Jan. 29 2014 12:00 AM

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner on his body of work, same-sex marriage and spending time with Abraham Lincoln


Last year, President Barack Obama presented Tony Kushner with the National Medal of Arts, the highest individual honor given for achievement in the arts. The award crowned a lifetime of groundbreaking work, which has encompassed a variety of media, including essays, books, operas and screenplays. But Kushner said he stills favors the format that motivated him to start writing more than 30 years ago.

“Plays still come first for me,” he said. “I always like to try and push what I think theater is capable of doing.”

On Feb. 10, Kushner will speak at the Wharton Center as part of the World View Lecture Series about his career in entertainment and activism. Or, really, whatever the audience wants to talk about.

“Audiences enjoy (the Q and A part of my lectures) the most,” Kushner said by phone from his office in New York. “So I’ve decided to make that the whole ball of wax.”

Kushner, 57, received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 for his career-defining opus, the epic two-part play “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” It won the Tony for Best Play two years in a row (one for each half), and served as a well-timed icebreaker to spur a national conversation about the growing AIDS epidemic and gay rights.

“In theater, you have certain kind of permission where form insists that you focus very intensively on the dialectics of (an issue),” he said. “It’s kind of an embodied argument.”

In 2003, Kushner adapted those scripts into the HBO miniseries, “Angels in America,” which smashed ratings that year and swept up Emmys and Golden Globes. That led to work with Steven Spielberg; first in 2005, when Kushner co-wrote the screen play for “Munich,” and again in 2012 when he wrote “Lincoln.” Kushner was nominated for an Academy Award for each one, and learned about the advantages of film.

“When you’re working in film or TV, you’re much more focused on narrative (and) the incredible power of illusion those things create,” Kushner said. “Narrative becomes more important than in the theater, where the ability to construct plausible illusions is very limited. But that’s what becomes the power of theater: It moves the impulse away from pure narrative into something more focused on conflict and debate.”

But that debate comes with a price. Kushner is known for spending years working on his scripts, which sometimes run to lengths that challenge the limits of the human butt’s sitting time. The first draft for “Lincoln” was reportedly north of 500 pages; if it had been shot in its entirety, it would have clocked in at over eight hours.

“It was so thrilling spending time in (Lincoln’s) company,” Kusher said. “ But he’s gotten pushed to the side.”

Taken together, “Angels” comes in at a whopping 240 pages, or about five times the length of an average show. And even if it is done, he’s always tempted to tinker.

“I think there are some plays that feel finished and some plays that aren’t,” he said. “All the different component parts in some fall into place and match up with one another, and that’s nice when that happens. And then there are plays that are always going to be a little bit wonky and sloppy and they give you a chance to move the pieces around because they don’t lock into place as efficiently.

“(There) will always be something asking me to pull it apart again and put it back together. I’ve come to learn that (some of my) plays are not worse than the plays that feel finished, but there’s a kind of life and vitality in their lack of completion and their asymmetry that make them a little out of balance. One washing machine is humming very efficiently and quietly and this other one is banging around, (which) is certainly dramatic.”

He said the fluid nature of theater lends itself to this kind of playing.

“I’ve made tiny changes in the first part of ‘Angels’ (and) I did much more extensive work on the second part. I’m sure that if in another 20 years if I revisited the second part of ‘Angels,’ I’d still want to play around with it. There’s a great tradition — there are four versions at least of ‘Hamlet.’”

In 2008, the openly gay Kushner legally married his husband, Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris; they were the first same-sex couple to be featured in the Vows section of The New York Times. And he has a message for our state, where gay marriage is still illegal.

“Gay people in Michigan have great reason to hope,” Kushner said. “It’s disappointing that places like Michigan are still behind the times. The movement to make gay marriage legal is so unmistakable and absolutely unstoppable and irreversible. It seems to me … downright wicked to continue to withhold rights on a stateby-state basis. It’s really only a matter of time until this recognition, which is now absolutely beyond question, be extended to the LGBT community (and) becomes a national fact.”

Kushner blames politics. “Why make a few people in a few states suffer … to score political points?” he said. “(These politicians) still hang on to what is absolutely becoming clear to everyone else that opposition to gay marriage is a form of bigotry that is no more appetizing or acceptable than racism or anti-Semitism. Some people feel that we need to pretend otherwise because they aren’t sure their electorate will continue to elect them. To those people I say: Lead. Help make progress rather than spend the rest of your political life running to catch up with it, so you don’t go down in history books as a troglodyte.

“It’s coming. No one can deny that where we are now is something that we could have anticipated even 10 years ago. Progress has been so much more rapid and I see nothing that is going to stop that. No force is as powerful than an idea whose time has come. And the time has come.”

Up next is another script for Spielberg. He’s said he’s also finishing an opera about the death of Eugene O’Neill for the Metropolitan Opera, another series for HBO and “a couple of things I hope turn into plays.” He’s not ready to talk about his legacy just yet, but he does have a driving philosophy.

“I want to get at some version what seems to be true and find an entertaining way to share it with an audience,” he said. “At the end of your life, if you don’t feel you’ve used your time on Earth well, then you didn’t have a high enough standard for what being a good person means.”

Tony Kushner

World View Lecture Series 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 10 $20/FREE for MSU staff and students Wharton Center, Cobb Great Hall

750 W. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (800) WHARTON, whartoncenter.com