Theater Talk


Angels in America

We discuss Angels in America with two prominent actor/angels, Ellen McLaughlin and Amanda Lawrence, as well as Isaac Butler, co-author of the best-selling The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America. Jesse Green, co-chief theater critic of The New York Times co-hosts with Susan Haskins.

AIRED: April 16, 2018 | 0:27:01

>> HASKINS: Coming up on

"Theater Talk"...

>> LAWRENCE: There were changes,

but it was that thing of where

something -- they move one thing

to the other side, it goes

earlier, or one line goes later,

or take that out and put that

sideways, and so it's not even

new, it just gets moved.

>> McLAUGHLIN: Yeah.

>> LAWRENCE: And that's what

messes your brain up.

>> She's approaching.

>> HASKINS: From New York City,

this is "Theater Talk."

I'm Susan Haskins, and I am

joined by my guest co-host

Jesse Green, Co-Chief Theatre

Critic ofThe New York Times.

And we are here to talk about

this wonderful book, "The World

Only Spins Forward: The Ascent

of 'Angels in America,'"

and it is written by Dan Kois

and one of our guests,

Isaac Butler.

He is a director, an actor, and

so many other things, but in

this case, he has written a

wonderful oral history of the

"Angels in America," and we are

graced by two angels here with

us, Ellen McLaughlin, who was in

the original production of

"Angels in America" and stayed

with it, from back in the day,

7 years, until it went to

Broadway, and Amanda Lawrence,

who is in the production now,

and I'll say about Amanda, also,

she's a revered actress, but

she was in "Star Wars," where

you can't miss her.

With that, Jesse, take it away.

>> GREEN: If we can just start

leaving the angels aside, if

they won't glare too much at me,

why did you start this project

back when it was an article for


>> BUTLER: The reason why we

started it, and really started

with Dan, was that both Dan and

I had had the experience of

seeing both parts of

"Angels in America" back when it

was on Broadway, seeing both

parts of it and having it just

completely change our lives

in that way that when you're

sort of a young artistically

inclined, politically motivated

person, you go and you see this

show, and you suddenly realize

what art can do, what theatre

can do, how politics and art can


You know, it has this just

incredibly powerful effect.

So when the 25th anniversary of

its premiere at the Eureka was

coming up, he pitched the idea

of doing a piece on the history

of "Angels in America" and then

very quickly realized it was a

huge, huge, huge, huge project

and brought me on board.

>> GREEN: Let's just interrupt

to say that the Eureka was the

theatre in San Francisco where

it was first -- well, the

timeline is so peculiar, and I

don't know of any play, and

certainly any great play like

this, that has such a peculiar


But was the Eureka, Ellen, was

that the first public

performance of the play?

>> McLAUGHLIN: Mm, no, because

we'd done workshops in LA that

people actually could attend.

So there were sort of --

Yeah, there was a small

production of "Millennium," but

when we put the two plays

together for the first time and

performed them, that was at the


>> GREEN: And that's when I saw


On a personal note, I just

should say Ellen and I were

schoolmates, and I was in

San Francisco for reasons I

can't recall, and you said,

"Oh, you have to come see this

crazy thing I'm doing."

And I did go to Part 1.

This is told in the book.

>> BUTLER: It is!

>> GREEN: "The World Only Spins


>> HASKINS: And I should

say that "The World Only Spins

Forward" is an oral history

where you interviewed how many


>> BUTLER: 250-odd some.

>> HASKINS: Right.

>> BUTLER: You know, over the

course of doing that, what we

discovered was one of the many

reasons why it grew from being

an article to a book, is that

every single person that we had

encountered, who had met the

play at any point, had a

similarly life-changing

experience of it, whether they

were in it or saw it or taught

it or just read it.

>> GREEN: So, a lot of that,

since the book focuses

especially on the creation of

the play, from, what, '87...?

>> BUTLER: '87, '88. Yeah, yeah.

>> GREEN: So '93 is the main

focus, although, it continues

into the present, but it's

largely about that development.

