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How ‘Angels in America,’ the Play That Redefined Modern Theater, Was Forged in the Bay Area

A new book revisits the origins of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece on the eve of its revival at the Berkeley Rep. 

SLIDESHOW

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San Francisco’s late Eureka Theatre, which hosted the 1991 premiere of part one of Angels in America.

Photo: Tony Kushner/Courtesy of Bloomsbury

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Tony Kushner at the Angels opening-night party after its Broadway premiere, May 1993.

Photo: Ron Galella/Wireimage via Gettu Images/Courtesy of Bloomsbury

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Playwright Tony Kushner's masterpiece, Angels in America, is not only one of the crowning achievements of 20th-century American theater: It is also perhaps the greatest work of art addressing the AIDS epidemic. A play in two parts totaling over six hours, Angels has an epic scope that was practically unheard of at the time of its 1991 premiere. In addition to launching the career of Kushner—who went on to win a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Angels—the play marked the beginning of the end for San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre, which commissioned Angels and hosted the 1991 world premiere of its first part but failed to capitalize on that success and soon collapsed as an ambitious production company. This month, Tony Taccone, Eureka’s former artistic director, will lead a revival at Berkeley Rep. In this excerpt from Isaac Butler and Dan Kois’s definitive oral history of the production, The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America (Bloomsbury), those involved with its conception recall the mad rush to stage the play and the anxieties that almost swallowed it.

Oskar Eustis (artistic director, 1988–89, Eureka Theatre): Tony [Kushner] has patience. And “patience” is, of course, a synonym for “blown deadlines.”

Debra Ballinger Bernstein (executive director, Eureka Theatre, 1989–92): Spring [1991] was rolling around, we were in rehearsals. Tony hadn’t finished Perestroika [the play’s second part]. It was a nail-biter: Was it going to be done? Was it not going to be done?

David Esbjornson (director in the San Francisco production, 1991): I didn’t have a script when I went into Perestroika rehearsal.

Tony Kushner: During that rehearsal period, someone on the [Eureka Theatre] board gave me their spider-infested cabin on the Russian River, and I went away for ten days—it was early April—and I sat down, and I started writing. And I wrote seven hundred pages of Perestroika in ten days—I just wrote the whole…three times as much as would ultimately be in it, all by hand. And it was literally like The Red Shoes—I could not stop writing. If I tried to go to sleep, I would wake up two minutes later and just go. And a lot of the best stuff that’s in the play now was in that first draft.… And I’m not making this up: I got in the car to drive back, even though I hadn’t slept in eleven days and I was literally shaking from exhaustion. I didn’t have a computer—it was just a big stack of legal paper. And I thought, If I go off the cliff into the Pacific Ocean, no one will ever know what happened, so I have to be really careful.

Esbjornson: I say, “What are you doing here?” And he says, “I finished, Dave, it’s done.” It was like Moses coming down from the mountain!

Michael Ornstein (Louis in the San Francisco production, 1991): I don’t remember a hell of a lot about the rehearsal process, but I remember the day Tony brought Perestroika in. Holy shit, man. I remember what I was drinking! I had my coffee and Tony had on a bright purple cotton hoodie. He sat down with this gigantic phone book, and he placed it on the table, and we all realized, Oh my God, that’s the fucking script.

Esbjornson: We started at 10:00, and 6:30 came and went and we were still reading it.

Ornstein: It took us two days to read through the entire thing.

Harry Waters Jr. (Belize in the San Francisco production, 1991): I remember we were sitting there, reading the script for the first time, and Kathy Chalfant was just weeping because it was so amazing. How could anyone write this?

Kushner: In this seven-hundred-page really long version, there was a lot of shit. I mean, something with a homeless kid… A chauffeur?… God, there were, like, all these other characters. One of the reasons that I could write for days without stopping is I was just, “Nobody ever has to know what I’ve done here.”

Dennis Harvey (San Francisco theater critic): By the time it opened, people were anticipating the great new thing of American theater.

Ellen McLaughlin (the Angel in the San Francisco production, 1991): There was no budget at all. We had about twenty dollars and fifty cents to spend on the entire set.

Esbjornson: I did finally just go, Oh shit. There was no money. It’s not like you can just throw bodies and cash at it, you just have to do it.

Kushner: To this day, no one has ever done better with the magic. David is incredibly clever designing and building gizmos, so every magic trick in [Millennium Approaches, the play’s first part], David figured out a way to do it. There was no money or anything. He built all this shit—it was incredible.

Kathleen Chalfant (Hannah in the San Francisco production, 1991): It was in some ways the most beautiful version of the play, and the most Poor Theater version of the play.

Harvey: They basically had a giant shower curtain in front of the stage. For scene transitions they would just whip the shower curtain across, one actor at the front and one at the back, and when they got to the other side it would be a new scene.

Jesse Green (theater critic, the New York Times): Ellen and I had gone to college together. She said, “You have got to come see this crazy thing I’m doing.” I said, “Really? I’m kinda busy, what is it?” She said, “It’s a two-part play and the first part is four hours and the second part isn’t really done, but at least come to the first part and see what you think.”... When it was over I knew I had to come back and see the second part.

Esbjornson: [For Perestroika] I made the actors hold the scripts in hand while they moved around. And then at one point in each act, they laid down their scripts and acted out what I considered to be the central point of that act.

McLaughlin: I came out late into the evening as the Angel wearing the wings and the whole get-up, stood in front of the curtain, and said, “Act 5: Heaven, I’m in Heaven.
And this woman in the front row said, “Act FIVE?! Oh my GOD! DO YOU KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS?!” And I said, “No.” Because I honestly had no idea. It’s not like I was wearing a watch. And she said, “It’s MIDNIGHT, for God’s sake! What’s going on with this playwright? ACT FIVE? How long is it?”
And I said, “We’ve never done it so I don’t know, maybe forty-five minutes?”
And she said, “The buses aren’t even running anymore! How are we supposed to get HOME?” And she turns around to the rest of the audience and says, “Are we going to stay?” And people sort of nodded and mumbled and she says, “Well, I guess we’ll stay, but I mean, really…” And then she said, “But that’s the end, right? There isn’t an Act 6 or something?”
And I said, “Well, there’s an epilogue.” And she said, “Oh my GOD, is he NUTS? An EPILOGUE? How long is THAT?” And I said, “Well, again, we’ve never actually run it, but…ten, fifteen minutes?” And she said, “Well, apparently we HAVE TO STAY, but this is RIDICULOUS, TELL HIM HE HAS TO CUT!” And then I said, “Well, the longer we keep talking here…”

Deborah Peifer (San Francisco theater critic): I think there might have been twenty-two acts. I’m exaggerating, but not by a lot.

McLaughlin: It was a 250-seat house, a warehouse, and we blew the roof off it night after night.

Ornstein: Normally when you do a new play, the house isn’t full every night.… We had a line around the block every night. I got recognized. People would come up to me on the street. But it was a different way than normal. People would come up to me and hug me. And they would cry, you know? And they would say, “Thank you.” They would ask me if I was OK.

Peifer: The play opened when we were still in the throes of the AIDS epidemic. But the play was filled with hope! And those were words we needed to hear. We needed to be told by these characters who matter to us: Look what we can do. Look what we can become. Look how we can change.


Originally published in the April issue of
San Francisco 

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