Art Talk with Forum Theatre
Silver Spring, Maryland
Jim Jorgensen as Roy Cohn in Forum Theatre's production of Angels in America. Photo by Melissa Blackall
Last fall, Forum Theatre inaugurated its new home in Silver Spring, Maryland, with a production of the play cycle Angels in America and Perestroika by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. We spoke with Forum Theatre Artistic Director Michael Dove---who directed part one of the cycle---about the role of theater in the community and about taking on Kushner's iconic work.
NEA: Tell us about Forum Theatre.
MICHAEL DOVE: We?re currently in our seventh season. When I moved to Washington, DC, I had some friends who were talking about starting a theater company and I was looking for directing opportunities. I looked around the landscape and thought that there wasn?t enough---I?ll say the word ?political theater,? and I?ll try not to say it ever again---but there wasn?t enough work that seemed to be directly addressing current events or social issues. So we decided to put the company together and make that our focus. Not to do agitprop political theater or anything that was talking about what we would call politics, but to do work that was always about community, to do work about how do we live better against one another, how do we deal with one another in a community from a local or national or global sense. There is plenty to choose from there, but we thought that if that was our focus and if we gave people an opportunity to have discussions around that, then it would be a different type of theater experience. So we certainly do plays well heard of, and we don?t generate any plays ourselves. Then we have our series called Open Forum Events, which are these book club-style discussions done so there?s not a panel of experts versus audience. Even if we do it after a show, we have everyone pull their chairs down to the stage. The actors come down and participate, and we have a discussion about the play itself, the story, and some of the issues it raises.
NEA: Can you expand on your thoughts about the role of the artist and/or the arts organization in the community?
DOVE: I think in a lot of ways we?re service organizations. I certainly put us, possibly not as important, but in that same realm of public works. I think it?s a fairly important component of our society to ask questions, to give people a place to commune, a place to reflect on one another in a way that we don?t always have. Churches give us that experience, and schools and education, but I think that?s a very important thing. As an individual, I certainly believe in asking good questions, I don?t know how much literal change I can make, but I?m really attracted to the idea of telling a story and making people see things a little bit differently, seeing the world around them a little bit differently, and hearing someone who is different from them, someone else?s story. And having that understanding---how we can make empathy ?sexy? is something that I?m really interested in.
NEA: Last season Forum Theatre presented both parts of Tony Kushner?s Angels in America. How did that come about?
DOVE: When we started the company, we made this big list of plays. We thought this was a fairly new idea for a theater company because it wasn?t about protest theater, and we were trying to figure out what that meant to us, what it meant to do socially relevant work when we ourselves weren?t playwrights. We?re designers and directors, even more than actors. So we were very curious about what that meant to us, to do known work, and then what types of shows manifest themselves in a mission like that. We sat down and made this list and found that everyone mentioned Angels in America, and it was the play that everyone kept coming back to. And we thought, Oh, let?s just do that. We had all of these feelings about the play---that it was too big, it was too ambitious for a company that was just starting off.
So we always said that it was the play that we would do someday, but in a lot of [ways] we found that it was the play that influenced a great number of the plays that we actually did produce for those five or six years. We saw this prototype for the type of work that excited us, work that was of high artistry, rigorous writing, and entertaining, but also extremely ambitious theatrically, and ambitious in the subject matter that it was trying to tackle. So that was something that really appealed to us. It was a play that did talk about these issues and did create an environment where people have to think about these issues, but it wasn?t a documentary, it wasn?t agitprop. It was extremely entertaining; it?s an amazingly well-written play. It became our guiding spirit as we chose shows. Every year we talked about Angels in America again and we talked about Tony Kushner. I remember I got really excited when Homebody/Kabul came out and read it and went, Oh my gosh, here?s a play that makes me feel the exact same way. [There was] this sort of kindred spirit emerging between us and Tony?s work that I found exciting. So eventually, we decided that we would produce our own production of Angels.
NEA: What are some of the challenges of producing a show like Angels, especially in rough economic times?