So it might be interesting to

note, even when the text is a

complete thing and you're coming

into it for the first time many

years down the line, is it still

a life-changing process for an


>> LAWRENCE: I'd say for our

cast that it is.

It has been and it continues to


It's a monumental piece.

I mean, I remember reading it

before the audition and taking

the 8 hours to read it and just

thinking this is incredible,

this is something very

different, incredible, and then

going into rehearsals...

Gosh, just seeing everyone go

through something -- each actor,

actress going through

something -- and it massively

affecting them.

Everyone crying.

Without sounding, you know --

Everyone being profoundly moved.

>> HASKINS: And this was back

with the production that was at

the National Theatre.

>> LAWRENCE: Yeah...

>> HASKINS: The same cast, but

this was two years ago.

>> LAWRENCE: Yes, nearly.

There's Joe Pitt being Lee Pace


>> HASKINS: Yes. Yes.

>> LAWRENCE: And new shadows,

people that move -- the angels

getting moved by these amazing

puppeteers and dancers.

>> HASKINS: And you go through

such a trajectory that you're

starting with Ellen back in the

day beginning this project, and

then Amanda's in the book, too.

You talked to the people who we

were in this production.

>> BUTLER: Yeah, we were very

lucky that they were --

You know, right when they

started working on the first

article, they announced that

there was gonna be a production

a year later at the National.

And, in fact, that article has a

very early interview with

Marianne Elliott, the director,

when she was beginning

researching the play.

And then, you know, when we got

to do the book, we contacted the

National and said, "Hey, could

we come out?

Could we watch the show?

Could we interview everyone?

And they very, very generously

said yes, which was great.

And so we got to go, you know,

to everyone's dressing rooms and

interview them about the show,

and what's exciting about that

for us, and I hope it's exciting

when you read the book, is that

where it culminates is people

who are actually in the show.

So it's no longer like a


It becomes an active experience

in their lives.

>> GREEN: Well, there are these

marvelous interludes throughout

the book where you focus one at

a time on each of the characters

or the tracks, as we call them,

because almost everyone in the

show plays more than one


Is that true of everyone?

>> McLAUGHLIN: Everybody does.

>> BUTLER: Yeah, even Prior.

>> GREEN: At least they play

another angel.

Well, Prior -- and Prior, who is

I guess you would say the center

of the play also plays kind of

his, I don't know, his dark twin

in the park at one point.

But, in any case, you have these

interludes where you focus on

the characters in their tracks,

and you hear from Ellen and

Amanda and many of the other

people who have played the

angel, for instance, almost on a

technical level about how they

did it, and I think it's

wonderful to have the two of you

here in particular because, of

all the parts, the angel is the

most peculiar.

>> McLAUGHLIN: Sure is, yeah.

>> LAWRENCE: Yeah.

>> GREEN: Both as an acting

challenge -- like, what is this


What is the gender of this


I mean, there's a million

foundational questions.

>> HASKINS: But it's always

played by a woman, right?

>> GREEN: Yes, but does she or

does she not have three penises?

I don't know.

>> LAWRENCE: A bouquet.

>> GREEN: A bouquet of penises,


And then there's the technical

problems -- or opportunities --

of the angel.

And one of the things the book

does so well, it's not just a

history of political drama in

our time but also of feuds and

firings and terrible mishaps

involving flying, basically.

>> HASKINS: You met Tony, you

were there at the beginning, but

almost everyone else, at some

point, bit the dust in the

production except for you and

Stephen Spinella.

>> McLAUGHLIN: Well, in fact, I

was not the first angel.

It was written for my friend

Sigrid Wurschmidt, who was a

beloved actor and just an

extraordinary light of a human


And Sigrid got breast cancer and

died within the year, and I took

over the part from her.

I always felt that my work was

completely dedicated to the

memory of this woman.

I mean, she's one of the great

people I've ever known.

>> GREEN: Is there any kind of a

fraternity or sorority of


I mean, have you consulted with

each other over time?

>> McLAUGHLIN: Well, we should

have, shouldn't we?

>> LAWRENCE: We should have some

sort of convention.

