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Angels in America (Parts I & II)

"owning your truth is a very big wrestle"

Elissa Blake speaks to Dino Dimitriadis about staging an epic in close-up and what Tony Kushner's angels are saying to today's audience.

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From Angels, a Queer Future

Date: 13 Feb 2019

Dino Dimitriadis is staging one of the most ambitious projects to have ever been shoe-horned into the 60-seat Old Fitzroy Theatre – Tony Kushner’s two-part seven-hour drama Angels in America.

Great idea? Crazy idea? Audrey’s Elissa Blake speaks to Dino about the making of the show and what the angels are saying to today’s audience.

Elissa: Why are you doing this play? Is it a bucket list item?

Dino: Oh, right, good question. I think the why and the where are very tied together. I wouldn’t have chosen this play if I had the opportunity to do it in a bigger space. I’ve always wanted to do Angels in a small space like the Fitz, which I know and love. That’s what really appealed to me. It’s not a bucket list play but it’s something I’ve always had in the drawer. I think every queer director who knows the play has a love of it or a connection to it, but it’s not something that I always said I will do at some point.

For me, it’s always about the work being right in the right moment. And that means that sometimes extraordinary plays that you’re very in love with, you’ll never do. That’s how I feel and how I work. There are some extraordinary plays that I have in the drawer, which at some point might start screaming. But I’ve also sort of reconciled myself to the fact that some of those extraordinary plays I’ll never do.

So why is this play screaming?

It’s the way the world is right now. I think that America in the 1980s parallels what’s happening today, what with Trump and everything that comes with him. There are so many parallels between now and the Reagan years.

And from a queer perspective, it’s interesting because the play deals with the AIDS crisis, which for people who lived through that time is a very real lived experience. And yet, there’s also a whole generation of audience who have no real idea of the magnitude and the impact of the AIDS crisis. They will be discovering that period in new ways.

What’s interesting to me is that the period isn’t just about the horror of the crisis but it also shows how policy and rhetoric is activated against queer communities. Whenever a government or a country tips to the right, towards conservatism, queer communities are among the first targets in attempts to polarise and create division.

All of that combined and made me think this is the right time to do this play. It turns the play into a war cry in this moment. It’s something more for than nostalgia for me. It’s a call to arms.

Do you respond to Angels personally as well as politically?

I’m a gay man, young enough, fortunately, to have not lived through the AIDS crisis. But I’m old enough to know people who have. It’s a lived experience for a lot of people I know, and so it is personal for me. And beyond that there are so many other issues the play deals with in terms of being a queer person living in the world I connect to.

How do the plays speak to queer identities today?

A very big theme is power and how power is activated. Kushner set it at the time when the AIDS-combating drugs were just becoming available. The reality of the crisis was that so many people died because those in power controlled access. Power is something that really deeply affects queer communities. We have to think about who holds it, how it’s activated and how it can be activated against us.

Also I think a lot of the characters are wrestling with reconciling their private selves and what their truth is while trying to live in a very complicated world. Look at the character of Joe, a Mormon trying to come to terms with being gay, and his wife Harper coming to terms with the reality of that and having married someone who is not standing in his truth.

In queer communities, owning your truth is a very big wrestle for many people, and can be very difficult for a whole range of circumstances.

But the main reason I’m doing Angels in America is because it demands a queer future.

Not a past, not even a present, but a future. It says, we are here, we’re not going away and we’re not perishing, even though so many did. We keep going. Progress. The world spins forward, as the play says.

This is for me, the reason why we’re doing it. Angels changed the conversation around gay and queer theatre. In Millennium Approaches, the first play, Prior wants to die. He is suffering extraordinarily. In a way, he’s like the tragic gay antihero we’ve seen before. But then Kushner does something extraordinary in Perestroika, the second part, when Prior wrestles the angel. It’s one of the most extraordinary moments in queer theatre because it actually demands something different, it demands more life, more future.

And that is also why I think it doesn’t make sense to do Millennium Approaches without Perestroika. Because you don’t fall into the patterns of what all the gay plays before it did – presenting a tragic gay antihero. But wrestling the angel in Perestroika is a rejection of that and I hope that audiences will get to really see that exchange.

Last time we talked – in the foyer after a Belvoir show – you described Angels as a “chamber piece” …

I think people think I’m insane when I say it’s a chamber piece! When I describe it like that, they are like “What the fuck? Do you know what a chamber piece is?”

You also said that being so close to the play in this small space, we might be able to hear things that we haven’t heard before?

I think that’s what I mean by “chamber piece”. So much of the play is people, two or three people in a room. And everyone in the play has an extraordinary and very complex trajectory of their own. So I see it as like a chamber piece because we are distilling it down to the relationship and what’s happening to those people in the moment.

It doesn’t mean that people are not going to see theatre and theatrics but I’m focused on the truth of the relationships. That way, you don’t become overwhelmed by the vastness of the play. My number one job is to tell the story and I hope people can really hear the story afresh.

Can you share something about your staging – without spoiling the surprise?

I want it to be a surprise but I will say I’m really thrilled by what the design team have done because they’ve created spaces for so many characters and so many locations and time periods, and yet, the play exists in a universe that allows us to effortlessly move one world and another. So it’s stripped back but there are still those moments and the magic and theatre.

What are some of the big challenges for you as a director?

Where do I begin? There are so many entrances and exits to start with. There are like 60 scenes in the two plays and lots of costume changes and character changes. The logistics of it are an enormous, like a giant Tetris.

Plus, we’re also dealing with a very small space. The Old Fitz is beautiful in its intimacy but that intimacy is challenging and when you’ve got to house costumes and props and eight actors in a very small space that really only has one entrance onto the stage.

I’ve never done a production where there’s been so much spreadsheeting and tracking of where things go. There’s a big stage management operation to making this show.

Let’s talk about your cast.

I love them. It’s such a joy to make this piece with them and so far, it hasn’t been stressful at all because it’s just a joy to walk into the room each day and work with people who are so talented but also so generous and so giving.

People look at the cast and think, yes it’s a great cast. But I hope it’s also a surprising cast. I don’t think it’s necessarily a typical cast for this play. I looked for people who could tell the truth of these characters. I’ve cast older for certain roles, and younger for other roles.

You know, we’re in the theatre and I think we can buy into anything if the performance is truthful.

Let’s finish with some tips for the audience. Any advice for the long haul?

Bring a bottle of water and make sure you pee at interval! There is one interval in Millennium Approaches and two in Perestroika. I never have anyone sitting longer than 90 minutes.

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