Writing Theatre into the Culture
An Interview with Dan Kois
Chances are if you don’t know who Dan Kois is, you’ve read something he’s written. Perhaps you read his piece about singing karaoke in Portland or his profile of the New Zealand director Taiki Waititi, both for The New York Times. If you’re a theatre junkie, you’ve probably read excerpts from his recent book, The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America, co-authored with HowlRound contributor Isaac Butler.
Dan has been writing about many facets of culture—books, comics, movies, music, family—for over fifteen years. His first book was a biography of the Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. Next on his to-do list is a book about parenting around the world, to be released by Little, Brown in 2019. Research for this book took him to Costa Rica, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and most exotically, Hays, Kansas—where I happen to live.
You see, I met Dan in college. We were both theatre students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. One of my earliest memories of him is from a playwriting class, circa 1994. It was my first playwriting class, and I had the first scene I’d ever written freshly printed and laying on my lap. Dan, who was sitting next to me, grabbed it, read it, and with unusual chutzpah, announced to the teacher, “This is actually good. We should do this one.” Ever since, Dan has been one of my first readers. He’s incisive, unflinchingly honest, and always kind. He’s now an editor at Slate in the culture department. It’s not surprising that culture writing became his professional trade, but it would have surprised the pants off of Dan in 1994 to learn he’d eventually spend the better part of a year talking to some of his theatrical heroes for an oral history of Angels in America.
Catherine: So why did you major in theatre? What did you think you’d be doing with your theatre degree?
Dan: A year after we graduated, I had basically come to a decision that I was not going to try and make a career in professional theatre, like as a director or something. I had heard these stories from friends of ours, Catherine, who had gone up to New York so they could work in theatre. One friend was some famous director’s assistant, but he wasn’t getting paid anything, and so he had to work a night job at some accounting office. He had made himself a pot of tea, drank it, and at some point, couldn’t find the tea bag. To this day, he doesn’t know if, in his state of exhaustion, he ate the tea bag. It’s like a mystery that he will never solve because he was so completely wrecked by this life that he was living. And I was like fuck that, that sounds terrible. I don’t want to do that.
I successfully became a gatekeeper through editing at a magazine, where I didn’t have to convince people inside an institution that something was good. I had the authority to believe that something was good and then put it into the world.
Catherine: Did you have any grief in that? In the idea of letting go of a professional theatre career?
Dan: Yeah, definitely. I definitely miss that environment. I miss being in the theatre with people making something, and I try to replace it with collaborative writing and editing. I did comedy improv for a long time and that sort of scratched the performative jones, but yeah, that was a big step for me to basically say alright well, the thing I’m focusing on is not this.
Catherine: It is interesting that you slid pretty easily into these gatekeeper roles: a critic, an agent, a development executive? How did you transition to those jobs?
Dan: It’s worth noting that while I did sort of slide into those gatekeeper roles, I was bad at some of them. I was not a good agent. I just wasn’t that good at making deals, and there were all these really good writers I felt like I was failing, and I wasn’t making any money. I was a good gatekeeper in that I think I had good taste, and I was choosing the right projects, but I had not figured out yet how to convince the next set of gatekeepers to spend their money on that thing. I guess the way I successfully became a gatekeeper was through editing at a magazine, where I didn’t have to convince people inside an institution that something was good. I had the authority to believe that something was good and then put it into the world.
Catherine: You’re not a theatre journalist per se, but you have throughout your career written about theatre here and there. Has that been a hard sell to the various magazines you’ve worked for?
Dan: I think you’ll actually notice I haven’t really written about theatre much for anything other than Slate.com, the magazine where I make decisions.
Catherine: Yeah, right.
Dan: It’s a hard sell.
Catherine: Theatre feels like a stepchild at these larger magazines. What are the challenges to getting theatre writing into more mainstream outlets and presses?
Dan: Theatre is a local art form, and magazines more and more want national audiences. It’s very hard to convince editors that a show anywhere, even in New York, has relevance to most of their readers. There’s this preconception that a piece about theatre could only ever be of interest to a person who has seen that exact play. So if you’re going to write about the new Annie Baker play, the only people who are ever going to read that are the people who actually packed themselves into that theatre and had that experience. And that wasn’t always the case. It used to be that part of being an educated, cultured person was that you had a sort of ambient sense of what was happening in the theatre world in addition to all the other cultural worlds. Even if you only went to New York once every five years, you knew that Tennessee Williams was a major playwright and Arthur Miller was a major playwright and that they had plays on Broadway and that those plays might one day filter to your community. That isn’t assumed anymore. Theatre isn’t necessarily a part of that greater shared monoculture that a certain sector of wealthy American white readers had once upon a time. But at the same time, I think writers underestimate the extent to which the decisions made at publications are very much a function of the quirky, individual likes and dislikes of the human beings who work at those magazines. So, for example, we have this book about Angels in America that’s out right now…
Catherine: We’ll get to that eventually, you know…
Dan: …but there’s a point! Our publisher was happy to have the book, but I think they have been very surprised by the number of outlets that have covered this book, because these places don’t cover theatre usually. And it’s because the individuals at those places who are empowered to make those decisions have a particular love of Angels in America and want to have a reason to write about Angels in America.