>> McLAUGHLIN: No, I'm meeting

Amanda for the first time, and

it's just wonderful.

We should have been talking all

this time, conspiring as angels.

>> LAWRENCE: Yeah.

>> McLAUGHLIN: Because there's a

lot to talk about.

>> LAWRENCE: Yeah.

>> McLAUGHLIN: But I've always

found it's such a peculiar line

of parts, I feel like whoever

you're playing, all of those

parts, they sort of come in and

they make these big, apocalyptic


>> I am known as one cool,

collected queen, and I am


>> There's really nothin' to

worry about.

>> [ Sighs ]

>> I think that --

[ Speaking Hebrew ]

>> What?

[ Laughter ]

>> Everything is fine.

[ Speaking Hebrew ]

>> Uh...

>> McLAUGHLIN: They're

representatives of abstract --

you know, they're ideas with

wings, you know, in the case of

the angel.

And you sort of come in and make

your point, and then you leave,

and you're just off charging

around, getting into the

"Soup Lady" outfit, or, you

know, or back into the nurse.

>> LAWRENCE: Yeah.

>> McLAUGHLIN: You sort of

represent abstraction in a way

that none of the other


You're not really playing

characters, right?

>> GREEN: Amanda, you say, in

the book, if you're quoted


[ Laughter ]

...that the angel's big speech,

the "Anti-Migratory Epistle" --

is that what it's called? -- is

"a delight," or is delicious...?

>> LAWRENCE: Ugh, yes.

>> GREEN: Are you retracting

that statement?

>> LAWRENCE: No, no.

It is fantastic.

It is extraordinary and other,

just so other.

But it's a real challenge every

night to communicate it, I find,

to go -- to say she's been

abandoned by God, which is a

gliff, it's a symbol, and we all

shag each other, and that's how

the world stay balanced and the

universe works.

But he's got attraction to human

beings and he's got --

He's left us, and the world's

gone cracked...

>> McLAUGHLIN: It's a complex


>> LAWRENCE: It's really


It's a challenge.

>> GREEN: Can it be approached

in the way you would approach a

character normally?

Or do you have to use a

completely different set of


>> McLAUGHLIN: I think -- Yeah,

I mean, she's -- you can't

really do it any other way than

the way that you do it, but the

only way I could ever make it

work was that she's strong and


I mean, she absolutely believes

this to be the truth, and so

it's not actually -- as far as

she's concerned, it's not a

difficult concept to convey.

>> LAWRENCE: No. No.

>> McLAUGHLIN: It's just the


>> LAWRENCE: Yeah.

>> HASKINS: Which concept is not

a difficult concept to convey?

>> McLAUGHLIN: The way the world



>> GREEN: And that mankind must

stop moving around.

>> McLAUGHLIN: It's mankind's

fault that the world is falling

apart, that the cosmos is

disintegrating because we keep

moving around, and there was

this great image -- maybe it was

in one of the first drafts or

maybe it was -- There were so

many version of the Epistle --

but Tony said that the angels

looking down on the world

could see the migrations of the

populations like clouds on

The Weather Channel and that

its spinning made them


[ Laughter ]

That was always a very helpful

image for me, this sort of

"Why can't you people stay put?"

>> LAWRENCE: Yeah.

>> HASKINS: But I see your


When that part comes in at the

beginning of "Perestroika,"

until the angel arrives at the

end of the first play, we're not

naturalistic, but we're not in

this place of this extreme

metaphysical statement, and the

fact that you have to come in

and sell it, that you arrive and

have to sell this huge change in

what he's doing.

Tony Kushner -- was he

completely there with this kind

of philosophical thing when he

was finishing "Millennium," or

did he really expound on that

when he went to the very

different "Perestroika," the

second play?

>> McLAUGHLIN: It was a long


It started as a chamber piece

that was going to be a short

play with few Mormons and

Roy Cohn.

That was it.

>> BUTLER: And songs.

>> McLAUGHLIN: Well, yes.

