Anatomy of Angels
If theater is about being fearless, then those responsible for it must be as well. Enter this year's production of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize–winning opus, Angels in America—2 full-length plays, presented consecutively over 2 weekends, by the same 17 actors, with 2 directors.
“Impossible” is a word you hear a lot when talking to those involved in drama at Bennington. But it doesn’t mean what you think. The term has become a sort of dare, a litmus test for what is worth doing, and a way to gauge the commitment of those who participate in the productions mounted every year. But never have those been more true than this past fall, when faculty members Kirk Jackson and Jenny Rohn decided to put on Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opus, Angels in America.
Consider a few numbers: 2 full-length plays totaling 5½ hours, presented consecutively over 2 weekends, by the same 17 actors, with 2 directors. A play that was also the result of: a team of student dramaturges compiling primary and secondary source material on the work’s historical context over an entire summer; major contributions from a team of costume design students; multiple rehearsal rooms humming six days a week; and roughly a thousand creative solutions to an equal number of logistical nightmares (create a levitating angel, anyone?) that would, and has, warded off many professional companies.
“We knew it was impossible,” says co-director Jenny Rohn. “Nearly impossible. I remember exactly where I was sitting when Kirk suggested we do it. I was absolutely terrified. But I knew that we spoke the same language and that we had personal reasons for wanting to remind and inform this generation of the devastating events of the [AIDS] crisis that had occurred before they were born. For me, if there is an emotional, spiritual, intellectual connection to the material that runs deep, I have no hesitation in committing myself fully. It’s rare.”
Says Rohn’s partner in the impossible, Kirk Jackson: “We always want to challenge ourselves and our students. In 10 years, I can’t think of a time when we thought, ‘Oh, let’s do this project, it’ll be easy; we’ve done that before.’ Fundamental to this fact is that we don’t sell tickets or market our productions to an outside audience. Sometimes that seems unfortunate because we make really great theatre here and more people should see it. But it means we don’t think in terms of pleasing an audience or fulfilling expectations. Instead, we start with the idea of ‘challenge’ when choosing our projects. This is an essential aspect of a Bennington education: It’s not about fulfilling expectations; it’s about asking tough questions and pursuing greater truths in the answering.”
This is a full-on-all-the-time-don’t-you-dare-take-yourself-out-of-it-for-a-second kind of play.
For Ethan Woods ’12, who oversaw the complicated sound design and music for the sprawling epic, it was the impossible that finally sold him. “When I first heard about Angels, I wasn’t really familiar with the show, so my reaction was along the lines of ‘that’s neat.’ But as the term went on, I began hearing more and more, and once I learned it was actually two different plays, and the College was going to do both in the same term, I thought, ‘Why the hell would they want to do that to themselves?!’ I began realizing how cool and crazy of a project it would be and began feeling the absolute need to be a part of it.”
“I think it’s that willingness to take on impossible-seeming projects—and to commit not just to completing them, but to making them extraordinary—that characterizes theatre at Bennington,” confirms Meg Osborn ’12, who led the aforementioned dramaturgical team. “One of the challenges specific to Angels is that there are so many areas to explore and understand before you can even begin putting the play on its feet. We—myself, Eric Marlin ’13, and Chelsea Bernard ’13—researched the AIDS epidemic, Mormonism, Reaganism, the mythology of angels and prophecy, Judaism, the Rosenberg trial, and the geography of New York City, just to name a few topics. We created a huge database of information in order to provide the cast and production team with resources—historical, cultural, linguistic, literary, and visual—that aided in the creation of a full, rich, and accurate performance of the playwright’s work.”
For Jonah Lipsky ’13, who played Louis—one of the play’s most deeply conflicted characters, a man who abandons his partner soon after he is diagnosed with AIDS—the idea of taking on the role struck him as so daunting, it became irresistible. “I was looking through the curriculum and saw ‘Production: Angels in America,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god. They’re doing what?!’ Initial disbelief gave way to excitement. In scope and intensity it was like auditioning for Hamlet, only the playwright is still alive and the play was written 20 years ago.”
Since its original staging in 1990, Angels in America has become one of the most canonical works in American theatre. Not only has it reaped a slew of awards, seen major productions on Broadway and around the country, including an anniversary revival last year, and become an Emmy-winning Mike Nichols’ miniseries that aired on HBO, it continues to capture the zeitgeist when it comes to themes Rohn says required so much of the young students.
“Every student involved in this production evolved in some significant way,” reflects Rohn. “For the actors, it was through a kind of emotional courage and willingness to open themselves up to the staggeringly high stakes of the play: life and death, insanity, betrayal, sexual awakening, crises of faith, abandonment. We told them, ‘this is not a play where you are going to be backstage goofing around when you aren’t in a scene. This is a full-on-all-the-time-don’t-you-dare-take-yourself-out-of-it-for-a-second kind of play.’ As a faculty member, to be able to say that I had one of the peak creative experiences of my life…well, that’s remarkable to me. Bennington encourages you to teach what you dream about, what keeps you up at night.”
Jackson agrees. “The actors, to a person, did their best work to date. Their sensitivity to the material—some of it very intimate and adult—seemed to grow in respect for the play even as they began to master it.”
