Interview: Cast of ANGELS IN AMERICA at Bard Fest

Bard Fest Tackles Epic Two-Play Production

By: May. 24, 2023
Interview: Cast of ANGELS IN AMERICA at Bard Fest

Bard Fest, Indy's only annual Shakespeare Festival, is producing the epic two-play cycle of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Angels in America. They will present Part One - Millennium Approaches and Part Two - Perestroika in rotation throughout the month. In anticipation of its landmark June premier, some of the cast of Angels in America (AIA) answered some questions about the show.

Q: What themes does Shakespeare’s work share with Angels in America?

A: Matt Anderson (Louis): Many of Shakespeare’s works are so sweeping and encompassing, stretching out for hours and taking time to delve into love, politics, relationships, self-worth, life and death, prejudices and pain, blood and ghosts, hilarity and horror, the mundanely real and the confoundingly supernatural… and Angels in America explores deeply all of those themes and more.

Mira Nehrig (Harper Pitt): Oh, truly, there are so many. Shakespeare would grapple with politics, gender dynamics, and family within one play (whether through tragedy or comedy, often a mix of both), and it's no different with AIA. 

Glenn Dobbs (Director): Tony Kushner has written a history of a huge story told through the eyes of ordinary people. By taking this approach, the vast tale is humanized and more poignant for the audience. Shakespeare, in his great history plays, employs largely the same technique. The language is rich, full, and often emotionally charged.

Q: The play is celebrating its 30th anniversary, how has the cultural landscape changed since it was first performed?

A: Mira Nehrig (Harper Pitt): This feels heavy to reflect on. In so many ways, things have changed since 1985. Our societal understanding of queerness, science's understanding and handling of a disease such as AIDS, and gender roles in families--to name a few. But at the same time, there are moments where Kushner's words are prophetic to a disturbing degree. I play a man named Martin Heller in Part One; my opening monologue lays out the very real plans of the conservative right--a speech, I'm sure, was written to scare some sense into audience members into really thinking about what the GOP goals have always been. I think the landscape has ebbed and flowed toward progress, with many people kicking and screaming along the way. Probably another way in which Mr. Kushner was writing the future.

Glenn Dobbs (Director): In the 1980s the LGBTQ community was largely pushed to the fringes and ignored. So, when this devastating epidemic occurred, the community had to fight to be heard. Today, with the current political climate, the play is more relevant than ever. The story shouts from the rooftops that “The world only spins forward”. There is no going back. We feel the play is needed “Now, More than Ever”

Q: How do you think the themes in Angels in America are relevant to a new generation?

A: Joe Wagner (Joe Pitt): A huge theme in the show is how humans can’t stop moving forward, and how the world only moves forward. The LGBTQIA+ community has constantly been under vicious attack for moving forward. For progressing. For refusing to do things the way they have always been done.

Matt Anderson (Louis): I think this question also relates to Shakespeare’s works, seeing as his plays were written over 400 years ago but – incredibly – are still produced, and still relevant, today. The world has changed profoundly since then, and yet there are still so many things that connect to today’s audiences and sensibilities. Similarly with Angels in America: it may not have been written 400 years ago, but it seems as though just as much has changed since the play was written in 1993, but for people to watch it today and realize that so much of the same pain and discrimination and horror STILL exist now— well, that’s almost more impactful than seeing a play in the year it was written. The Great Work has begun, but it’s not over yet. People need to see this show to understand that there are still things we need to keep fighting for.

Mira Nehrig (Harper Pitt): There are so many. This is a show that explores universal struggles like pain, love, desire, shame, and power, just to name a few. You don't have to be gay to understand a lover leaving you in your time of need, you don't have to be gay to understand feeling rejection or desire or desperation. Not to mention we all just navigated a different kind of terrifying plague for three years. Despite being over 30 years old, I don't think there is a time when the audience will relate more than when it was initially produced.

Chris Saunders (Roy Cohn): Identity is a huge part of AIA. What it means to be American, Jewish, Mormon, Republican, Black. And identity has had a huge renaissance in the last several years with trans and non-binary people challenging the very definitions we thought we all knew. The result of a mass of people without egos is chaotic but also cleansing. I don’t mean to make light of a plague, but it feels like a plague now. And I don’t mean COVID. I mean ideology. The world Tony Kushner wrote about was a world on fire. So is ours.

Glenn Dobbs (Director): Yes more than ever. Draconian laws against the LGBTQ community are being passed all over America. We need to “Stand in the Gap”, push back, and say strongly “We are not going away”. The play speaks this message with moving clarity as it unfolds in the lives of these characters.

Q: What aspects of your character/characters resonate with you?

A: Glenn Dobbs (Director) The triumph of the human spirit in the face of great suffering and persecution.

Joe Wagner (Joe Pitt): I was raised Catholic and Catholicism is also a very strict religion, and being a young homosexual in a strict religion is a very difficult tightrope to walk. Joe Pitt is trying to understand how he can be something he’s always been taught is evil and wrong when he’s done everything by the book. He’s questioning everything he was taught and believed.

Matt Anderson (Louis): On the surface, it’s easy to read Louis as obnoxious, self-centered, long-winded, and rambling… and all of those qualities shamefully strike home with things that I fear about myself. In stumbling through the process of this production, I’ve had to figure out why Louis is the way he is, why he treats others the way he does, why he treats himself the way he does, and in what ways love, care, and compassion do reside within him. Doing so has helped me think about and confront the same questions and insecurities within my own heart.

Mira Nehrig (Harper Pitt): In many ways, I have been Harper in previous lives. Anyone who has desperately loved someone to the point that it breaks them will find parts of their story with Harper. But more than anything, it is Harper's strength and ability to fight her way out of the loneliness and heartache to begin again that I understand. This isn't some crazy woman imagining fantastical things; this is a woman who loves, desires, and sees the world as it is in tandem with what it could be.