DOVE: Every year it came up and all the company members and myself would be very skeptical and say, Well, this isn?t us; we?re still fairly young, do we have the PR power to mount something like that? Will it always look like a half-baked production with our budget levels? But then two things happened in the same week; it was kind of one of those signs from whatever spiritual being you believe in?.I had bought a new bookshelf so I was moving everything but I was spending most of my time looking through plays that I hadn?t looked through in a while. I came across my copy of Angels, and I just opened it, because I noticed there were some sheets of paper and some notes that I had written, and I read the introduction to the play by Tony and [didn?t remember] actually reading it.
I?m sure I had; it was a play that I kind of obsessed over. I remember buying it at a book fair when I was in middle school, maybe freshman year of high school, and it really just blew my mind from the type of theater I knew growing up. It was Shakespeare and little else. I grew up in this very conservative, evangelical family, and I think my mom probably would have freaked out a little if she had known what was in the play. It was very exciting and it felt as if I was getting away with something.
But I read the introduction, which was talking about how it was originally produced and its intention of being fairly rough. I think there?s a line about letting the strings show, of being high theatricality and smart special effects, but not a spectacle financially. So that just hit me in a very new way of thinking. I know the production through this massive Broadway production, through this film that had just come out a few years before. It was at the Kennedy Center and it just had this giant-ness of how to produce this show. It felt like it was only a Broadway or large-house show. But just reading that made me realize that none of that is in the script. Certainly, you have angels breaking through the ceiling and you have these amazing set locations that change, but nothing in it stood out as you need to throw money into it to make this happen. So that really got me thinking.
Later that week, I got a copy of the book, Art of the Turnaround, the Michael Kaiser book, and read it and found that while we weren?t a company that was established and then struggling, I found that the lessons were very applicable to us as a new company wanting to grow. One of the chapters talks about choosing the most ambitious project that you?ve always wanted to do. Not only as a way of really engaging your audience and to kickstart your organization but to show yourself as an arts leader, to show that this is the type of work that we want to be doing so we?re going to do it. And that really kind of sealed it for us; we looked at those two things and said, We?re only four-and-a-half years old, we should be taking those types of risks. We didn?t have employees, we didn?t have a permanent home, so it seemed like our risk was actually pretty low. So we were okay with the idea of doing a show that would sink us if we felt that it was the right show to be doing. So that?s what pushed us over the edge to go ahead and do it.
It was important to me that we do both parts, and I wanted to do them both at the same time. I really wanted people to have that experience of coming to the theater on a Saturday and being able to see the entire story. We thought, if this shows kills us, let?s not just do part one, we get to finish the story. We decided very early on that it would be two different directors so that we could rehearse at the same time and manage that. But it was a much longer rehearsal time than we were used to, a longer production period than we were used to, and we knew that we had a few Equity union actors involved, and that?s where most of the costs came in, for the personnel and the people involved. But I feel like getting the right people for the project is always the best investment. We decided to get the best actors we could for the show and give it a go.
NEA: Did anything surprise you about the production process?
DOVE: For a play that I had already considered my favorite play ever written, it got better every week. We say this about every show we work on, you?re discovering things through the process, you?re like, Oh, I never noticed this! on the third, fourth, fifth reading of the play. But doing Angels, everyday something would pop up. Exploring the play with two different directors but with the same cast constantly revolving and tackling the entire story all at once, the daily discoveries were something that I had never experienced working with?.It?s not until you get up and you actually look at one scene and how it moves to the next one do you realize some of the brilliance of the writing?.I just knew it was, in my opinion, the best American play of my generation. It?s so smart in how it works. Some of the influence of that play is that a lot of playwrights have not written shorter scenes and scenes that move in all these different locations, and that?s starting to be called cinematic in style because it feels more like film. But I don?t think Kushner was writing that way at all; I think it?s a smart, theatrical play because there?s purpose to the constant changing of location and the short multitude of scenes. There?s real logic to that that?s not about cinematic quality at all. It very much borrows from epic theater; it certainly has its DNA in that. But there?s actually a greater meaning that comes out of the size of the story. Every Saturday that we had both shows I watched them both?.the true scope of the story is what makes it such a devastating, rewarding story. We just know so much about these characters by the end of it and he?s done such intricate work in telling us all of their story, telling so much of their journey that we understand them and it kills. It?s just a wonderful experience to be able to sit through that whole thing.
