seminar, the class staged a reading of Angels in America in the last couple weeks of the seminar. Gleitman directed the reading.

“The students have been so enthusiastic about the play,” she said. “This has been quite gratifying to me and is a tribute to the richness and fascination of Tony Kushner’s work.”

Lorn-Krause said the seminar was entirely relevant today, and he enjoyed hearing Kushner speak in the master class.

“It is important to study Kushner’s work because he is a true American playwright of the old tradition,” he said. “His plays are unapologetically complex, and he demands an extremely high level of participation, which is exceedingly rare in American theater. He’s a god in the theater world, and just to hear him speak in person was amazing.”

Dietz was thrilled to talk with Kushner after the interview. “He was such a nice guy,” he said. “My life is complete.”