Reflections on AIDS, Angels, Rent and a PhD

In Features, Musicals, Opinion, Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews, Touring by Emily GarsideLeave a Comment

In the first of a couple of more reflective pieces, I think about the plays that I wrote my PhD on- Angels in America and Rent, as they end up once again in the spotlight. For more PhD waffle see my sister blog The Mucky PhD (you can find the PhD itself online too if so inclined).

As I write this, the curtain is about to rise on the first major revival of Angels in America in nearly a decade, it’s the fastest selling show in the National Theatre’s history and it’s got a cast of stars (Andrew Garfield, Denise Gough, Nathan Lane, Russell Tovey) who frankly are making it a pretty big deal. It’s also you know, one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century directed by one of the greatest contemporary directors, Marianne Elliot. So far, so important. But that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing it because it feels like, to paraphrase Kushner’s play something is about to crack wide open. Because it feels like suddenly the whole world is looking in on something that for a long time it felt like nobody but me was looking at.

I spent four years reading about, thinking about and writing about Angels in America. I wrote my PhD on it. It wasn’t just about Angels in America. It was also coincidentally about Rent. Which just a few short months ago saw its own revival. A sell-out run in London and a successful tour, most recently to my home town. And suddenly it feels like the world is talking about what was previously my little secret.

Obviously neither of these plays were secret. Pulitzer prize winning both, hugely successful critically and commercially. But a niche market. Whenever I mention my PhD (technically on representations of HIV/AIDS in theatre, but mainly about these two plays) I usually get a blank stare. Occasionally I’ll get an ‘What like Rent?’ and in the theatre crowd ‘Oh so Angels in America?’ But mainly, I have to explain. Now suddenly one of them is set to be the hottest ticket in London and the other is back at the top of musical theatre fan playlists as it tours the country. And it’s odd to be sharing them with the wider world again.
The nature of doing a PhD is to be niche. The essence of it, what makes you pass, is the ‘original contribution to knowledge’. What it also implies is a heck of a lot of knowledge. And I have that on both. I can say, with almost certainty that I have read every book, article and even every review (in the English language anyway) for each of these plays. Both academic writing, passing reference in any book on theatre, gay life or AIDS and anything in between. I have read every review written for the New York and London productions. And I did it old school, photocopying newspaper clippings and sticking them into notebooks. Which is irrelevant but kind of cool.

I have spent hours in archives combing through records, listening to recordings, interviews, photographs. For Angels in America I spent hours annotating my own copy of the script with all the various stage-management notations from the ‘Bible’ script in the archives. I have endless lists of costume notes, set scribbles and I spent nearly 16 hours holed up in the New York Public library watching a grainy VHS recording from the back of the stalls of each of the original productions, and anything else on tape they could offer me. The point being I am so inside these plays, and they are so inside my head it now feels like a shock that they are living breathing things again on stage.

For some people their research, a PhD or whatever is work, separate to themselves in some way, but for me it was always a labour of love. Driven in part by the reasons these plays were written- as a shout against both AIDS, homophobia, political injustice and a general need to shout at the world from the stage. But it’s also from a love of these plays. I fell in love with these plays at the time of life where you fall for something hard, and it tends to stick- my late teens. Within weeks of each other, days possibly, both plays came into my life. And I fell in love. The why wherefore and bigger reasons are for another time, but it has been nearly 15 years these plays have been with me, and almost as long since they became a part of me.

Rent has for me, been an integral part of my ‘growing up’ in the sense that it’s been with me from early adulthood through to now, in my early 30s. I might have in some ways surpassed the world that those characters live in, but through a lot they, and the music of the show have always been there for me. I wrote a review here  of the 20th Anniversary show that talks a little bit about how Rent seems to infect a soul. That if you come to it at the right time in your life, you fall in love, and you fall hard, and it becomes a part of you.

Angels I’ve always argued is the head to Rent’s heart. I wouldn’t be the writer I am, the academic I sort of am, and I wouldn’t be the theatre person I am without Tony Kushner’s plays. I had begun to love theatre, to learn about theatre before Angels but Kushner’s work was the one-stop masterclass I needed to really take off. I probably wouldn’t have done my Masters, gone to RADA, continued with theatre if I hadn’t discovered that play when I did. And I know for certain I wouldn’t have done my PhD on any other play.
But for me it goes much deeper than my gateway drug to theatre, to my musical theatre companion throughout the years. It’s the lessons in both these pieces that have become ingrained in my consciousness ‘Forget Regret’ ‘Without you’ ‘The World Only Spins forward’ ‘More Life’ ‘Fuck you I’m a Prophet’. And so many that I barely notice them. But it’s also the places it’s taken me, directly or indirectly. And the people I’ve met. One of my closest friends stood on a Broadway stage with me last Thanksgiving and told Adam Pascal ‘No your show is exactly why we’re friends’. Me the girl from Cardiff who never set foot in a theatre until she was 16 years old, ended up stood on a Broadway stage talking to Adam Pascal.   Or spent Saturday, in the dark at the National Theatre, watching magic happen as the play that had been living mainly in my head for years, began to come to life again on stage in front of me. And that I in a tiny, tiny way through the work I’d done, also managed to have a tiny part in that.

It’s a strange feeling that suddenly the world is alive with opinions on things that were between me, a dusty archive and dozens of notebooks in my room for so long. When I was shouting at PhD supervisors, trying desperately to convince them that these were important pieces of theatre. When nobody seemed to care all that much about these plays from the 90s, that sure were important but why spend so much energy on them. When it was me, and one friend, thousands of miles apart, still talking like we were those teenagers again about these plays. Thinking that the only other people who really cared were a bunch of old gay guys who wrote some reviews and books a while ago. Or some young- whipper-snapper musical theatre fans who didn’t really understand what it was like back in the day.

And now ‘History is about to crack wide open’ and both are out there again, being talked about, and it feels exposing to be someone whose name is associated with them. After shouting for so long though, I’m not sure I’m ready for suddenly the world to be talking about ‘my’ plays. But I’m also excited. Because somewhere out there might be another kid like me, who’ll stumble across one, or both, and have their life changed for ever.

So I hope they do, ‘no day but today’ and ‘More Life’ to you all…

Emily Garside
Emily Garside is an academic and theatre writer. Following a PhD in depictions of HIV/AIDS in theatre, she decided to move on from academic writing to take her writing about theatre to a wider audience. By day a research advisor and by night theatre writer, playwright and lover of all things theatre. Emily blogs at thenerdytheatre.blogspot.co.uk and tweets at @EmiGarside.
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Emily Garside
Emily Garside is an academic and theatre writer. Following a PhD in depictions of HIV/AIDS in theatre, she decided to move on from academic writing to take her writing about theatre to a wider audience. By day a research advisor and by night theatre writer, playwright and lover of all things theatre. Emily blogs at thenerdytheatre.blogspot.co.uk and tweets at @EmiGarside.