NEA: What did you want your audience to take away from Angels?
DOVE: I guess that other factor that popped up when we were talking about doing Angels was that a major HIV/AIDS study came out that was DC-specific. The story that was being told was that it was a very different type of story that we grew up with in the 90?s. It wasn?t San Francisco, it wasn?t homosexual culture, for DC, it was an African-American experience, and it was just as devastating from a percentage standpoint....There?s so much of a culture of talking about the disease; it?s amazing the things we?ve discovered and the things we?ve engineered that has allowed it to be a disease that we can cope with, but it sure does deserve a lot more attention. It deserves just as much if not more attention than it received in 1993-1994. I worry that?it?s losing some of that need and desire to be told. So that was a big part of it, of saying this wasn?t a story that was finished by any means. You hear those words of the epilogue talking about, ?this is just the beginning,? the play has this sense of taking a breath at the end and taking a step forward. It?s a story that still should be told when it comes to the story of that disease, this horrible plague?..
[A]nd then there was this interesting aspect that we couldn?t have predicted where this play came out talking about the Regan administration and, by proxy, the first Bush administration and talking about a type of politics that many people felt was detrimental to our nation. When the play came out, Bill Clinton had just been elected. So there was this sense of looking at the play and looking at this style of politics and saying, OK, this is something that we?re moving past. Whatever your political belief, it was certainly a turning point in how people were looking at the direction of the country. I found it very interesting that we were doing a production that was coming out of another eight-year Republican administration, that in many ways people aligned with that administration just as Obama was being elected. What an interesting little parallel that Bush was even mentioned in the play. If you don?t think about the time period you don?t think you?re talking about Herbert Walker. It?s just kind of a funny, interesting thing that we found ourselves at a somewhat parallel political situation in our country that made all of that stuff very relevant again. Obviously a very different administration, but a real turning point however you believe the direction of the country is going in.
NEA: Any last words?
DOVE: I love talking about the experience; It has meant a great deal to us as a company. Looking as what happens to the economy and to donor situations and funding situations for arts organizations, a lot of people got really scared and started playing it safe, and I don?t blame them by any means. I don?t know what it?s like to have an endowment to protect or what it?s like to have a mortgage for your theater. But what I thought was so interesting and exciting for us as a company was that it became such an exciting event, not only for us but for the theater community, that we were taking this on. It became a really good story and it was something that energized us and brought a lot of people to us. It also worked out that it became our first show in Silver Spring, which wasn?t the original intention. We were going to produce it at H Street Playhouse in Northeast, which was our resident space at the time. It was a much smaller space; I?m curious about what that production would have been with its 15-foot ceilings. It culminated in this really great experience of being here in our new home and being the type of show that brought a lot of new people to our theater.
I was proud of the fact that while doing possibly the most known show that we?ve ever produced, it never felt like doing a show for publicity?s sake. The work that we did around it, the way that we curated the experience for our audiences, we thought that is was very true to how we produce and true to us as artists. We weren?t trying to take on some production that wasn?t us. The discussions that we had around the project and the people who would come, those were the people who were teenagers who had kind of only heard of the play, some hadn?t even. It was just a story that they didn?t? know, despite the film coming out and making it more accessible to people. Because of its size, sometimes theaters are afraid to take it on.
And so seeing these young people and their parents, who had seen the show in New York or in DC or wherever, bringing their 12- or 13-year-old children to see it because it?s such an important story for them and seeing them go ?Wow!? and seeing people see the show for the first time always made us realize that we were doing the right thing. We were telling a story that?s extremely relevant. I argue, if we still have issues in the country that this play is raising that aren?t dealt with, then is even more relevant. If there are questions that still haven?t been answered after 15, 20 years, then there?s even more of a need to tell that story and ask those questions. I like that it brought so many people not only to the story but to us to show them the type of work that we do, to show them the power of what theater can be when you tell the right stories.