Last night, the Ransom Center sponsored a "chat" with Tony Kushner and Steven Dietz (a playwright I'm not familiar with, but he teaches here at U.T.). It was one of those things where a couple famous artists or writers or intellectuals sit in upholstered chairs on a stage with lots of potted ferns and pontificate about their work and art and culture and the audience hangs on every word, chuckles reverently at the high-brow jokes, etc. I love these things.
I lived in New York when Angels in America was on Broadway, but I didn't see it. I think my excuse was that I couldn't afford it, but I'm not sure if that excuse holds water because, if I'd really wanted to see it, I could have saved up. My negative attitude -- at the time -- about Broadway probably came into play, but I remember being aware that this play was different and important, and I was pretty involved in ACT UP at the time, so I'm not sure why I missed it, except that life then was narrow and harried and, working full-time and doing theater, I didn't have time or energy for much of anything else. I saw the Mike Nichols HBO adaptation just last year on DVD and I still can hardly find words to describe how it shook me.
(I really wanted to see Caroline, or Change, which was on Broadway when I was living in New York again in 2003 editing Life in a Box, but it was very popular, and it was impossible to get discounted tickets. By that time, Broadway tickets were over $100 -- they were probably half that in the late eighties -- so it was out of the question.)
J and I talked through dinner and our walk home about our similar reactions to the "chat." Tony Kushner is charming and extremely smart, and he shines in this format. He speaks in paragraphs (long paragraphs), and though he is erudite, he's not pompous. He's funny and humble and clear. So, I enjoyed it. But I (like J) felt on and off through the talk a kind of deep, painful sadness, a feeling of regret, a feeling that my artistic life has slipped by, that I missed the boat, that in my twenties I had a destination but I got lost. I'm combining my description of the feeling with J's. We both admitted to having had this feeling before.
About a quarter of the audience I'm guessing was students, some of whom -- judging by the self-conscious quality of some of the laughter and sighs when Mr. Kushner's comments were particularly witty or profound -- worship Tony Kushner, and it brought me back to similar events when I was in college (the first time). Meredith Monk came to Miami University when I was a freshman. She performed in a small recital hall and then talked with a group of students and faculty, answered questions, and I simultaneously fell in love with her and art and my own potential to be a great artist just like her.
That desire is mixed up with but not exactly the same thing as the desire to be famous. And both J and I were afflicted with both desires. (I didn't experience it so much as a desire to be famous but as a certainty that I was a famous person who just wasn't famous yet.) Maybe the two are the same after all, just different degrees of the same thing. I wanted not just to be known, but to be known after I died, to have made an indelible mark. And that's my antidote to that uncomfortable feeling of having failed which J and I both experienced last night: I believe -- and I've blogged about this before, I think -- that the work J and I did as Y'all had some quantifiable influence on creative activity that followed it, art, music, performance, something. I haven't done the research; I can't defend my thesis yet, but I'm pretty confident that there is support for that argument. The trouble -- as J pointed out -- is that much of the best work we did was, because it was performance, ephemeral. But -- as I pointed out -- a great deal of it was recorded. We have hours and hours of video; we (mostly J) wrote a book; we made records. There's a substantial archive -- I know, because I've been dragging it around the 48 states for the last 5 years.
Y'all, as far as how it played out in our lives, in our relationship, and in our careers, is hard to parse. We knew it was a beast when we were in the belly of it. Y'all started out as something fun to do. We were both pretty busy with other stuff when we met. I was working a lot with Tiny Mythic Theatre Company, and I had a folk-rock band. J was writing plays which were being produced at various little downtown theaters. We met, we couldn't get enough of each other, and you can only have sex so many times in a day, so eventually we got out the ukulele and started making up funny songs. That's really how it happened. And then, the short version of the story is that we played our songs for our little circle of theater people, they said nice things, we got a couple gigs, people laughed, so we went with it. It was what I'd been trying to do all along with all my work, create something that people responded to. We wanted to make good art, but we both wanted fiercely to be famous and this truly seemed like our shot.
But then, at some point early in the career of Y'all, we made a choice to pursue a middle-America audience. We knew we were working in a traditional medium, a populist medium, and -- though we were aware that being so queer and so old-fashioned at the same time made Y'all subversive, we could see that the people who responded deeply to our act were those who had some reverence for those traditions (old-time and country music, the Grand Ole Opry, etc.). We knew that Y'all was post-modern but we didn't want to let our audience know that we knew. The people who were sneering at or laughing at the traditional element of it, eventually lost interest in us, I think. The people who liked us were little old ladies and little kids, art snobs, rednecks, and housewives. Everyone, it seemed. It was intoxicating. That bit about wanting to host our own TV show, we really believed we could make that happen. That wasn't just part of the act.
When I was in art school, and when I was studying theater, and even when I was doing all that experimental work in New York, I always had a slight uneasiness about the eliteness of it, the arcaneness, the artists-making-art-that-only-other-artists-will-understandness-of-it. I loved that Y'all was art for the people. We followed Y'all out to the hinterlands, farther and farther away from our avant garde community and eventually out of New York. That's where our audience was, but we were left pretty isolated out there.
Then there's our relationship, and how it affected and was affected by all this art and fame stuff, but that's just too complicated to get into right now. I made a movie about it, which I think tells pretty accurately at least a small part of that story, but of course there's always more to say, more to ponder.
So, I don't know. I have no c0nclusions here. Both J and I at times have a pretty troubled relationship with our past, our futures, our careers, and even sometimes with each other. But I'm hugely grateful that I have him here, in the next room, and that we can talk about this stuff from time to time, even if it's unpleasant.