At one point, I was

Raisa Gorbacheva, and I had a


[ Laughter ]

It started the first play, I


No, it was a long, long process,

and it wasn't until years into

it that he sort of came upon

what the angel actually was

going to say, the content of

what she was gonna come in and


>> GREEN: One of the things you

get from the book that's

wonderful is the way the

creation of the play

recapitulates the content of the

play, just the way that Ellen

was sort of suggesting, in that

Part 1, which, as you said, has

many of the hallmarks of

naturalistic drama, although

it's usually not staged that

way, but it's a series of

interactions among humans,


>> HASKINS: Among humans.

>> GREEN: You know, it turns out

to be preparing the way, just as

the angel announces at the end

of the first part, this rather

other thing that comes in the

second part.

And unless you sort of see the

whole history of it on the page

before you, as you do in the

book, I think it's hard to know

that that happened.

>> BUTLER: Yeah, and, you know,

the second thing about that is

that "Perestroika," which is of

course a messier -- I mean that

descriptively -- a messier play,

a more complicated play.

It's a five-act play instead of

the three-act play that's about

the difficult, complicated,

never-ending work of change.

It's also a play that will

probably never actually be

finished on some level, you


Tony Kushner has gone back to it

many times, tinkered with it

many times.

Even since Broadway.

I think there were some changes.

There were changes at the

National, and then...

>> GREEN: Well, let's talk about

that for a second.

>> HASKINS: Let's talk about


>> GREEN: Because a lot of the

book and certainly Ellen's

history involves a tremendous

amount of, you know, pages

pouring out of fax machines with

new material to learn in one day

or to refuse to learn in one


>> McLAUGHLIN: I always learned


The problem is that the rewrites

were good so you couldn't --

>> GREEN: If only he'd written

more poorly, you could have

stood up against it.

>> McLAUGHLIN: I had to actually

do it...

>> HASKINS: But there's the

wonderful scene where you are

arguing with him...

>> McLAUGHLIN: Well, there were

several of those sorts of

scenes, but the preview process

in LA was long, and it was a

very difficult preview process.

Everything that could wrong

tended to go wrong.

And we were, you know, working

all day, putting in rewrites and

then trying to hang onto them at

night and get through the thing.

And it was ending pretty late.

It's a long show, with the best

of times.

And the last preview before the

opening, he came to me,

and I had been feeling sort of

good about the

"Anti-Migratory Epistle" because

he wasn't bringing in any

rewrites on that, and I thought,

"Okay, great, I can hang onto


Last preview before opening, he

came in with a 15-page rewrite,

and it wasn't just a

straight-ahead rewrite, it was

that thing where he was taking

this section and putting it over

there, and then moving that over

there and sort of changing this.

>> GREEN: Which is worse to



>> McLAUGHLIN: And I just

thought, "I'm not a computer.

I can't actually do that, I'm

not a word processing system."

>> GREEN: [ Laughs ]

>> McLAUGHLIN: And also it would

change all of the tech because

there's, you know, all the

flying and everything.

And it was late and it was after

the show, and he came into my

dressing room with this rewrite,

and I did this thing -- which he

made fun of me about it

afterwards -- I showed him the


[ Laughter ]

I said, "I have friends here.

I'm gonna go out.

I'll look at this, I'll think

about it.

I might do it, I might not be

able to do it, but I need to get

out of the theater right now,"

and I showed him the door, and

he was just -- steam was coming

out of his ears.

It was just awful.

And so I got together with my

friends and we went to the bar,

and there he was in the bar

waiting for me.

[ Laughter ]

He says, "We have to read it.

You have to read it right now,"

and, of course, he was right.

And I read it with him.

And it was better.

So I spent the night memorizing

it, and we went in the next day

and put the whole thing in, and

I hung onto it for opening

night, and then I thought,

"Well, okay, that's the last

time that'll ever happen to me."

Cut to the end of the preview

process on Broadway, and he came

in with a 24-page rewrite.

And this time, we did it right,

which was we went out -- Stephen

Spinella and I and George Wolfe,

the director, and the stage


We all went out to a bar and

read through it and made some

changes, and I spent the night

memorizing it, and I spent the

day reworking it, and I hung

onto it, and I remember spinning

and looking down at Stephen and

thinking, well, you know, if

he's down there, he can probably

take care of me.