Chris Saunders (Roy Cohn): This may raise a few eyebrows, but I actually find a lot to like about Roy. And I’d go even further and say that’s probably because Kushner did as well. There’s a resilience and humor to him that’s embedded in the writing. Most bullies don’t see themselves as such, and Roy is no exception. In my mind (as Roy), I’m just out here surviving. Roy says that “this isn’t a good world” with no awareness that it’s partially due to him. So, from that end, it’s easier to play someone who’s clearly the villain because I see myself as someone who is defending myself, not bullying. I think we all can relate to that.

Q: The 1980s AIDS crisis is central to the plot, but what other important issues do characters deal with?

A: Joe Wagner (Joe Pitt): My character’s main issue is being a married, Mormon, closeted homosexual and wrestling with the religious implications of what that means for his soul and life.

Chris Saunders (Roy Cohn): Mortality. Everyone in the play is reckoning with death and the mystery of what lies after. We try our best to use religion, science, and distractions to deal with the fear of death; but in AIA, it’s all around us, connecting us to centuries of humans who lived very differently, but with the exact same existential anxiety.

Glenn Dobbs (Director): Prejudice, a lack of support from an indifferent government.

Q: How would you describe this show to someone who isn’t familiar with it?

A: Matt Anderson (Louis): Angels in America explores the broken and breaking relationships of many people: spouses, lovers, friends, parents, and children. Through disease and heartbreak, the various characters search for reconciliation with others and within themselves, in both this world and beyond.

Mira Nehrig (Harper Pitt): When trying to explain it to people unfamiliar with the show, I usually say this: "It's actually two shows that focus on a group of people navigating their lives during the AIDS epidemic from 1985-early 1990s. The tag is "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes" and that's exactly what it is. There is something for everyone.

Chris Saunders (Roy Cohn): It breaks every rule of theater, and it totally works. There’s realism followed by absurdism. There are several characters we only meet once. It’s poetic, irreverent, and wild. Kushner had so much faith in the audience. He knew audiences were smarter than they’re usually given credit for. And it paid off. There’s still nothing like it.

Q: Why do you think it’s so important to produce this show in Indianapolis today?

A: Mira Nehrig (Harper Pitt): Considering Indiana has proposed and is en route to passing 18 anti-LGBTQ bills in the current legislative session, I feel it's insanely important to be producing this show right now.

Chris Saunders (Roy Cohn): I’m sure you’re going to get a lot of answers about the political climate and legislation. All of which is true! But as a theater producer myself, I love that AIA is being done because it is such a theatrical event. And I don’t mean because of the awards and cache of the play, but because it is pure theatre. Yes, they made a gorgeous movie of it, but the play is something that can only happen in a theatre space. And the audacity of vision that Kushner wrote is something we rarely see staged today. Plays are shorter, casts are smaller. Operating budgets and attention spans have changed. Theaters do NOT want to produce a 10+ character epic play as part of a season. So, this is a real treat. And it’s overdue. Like Kushner, I not only think audiences can handle it, I think they want it.

Glenn Dobbs (Director): Like many states in America, Indiana lawmakers are trying very hard to oppress and cancel an entire people group. This should never be tolerated in a country with this creed:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the governed…”

Q: How has the space, Butler’s Schrott Center for the Performing Arts, influenced the production decisions for the show?

A: Glenn Dobbs (Director): It allowed my Tech Director to declare, “Glenn, go big or go home”! The theatre is beautiful and offers the chance for us to produce something truly spectacular.

Q: What makes this show a unique experience from other work you’ve done in the past?

A: Joe Wagner (Joe Pitt): There are two unique differences. The first is the workload. Learning two full-length 3+ hour shows at the same time while working a 9-5 and maintaining a healthy marriage and friendships is insane. Also, you can’t help but let the show occupy your mind during the day so it’s always with you on a low simmer. Secondly, this is a show that has been a dream of mine for 14 years. And while it was a dream show it just never really felt likely that the opportunity would come my way. So, I hold this experience very close and cherish it very much.

Matt Anderson (Louis): I’ve referenced comparisons to Shakespeare a few times in the above questions, but if I may now contrast this to Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s plays are often so huge and epic, whereas AIA – as extensive as it is – is at the same time incredibly intimate. I don’t think I’ve ever before been in a production that’s simultaneously gigantic and close. Simultaneously world-shattering and private. At one point Louis says, “It’s so heavy… and small.” That’s this show.

Mira Nehrig (Harper Pitt): Well, I've never memorized two entire shows to perform in rep. So, that's absolutely the most unique aspect of this experience.

Glenn Dobbs (Director): It is such a big, sweeping epic, with a script so powerful that at times it is just overwhelming. You feel a deep sense of responsibility not to screw this up. It is important.

Q: What message do you hope audience members take away from their experience?

A: Mira Nehrig (Harper Pitt): Most of all, I want the audience to take away hope from their experience of these shows. Yes, this material is heavy. Yes, we are giving big emotions in our performances. But this is not a tragedy. This show is a show of love and hope. This is a show of strength in the face of what seems to be insurmountable defeat. We, and the audience, deserve to feel that in our bones.

Glenn Dobbs (Director): America is a big country and often very generous. We have room at the table for all our fellow citizens to join us. Let's welcome them.

Any additional thoughts you’d like to add:

Nan Macy (Hannah): This show is spectacular, creepy, touching, joyous and funny. It's enjoyable, entertaining, and hopeful.  It makes you want to grab your neighbor, hug them and say, "We're all in this together!".

This show could not have happened without the generous donation of Chris Douglas and the team at CH Douglas and Grey - Wealth Management. Tickets can be obtained at indybardfest.com/angels-in-america




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