Playwright Tony Kushner to speak at U.

First Published      Last Updated Feb 09 2015 03:36 pm

Lecture » Pulitzer-, Tony- and Emmy-winning writer to speak at the University of Utah.

The writing awards and political speeches that have launched Tony Kushner into the stratosphere of cultural celebrity might make it easy to forget what a great playwright he is.

"When you're as political as he is, that gets lost," says playwright Tim Slover, an associate professor of theater at the University of Utah. "He's a fantastic plotter. He understands playwriting structure. He knows what a good story is, and he knows how to tell it onstage. Wow, that's an incredible talent."

That talent and the way Kushner's art functions in the public square prompted the U.'s Tanner Humanities Center to invite the playwright to speak. Several hundred free tickets are still available to Kushner's Thursday appearance at Kingsbury Hall, which the playwright asked to take the form of a conversation. He will have that conversation with Doug Fabrizio, the host of KUER's Radio West, followed by a Q&A. (See box for ticket information.)

In 1992, Slover was in the audience for London's National Theatre premiere production of the first part of Kushner's seven-hour "Angels in America." As the play began, Slover wasn't sure British audiences would understand the American cultural references, including the particular institution of the Mormon church's visitors centers. He was surprised when the play prompted audiences to their feet for the first of the show's two intermissions. "I completely misjudged how it would be received," Slover admits.

After teaching and leading discussions about Kushner's work, Slover realized what made the play such a watershed in contemporary American culture. His beautifully realized characters changed the definitions of "us" and "them."

"Kushner did something with that play that was truly beyond theater," Slover said. "Writing such a fearless, beautifully plotted play, both parts together, he brought gay America into mainstream America."

Or as New Yorker writer John Lahr explained in a 2013 profile: "He gives voice to characters who have been rendered powerless by the forces of circumstance — a drag queen dying of AIDS, an uneducated Southern maid, contemporary Afghans — and his attempt to see all sides of their predicament has a sly subversiveness. He forces the audience to identify with the marginalized — a humanizing act of imagination."

It's an example of how Broadway and touring productions of "Angels in America" — billed in its subtitle as "A gay fantasia on national themes" — could spark more widespread acceptance of gays and lesbians nationally, eventually leading to changes in the political backdrop that led to landmark legal decisions about same-sex unions.

Fabrizio says he is interested in how Kushner is able to translate the abstractions of politics and activism into stories and dialogue that ring true. "He's always been able to do that, and I want to know how it works," Fabrizio says.

The Tanner Humanities Center enlisted donors to fund Kushner's speaking fee, which was in the range of $25,000, Bob Goldberg, center director, said. His work — exploring gay issues and AIDS in "Angels in America," terrorism in his screenplay for 2005's "Munich" and racial issues in 2012's "Lincoln" — considers the prime issues of our time, Goldberg said.

Utahns have enjoyed a longtime relationship with Kushner's dramatic works: The second part of "Angels" was workshopped at the Sundance Institute's theater labs in the early 1990s. Salt Lake Acting Company's production of "Angels in America" in the 1995-96 season was one of the country's first productions by a regional theater company. Theatergoers enthusiastically responded to the sweeping, dramatic epic about AIDS in 1980s America, whose characters include a closeted Mormon lawyer, his fragile wife and his stoic mother.

"This set us back on track with our audience," said co-executive producer Keven Myhre. "People began to trust Salt Lake Acting Company and their work again."

Bruce Bell, a SLAC board member at the time, recalls the "raw excitement" the ambitious work generated. Performances sold out, helping financially rescue the then-struggling theater company, which went on to reprise the two-part drama in 2010 with a production and staged reading to mark its 40th-anniversary season.

Other significant local runs of Kushner's work include Wasatch Theatre Company's production of "Caroline, or Change" in 2008 (directed by Jim Martin with musical direction by Anne Puzey) and both parts of "Angels" with separate student casts at the University of Utah's Babcock Theatre in 2005 and 2006 (directed by Larry West).

To mark Kushner's Salt Lake visit, SLAC is offering a free staged reading of "Tiny Kushner," which brings together five of the playwright's short plays. Some are politically aimed, but all five might be considered magical realism, says Robin Wilks-Dunn, who is directing the reading.

Wilks-Dunn was searching for a Kushner work that hadn't been produced locally, and worked with Guthrie Theater to find the unpublished script for "Tiny Kushner," which the Minneapolis theater produced in 2008.





Tony Kushner

The Emmy, Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (of plays such as “Angels in America,” “Caroline, or Change” and the 2012 film “Lincoln,” directed by Stephen Spielberg), will speak at the University of Utah. Radio host Doug Fabrizio, of KUER’s RadioWest, will moderate the conversation, presented by the U.’s Tanner Humanities Center.

When » Thursday, 7 p.m.

Where » Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City

Tickets » Free; 801-581-7100

‘Tiny Kushner’

Salt Lake Acting Company will present a staged reading of “Tiny Kushner,” a series of five unpublished one-act plays by Tony Kushner, directed by Robin Wilks-Dunn.

When » Monday, 7 p.m.

Where » SLAC, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City

Tickets » Free, available at the door; information at 801-363-7522