"Tony Kushner is without a doubt the great playwright of his generation, says Joe Dowling, director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. "He is a worthy successor to Ibsen, Shaw and Arthur Miller — a direct line of activist playwrights who not only believed theatre can be a form of entertainment and enjoyment and elucidation, but that it also can be a place where ideas are put forward and thought through."
Dowling is talking about Kushner because the Guthrie is in the midst of a more than two-month celebration of the Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–winning playwright. The highlight of the Tony Kushner Celebration is the world premiere of his new play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, starring Kathleen Chalfant and Stephen Spinella and directed by Michael Greif.
There's also a production of the Tony-nominated Broadway musical Caroline, or Change, for which Kushner wrote book and lyrics; tinyKushner, an evening of five of Kushner's short plays; and a myriad of speakers, scholars, seminars, classes, workshops and discussions.
Kushner, who has also received an Emmy and two Tony Awards, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for Millennium Approaches, the first half of his two-part Angels in America. He won Tonys for both Millennium Approaches and the second part, Perestroika. Dowling says the idea for the celebration came from the opening of the Guthrie's new theatre in 2006: "We have three spaces: a thrust stage, a proscenium, and a studio, or black box, theatre. It always seemed to me logical for a theatre with three spaces to use them in a way that emphasizes the unity between them. So early on we decided to focus on a specific writer. I spoke with James Houghton, the artistic director of the Signature Theatre Company in New York, who is an artistic adviser here, and we agreed that Tony would be the best to start with. We set up a meeting in New York, and Tony was very excited.
One condition was that Kushner write a new play as the centerpiece. "It's a domestic drama set in Brooklyn in 2007, about the dynamics surrounding a longshoreman and his family," Dowling says. "There are very strong themes about how one builds a consensus in a family over major events. The notion of a modern family includes gay as well as straight relationships, and how those relationships strain family bonds. And because it's Tony, it's a politically involved as well as a progressive family, somewhat radical."
Dowling says he chose Caroline, or Change for the celebration "because it hasn’t been done in this region of the country. I wanted something that our audiences hadn't seen before. The small plays, he says, were Kushner's idea. "There are fragments he's written through the years. Some have been performed and some haven't. This allows his ideas to be put together in an evening to let us see what is almost like his notebook. These are ideas for plays, thoughts, some more realized than others. It's an ideal piece for our studio space."
And then there are the classes, seminars and workshops. "Our theatre is an extraordinary architectural work," Dowling says. "There’s a brilliant way of connecting lobby spaces, classrooms, public spaces, all of which lend themselves to audiences getting together and talking. One of our principles is not just getting people to come see Tony's plays, but also have them think clearly about the issues he raises. That's one of the things that makes the celebration so exciting."