Catherine: People love that play. Your answer also makes me think of one of my favorite pieces of theatre writing that I’ve read lately: your co-author Isaac Butler’s piece about Hamlet being fat that was published in Slate. Did you edit that piece?
Dan: Yeah, I did.
Catherine Lots of people haven’t seen Hamlet but most people have heard of it, if not read it. It’s a cultural touchstone whether you’ve seen it or not.
Dan: The piece presented this extremely stupid question, but in a very serious and smart way. And it turned out to be about a bunch of deep and academically relevant, textual issues. So people might have ended up learning a lot, and that piece did really, really well for us. Shakespeare is sort of its own kind of beast.
Catherine: So let’s talk about the book for a minute. Can you briefly summarize what the book is and how it came about?
Dan: The book is an oral history of Tony Kushner's play Angels in America, based on interviews with about 250 actors and directors, playwrights, academics, critics, producers, tech staff—everybody we could get who has ever had a thought about Angels in America. We stole their thoughts and put them in this book. It’s presented in oral history style as a testament to the spirited dialectic that runs through Angels. Angels is a play about voices in conversation and debate with each another, and we thought if we’re going to tell this story we should tell it in the same way. And it’s expanded from our 2017 Slate cover story.
Catherine: I was about to ask you why oral history. That’s a really good answer. There is something really addictive about oral histories. I read Angels in one night. Do you think there’s something about oral histories in particular that makes them page turners, or is it just the editing?
Dan: It’s not the editing so much as the people. You have to have a crowd full of people who are really great talkers and who are candid and funny and disagree with each other. With Angels, we knew we were going to be interviewing some of the best talkers alive. Tony Kushner is a world class talker. Frank Rich is a world class talker, George Wolfe. The book is full of people who will go at you for twenty minutes if you ask them one question and will tell amazing stories and be hilarious. Oral history is a really popular mode right now for cultural history, because I think for many writers, it feels not daunting as a writing challenge. It has led to a lot of boring oral histories where they didn’t get the right people or the people didn’t tell good stories, and there’s nothing you can do about that. You can’t assemble it in a way that makes it lively and exciting. And those are soul deadening to get through, and you’re begging for some critical voice to tell you something about what all this shit means.
Catherine: What is one of your favorite anecdotes from the book?
Dan: In hindsight, it is obvious that Angels in America is a masterpiece that will live forever, but at the time, it really could have fallen apart about a million different times. The story, for example, that Tony Kushner tells about the first production of Perestroika in LA at The Mark Taper Forum. He had had this idea to have a literal rain of documents onstage during the scene in heaven when all the angels are talking to one another in the Council of Principalities. But they hadn’t tested it before the first night with actual audiences, and it turned out that the fans did not blow the stuff onto the stage. They blew these pieces of paper into the audience, which would have been fine, except the only paper that they had around…some enterprising stage manager had been like, oh, we have laundry baskets full of rewrites of Perestroika that we threw away because they were bad, let’s just put those in the paper thrower! So during this scene that was, in a way, emblematic of everything that was going wrong with Perestroika at that time, the audience was literally having thrown-away pages of the script rained upon them. And at that moment, Tony was like, so this is it. I had my chance, and this is where it all ends.
Catherine: One of the things I love about the book is it’s such an affirmation of the roller coaster that is the rehearsal process. I’m in rehearsal right now in a relatively conflict free process, but I’m still just filled with complete anxiety and dread, and I actually found the book sort of comforting to read, because that process was so crazy, so mad, so full of conflict and drama and mishap, and yet the most important piece of theatre of the past fifty years came out of it.
[Angels in America] is a play that lives really well on the stage and is great to watch—but also just reads really well. It’s got those long stretches of dialogue and banter and great jokes, and it just reads like a dream.
Dan: And it never changes. They’re in rehearsals for Angels right now on Broadway in a production that has seven out of eight actors who did it six months ago, and they’re still going through hell. Like it’s never not mad.
Catherine: I find that oddly comforting! Angels is such a great play for theatre kids. I have yet to meet a college student of the past however many years who didn’t read this play in college and become utterly transformed by it.
Dan: That’s how we both experienced it, right? Like I saw it actually on Broadway, but my first experience was reading it at Carolina. I remember spending my monthly book allowance on it. In addition to all the other things it really does well—and it is a play that lives really well on the stage and is great to watch—but also just reads really well. It’s got those long stretches of dialogue and banter and great jokes, and it just reads like a dream.
Catherine: Yeah, it really does. It’s unusual in that way. So I have a confession: I’ve actually never seen Angels in America. Throughout my twenties, I lived in one major American city after another, but I just kept missing it by like a month. I will be in New York this spring during this Broadway revival. Do you think I should go see it?
Dan: It is really freaking expensive, but it is a very, very, very good production of this show. I think it’s worth it alone just to see Nathan Lane do Roy Cohen. The performance is an argument for him, as not just a great theatre actor or a funny musical guy, but as actually the theatre actor of his generation. An unearthly great performance.
Catherine: Wow. That’s a great recommendation. My fear, of course, is that this version won’t be nearly as good as the one that’s been running in my head for the past twenty years.