We'll get through it somehow

together, but...

>> GREEN: Did you have any of

that in London?

>> LAWRENCE: In London, not


Here, there were changes,

but it was that thing of where

something -- they move one thing

to the other side, it goes

earlier, or one line goes later,

or take that out and put that

sideways, and so it's not even

new, it just gets moved.

>> McLAUGHLIN: Yeah.

>> LAWRENCE: And that's what

messes your brain up.

>> McLAUGHLIN: Because you've

figured out the way to get from

here to there.

>> LAWRENCE: And to make a

journey through it.

>> McLAUGHLIN: And to take that

and put it over there, it's

just -- it's really freaky.

>> GREEN: But you're also not

mentioning -- or you alluded to

it -- that while you're fiddling

with the text, this is all

happening while a great deal of

physical activity is going on.

>> McLAUGHLIN: Yeah.

>> LAWRENCE: Yeah, so, for


>> McLAUGHLIN: Yeah, I was up in

the air, but...

>> LAWRENCE: But my changes

weren't like yours.

That sounds massive.

>> GREEN: Well, but yours is a

very physical representation, as


Different physicality.


>> HASKINS: I wanted to ask you.

When we hear about all these

changes, you being pretty expert

on this play now, having seen

it, do you think all of his

changes were necessary?

You remember so well seeing this

in the first place, and I'm sure

you've read the play many times.

You've discussed with everyone,

including Tony Kushner, and then

so I do find myself asking --

Did he really need to give her

how many more pages?

>> LAWRENCE: Well, I didn't have

pages, I think you were the one

that had that, but lots of moves

around, yeah.

>> HASKINS: Or was this just how

Tony Kushner had to work to keep

himself charged up?

>> GREEN: That is really good

question, Susan.

>> BUTLER: I really think on a

deep, kind of spiritual -- or

maybe this is a little

"whoo-whoo" level, but it's

actually like what the play does

to you.

I think it's not so much about

the nature of Tony Kushner --

although Ellen might disagree --

as it is about the nature of


>> LAWRENCE: Yeah.

>> BUTLER: "Perestroika" is a

play where it's this furious

engine of constant change, and

it can't be contained by itself.

It just can't.

And so to sort of reckon with

that honestly means, in some

way, that you're gonna wind up

being driven to tinker with it.

>> HASKINS: So this writer is

driven to tinker with it?

>> GREEN: No, it's almost like

it's a condition, like --

It's like a medical condition

that you can live with.

It's chronic.

You can live with it, but you

can never be cured of it.

>> BUTLER: Yeah, I mean...

>> GREEN: So you have to keep

treating it.

>> BUTLER: I don't want to,

like, pathologize Tony Kushner.

What I'm really trying to say is

that when you embark on a work

of art, particularly a great --

capital "G", great -- work of

art, it places certain demands

on you, and it does things to


There's a part -- I'm gonna

butcher this line -- but someone

sends Tony a quote that a poet

wrote down about you having to

become the artist necessary to

make the great work.

And much of our book is the

story of that struggle and

trying to become the artist who

could finish "Perestroika"

during what he calls "the most

expensive writer's block in

theatre history," and he did it,


And the work continues to demand

from him that he work on it.

>> HASKINS: That's a very

onerous responsibility, to be

the great artist, and so I

wonder -- I don't know the

man -- if he doesn't feel -- you

know, "I have to keep living up

to this."

Do you think that's possible?

I mean, you do know him.

"I have to keep living up to

this so maybe I better go back


>> McLAUGHLIN: Well, but I also


There's lots to say here, but I

think that, speaking as a

playwright, plays are creatures

that you can't control.

If they're any good,

they will defy your attempt to

control them.

If they're any good, they will

surprise you.

And if you're any good as a

playwright, you'll be able to

listen for those surprises and

actually move with them.