“The size of the play and the depth of what it deals with were the hardest parts,” says Lipsky. “We had to get to know the AIDS epidemic from an emotional point of view. A mostly straight cast had to feel what being a homosexual is like. People had to be Valium addicts, they had to be homeless people, they had to be Roy Cohn (perhaps the worst thing to be), they had to be dying. For me, I had to move out on my dying lover because it was too stressful and scary, watching him deteriorate. The play means business; thus we had to mean business too.”
Much is made of collaboration when talking about theatre, but that well-worn term took on a new life for the team responsible for this version of Angels. In addition to the production’s directors and students, several members of the College’s faculty were involved, including Sue Rees, who designed the set and projections; Michael Giannitti, who designed lights for one of the productions and helped with stage management; Charles Schoonmaker, who taught a costume class that focused on the costumes for the production; Richard MacPike, who designed and built the wings for the angel; Scott Lehrer, who supervised three student sound designers; guest faculty member James Smith III, who performed in both shows; and biology teacher Betsy Sherman, who was cast as the rabbi.
“I was so grateful to have been involved in Angels,” says Sherman. “It took so much insight, determination, patience, talent, and, dare I say, chutzpah on Kirk and Jenny’s part. But perhaps the most inspiring and exhilarating aspect of the production for me was getting to know so many wonderful students—the actors whose work humbled me and the technical staff who made sure I was where I was supposed to be with my beard in place. This was a heroic and important event at the College, one I will remember with gratitude and awe for the rest of my life.”
“There is a great deal of professionalism involved with every production at Bennington,” says Ethan Woods, who, for Angels, learned an entirely new software system for sound design. “We take our shows very seriously and work abnormally hard to make magic. [But] Angels pushed everyone to their limits. There was an understanding between all of us that we had a duty to make something great.”
“Collaboration in professional theatre can be compartmentalized but when the object of making theatre is the education of its participants that cannot be the case,” observes Jackson. “Asking questions is the mode of conversation in the best collaborations and the best classrooms. And there’s no better way to understand the art form one has dedicated one’s life to pursuing than to attempt to teach its values to another. Teaching keeps me honest, challenged, and makes me a better actor, director, and citizen.”
As it turned out, Jackson’s sense of citizenship went beyond him and even the play, extending across the campus. His and Rohn’s production was linked to anthropology faculty member Mirka Prazak’s and visiting faculty member Kiaran Honderich’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic class. Members of the cast and crew attended select sessions of the class and, in turn, the HIV/AIDS Epidemic students created concession and information tables in the lobby to raise awareness and money for an African AIDS charity.
“I had collaborated with Mirka the last time she taught that class,” says Rohn. “I knew that we needed to involve her class in some way. Kirk and I felt strongly that we must take the events of the play into the present day and remind people that it is still a devastating disease.”
Angels pushed everyone to their limits. There was an understanding between all of us that we had a duty to make something great.
For many in the audience, it was a transformational experience, one of the most memorable, if not the most memorable, production in Bennington’s history. Allen Shawn, music faculty member, said of Bennington’s Angels: “The whole piece soared with power and tenderness.”
And while audience transformation is a part of every good dramatic performance, when talking to those involved with this Angels production, there is a keen sense that the performance changed them just as much.
“It changed all of us,” says Meg Osborn. “After the last show, the cast met one last time to talk about how doing the show had affected us. Everyone had something to say. I saw almost every person—some of them classmates whom I’d known for years, others with whom I’d never worked before—do things I’d never in a million years have expected of them, things that were clearly outside their comfort zones.
I think we all came away with the sense that we’d been a part of something really big, really important. Part of that was the play itself, but part of it was the group of people who created it. I don’t know that I’ll necessarily be doing much theatre after I leave Bennington, but this production is one of the things I’m most proud of having done here.”
“Theatre is strange,” says Woods. “It is a structure in which every single person needs to be committed or the whole thing collapses. Theatre on the scale of Angels, though, exists not only as great art but also as a testament of the involvement of its crew and cast. When one is watching theatre, one is actually seeing the collected efforts of dozens of people who all put their focus into this one moment. With a production of this magnitude, there is a strong leap-of-faith element: You have to trust everyone involved to move forward with you. For me, it was an intoxicating experience.”
Jonah Lipsky says he had never done anything “that huge” in his acting life. “I have this knowledge now that if you throw yourself fearlessly into working on a production that you love, something good will happen. It pushed me past all of my limits. It redefined for me how hard I will have to work in order to be working as hard as I can.”
“We never anticipated the emotional impact it would have on the students, the community, and on us,” says Rohn. “The actors saw each other risking, giving it their all in rehearsal after rehearsal with such profound integrity. The crew echoed this level of hard work and courage; they demonstrated such commitment and willingness to collaborate. I learned and remembered so much about myself, my strengths and weaknesses, and the value of pushing myself beyond what I thought was even possible. When you direct and teach at the same time, it requires you to do what you should always do as an artist but often forget to do: trust and surrender to the process.”
In other words, make the impossible, possible.
Bennington’s production of Angels in America was made possible through generous support from the Jerome A. Newman Performing Arts Fund and an anonymous gift from Bennington parents.