The final words of Angels in America send the audience back out into the world. It’s both a blessing and an instruction. Go, live more life. And may you have More Life.
In part 2 of this two-part blog for Angels opening on Broadway it felt right to give a personal account of how Angels has given me both that blessing and instruction over the years. And, in particular, this production. I can’t claim to have been there at the beginning, at 10 years old I was a bit young. And at 10 years old I wasn’t a person, or from a place where theatre was a part of my life. Angels is part of the reason it is.
The actors often say that in eight hours of being torn apart by this play they get less than five minutes redemption to put themselves back together. But often I think that for them, and the audiences, this play is designed to resonate beyond the walls of the theatre. That’s why Prior turns to us at the end. That’s why here the lights come up why the birds of Central Park sing. And that’s why once this play takes hold it’s so difficult to shake free.
‘And he stuffs them back, dirty tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching’
Whenever I think of this play, how it’s affected and changed me I think of the Mormon Mother and Harper. I don’t necessarily adhere to the part about ‘It has to do with God’ (I mean Kushner is a genius, but let’s not go that far). That idea of being pulled apart and put back together feels like my experience with the play, and this production. It sounds dramatic but this play really has been a driving force in my life for a good part of the last 10 years or more. I put this play at the heart of my professional life for a time, and it was one hell of a fight at times. But along the way this play has changed me. I got pulled apart by life, and in its own way, last summer coming back to this play, this production, helped me stitch myself back together.
I know I bore a lot of people. Sometimes I bore myself. I wonder why I can’t just get a hobby like a normal person. Why I can’t just give up like a sane person. That’s the Louis streak in me- stubborn, determined and yes argumentative.
‘Why this play?’ I get asked repeatedly. To which I partly want to answer, ‘why not this play?’ some people spend entire careers on two pages of Shakespearean text. Some pick narrow slices of history. Some divide cells for a living. Why not, if we’re talking professionally, this iconic play of American history. Personally, we all connect to things for a multitude of reasons, some within the work, some of our own making. Angels has been a part of my life for 12 years now. In some ways I can’t separate my personal history with it, from the work itself. But I’ll try.
My story is a snowy night in Montreal, a 99 Cent DVD rental store and the words ‘It’s about AIDS it’s supposed to be good.’…it was all so romantic until then. That flatmate and I lost touch. Truth be told she never really liked me much. But that girl changed my life without even knowing it. Again, I wish I had a story of a lightening bolt moment. Of my life being changed in the moment I watched it. But I don’t. I have this memory of clinging onto this series, wrapping myself in it like a comfort blanket. I was far from home, I was 19, I’d just lost a parent. It’s not hard to see why tales of love, loss and AIDS appealed somewhat. And even now watching the first episode of the HBO series has an almost Pavlovian calming effect on me. Like Prior’s life boat story, I guess I was clinging on in the freezing waters at that point. But even then, there were elements of that writing weaving into my brain, like vines taking hold. Little did I know how long, and with what force they would take hold.
From there I carried Angels with me. I often think there are pieces of culture that because of the moment you encounter them become a part of you- your soul, heart, whatever like nothing else. And from then on, that play was a part of me. Probably in ways I couldn’t fully articulate at that point. Yes, those notions of grief, loss, growing up that I wasn’t ready to deal with, but that the characters offered a way to transfer those feelings to. Now reaching the same age as Prior and Louis I feel like I’ve ‘grown into’ them, and all the things I didn’t have words for then. Across those years were elements I didn’t have words, or ability to fathom about sexuality, identity, whatever any of us want to call us. But there’s something in Kushner’s lost souls finding redemption that took hold, and that I held onto.
I saw my first production somewhere in there. Daniel Kramer’s 2007 production. In all honesty the first viewing left me with a sense of what I first thought was disappointment. Really it was something that years of loving a play couldn’t quite reach, until I wrapped my head around what I’d seen hours later. And spent a month or so immersing myself in that production. I saw it for the final time the night I left London to move home. Angels always, accidentally with me at the big moments. I wrote a dissertation on it. And packed it away in drawer to start a ‘normal life’. Somewhere in there it refused to let go. And I found myself proposing a PhD on the play.
I had supervisors who thought it wasn’t worth my time. It wasn’t PhD worthy. They made me question what I thought I knew. I see now it was their ignorance, not my stupidity. I also see now how necessary that play is- it’s history lesson, and its contemporary stance on a community that will not be silenced. And the play created the activist in me, gave me those lessons early on, even when others were dismissing it and me. I was criticised as a woman, from both sides, for working on this play. Gay men said it wasn’t mine to look at, to talk about. I wasn’t old enough, wasn’t male enough, wasn’t gay enough. Wasn’t positive enough. More than all that, my PhD taught me only that I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t enough, for whatever I wanted to do. And I was thrown out the other side with 100, 000 words on a subject I still loved dearly. But now had no use for and was forced to walk away from once again.