And there were a lot of dead

ends that we had to go down in

order to find our way to what it


And I was always impressed by

the fact that Tony really didn't

care about anything but getting

this thing right.

And he had to do a lot of work

to become the writer who could

finish the damn thing, or finish

it enough that he could just at

least walk away from it on

opening nights.

But he also -- the play demanded

that of all of us.

And it changed all of us who

were part of it.

It made us better actors.

It made us smarter about, you

know, how demanding a really

good piece is.

And, you know, I think it also

is very demanding of its


You have to sit with it, you

have to ride that long and

complicated ride and track it.

And do the best you can, you


That's all it asks.

It's a lot. It's a lot.

But that's why it's so

exhilarating to be part of it in

any way, even as an audience


It's exhilarating.

>> HASKINS: And you, Amanda --

What's your take on what she

just said?

Are you in this state of

exhilaration in becoming a

better actor?

>> GREEN: Or exhaustion?

>> LAWRENCE: I think a bit of a

mingle of both, but I would say

exhaustion and exhilaration.

I think for all of us in the

cast, I think we're on this

amazing journey, and I...

Each of us in these scenes, I

think we've bloomed and we've

learned from each other.

I've learned so much.

I am better, I think, from being

in this play, you know?

And I have a wonderful director

and a wonderful cast, but the

play's the thing.

It really is.

>> GREEN: That's a good line.

>> LAWRENCE: Shakespeare.

He said it, not me.

>> HASKINS: When "Perestroika"

was over, I'm like -- [ Sighs ]

And you all come out on the

stage, and you're so up and


I mean, you've been through

something, but you can just see

that you are all so exuberant.

>> LAWRENCE: We're also saying,

like, "Thank you, you've sat

through 8 hours or more."

>> GREEN: We should just say,

though, from an audience

perspective, it is a big wave

and all of that, but it's


You know, I mean, we are also,

in a way, promoting this

wonderful play that happens to

be being performed right now in

New York.

And it's worth noting that it's

tremendously enjoyable and

entertaining, as well.

And I just want to say that so

is the book.

Because all of what you are both

talking about, the sort of the

heartbreaking difficulties of

it, but also the growth and the

kind of backstage theatrical

hilarity, it's all in there and

makes it quite a page-turner.

One final question, though.

Was there anyone who would not

talk to you?

>> BUTLER: Oh, yeah, there were

several people who didn't really

want to talk to us.

Maybe they had had a negative

experience, they didn't want to

relive it, or...

There were people who never

returned our missive sent to

their agents.

Michael Stuhlbarg was filming

"Call Me By Your Name" and

couldn't do it.

Several people are dead.

I would have loved to talk to

Robert Altman about the version

of the movie that he never made.

So, yeah, there's lots of people

weren't able to speak to, but,

you know, 250-some-odd people,

that's a lot of people to

interview for one book, and

there's a lot of voices in

there, and so...

>> GREEN: But I do think you

missed the Raisa Gorbacheva,


I really -- For the reissue or

for online, you got to provide a

link to Ellen singing that, if

you can get that.

>> BUTLER: Yeah, exactly.

>> McLAUGHLIN: I'm sure I can

remember it.

>> BUTLER: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

>> HASKINS: Well, we could go on

and on.

It's just wonderful to have you

all here, and I cannot recommend

this book enough.

I have read it twice.

So, yeah, it's

"The World Only Spins Forward."

Thank you, Isaac Butler.

>> BUTLER: Thank you so much for

having me.

>> HASKINS: Thank you,

Ellen McLaughlin.

>> McLAUGHLIN: Thank you.

>> HASKINS: And thank you,

Amanda Lawrence.

You've got a show tonight. Whoa!


>> BUTLER: I'm coming to see it.

>> LAWRENCE: Great.

>> HASKINS: All right, thank

you, Jesse Green, wonderful.

>> GREEN: Thank you, Susan.

>> HASKINS: Goodbye.

>> HASKINS: Our thanks to the

Friends of "Theater Talk" for

their significant contribution

to this production.

>> ANNOUNCER: We welcome your

questions or comments for

"Theater Talk."

Thank you.


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