But why did I fight for it? Why did I still love it so much? Enough to dedicate a professional life to it? In it’s way it’s ineffable. Looking back, I think I was always ‘growing into’ the play. That’s the enduring beauty of it. There are a thousand reasons to love it, ever changing. Different from reading to reading, production to production. It’s ‘Theatre’s always at 8! Fucking tourists!’ it’s, it’s ‘Night Flight to San Francisco’, Alphabet land, The Mormon visitor’s centre, ‘the delicate ecology of your delusions’ it’s ‘Fuck you I’m a Prophet’ and the Bethesda Fountain.
None of that left me, ever. You don’t pour that much of yourself into the work and just let it go. But I had nowhere to put it. And with it all, I fell out of love with it a bit. And I walked away. And I was miserable. Partly because I couldn’t find anywhere that I fit. (I still can’t if anyone wants to you know, hire me) But because there was something unfinished. I always wanted to write the book. But I’d failed as an academic, and I felt l didn’t have the right to write it. Moreover, this play had become a part of something that had burned me, that had destroyed me so much, that it was difficult to even look at it. Never mind write about it.
And then last year, this production rebuilt that part of me. And like this production before, so much more. I’ve said this a thousand ways, but someone listening to you. Someone crediting you with the knowledge or the skill you worked hard for but that had been dismissed for years by so many. That is sometimes all it takes. And I will forever be grateful to Marianne Elliott for giving me that moment. And everything that became of it. From the outside it might look small, insignificant. But for me, it was seismic. It gave me something to build on again.
For the production itself it felt like at once having things I’d never seen articulated finally brought to life. Bits of the play that had been hidden in other productions taking centre stage. And at once a version of it I never imagined. For someone who can quote it backwards. Who knows the second an actor drops a line. Who knows every beat. For me to sit there mouth agape, to shed tears at lines I never considered sad before. To emerge shaking and a bit shell shocked. To do that at something I knew so well- to prove there was still more to uncover. That set my heart alight again.
I appreciate how crazy it seems from the outside. I get it I do. But I can still say this play- the text itself- and ‘the play’ in the broader sense of what I’ve done with it, changed me it shaped my life. And getting it ‘back’ with this production put something that had fallen apart back together. And it doesn’t matter that there are people who might not think this is the perfect production. I know there are people who judge me personally and professionally for loving it so much. That’s a different argument, this is about the personal connection. I needed the HBO version at 19 when I found it, and I needed this version 12 years later. What was on stage was important, but it was all the things that those special performances, and events in your life give you. And for me this was an event.
Being involved even a tiny bit has kicked my professional life back to life in a way I didn’t think was possible. At the very base level: I have a book contract and I have a play commission directly because of Angels. Those are two actual dreams come true. That alone is enough. But this production gave me so much- the sense that what I did, what I fought for mattered. And that I was worthwhile- because honestly that was something I’d lost. And to a degree I was ‘Lost to myself’ too.
If this blog is my Perestroika of the opening night blogs, then I also must ‘rip this open’ and be honest. It isn’t all sunshine and yellow brick roads. The end of Angels on stage last year marked the start of a dark time for me. I lost my job a week later and so now ‘He’s a fag he’s an office temp’ ever Louis…Despite all the good I can’t help but wonder if that was my one moment of ‘success’ has been and gone. And there have been days I’ve wanted to give up in more ways than one. My mind, in it’s darkest moments hasn’t been kind, and I’ve said things and almost meant them. But I’ve been dragged back by both a grim determination to see my work on this play through again. And maybe as Prior says, that’s just the animal- to keep going. But I’ve kept going this far. I think I’m currently in the ‘missing five years’ of my play. I’ve been through the hard crap. I’ve got to that pause point of redemption/catharsis, but I’ve still got a way to go before my ‘almost happily ever after’ (as I call it) Epilogue. Maybe I’m just about to get on that ‘Night Flight to San Francisco’ instead.
But for now, as we’ve reached the ‘Epilogue’ of this blog, why does it matter so much to me that the play opens on Broadway? Plays open all the time right. This one took 26 years to ‘fly’ home to Broadway and the part 1 of this blog explains why that’s so important. But why is it so important to me?
Because as much as it was part of a professional path that nearly destroyed me, it’s also a personal and professional path that made me, and continues to make me who I am. From all the art and learning it’s introduced me to. To the opportunities and paths, its put me on. To the friends I would not have known without. And finally, the lessons in Kushner’s work. All these, over the last decade have made me. And as I continue to write about it they will continue to.
There will be a time when I step away from this again. Though it’s a work that will never leave me. There will be times it will fade into the background. But that’s why it’s so important to me to wish ‘More Life’ to the cast, crew and creatives behind the Broadway production. Because right now you are pushing me onwards again, giving me ‘More Life’.