Angels in America presents both massive challenge and opportunity for Denver Center student actors and their audiences
A 2010 Denver Post survey of nearly 200 theater professionals determined that Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is the second-most important American play ever written, behind only Death of a Salesman.
We’re talking a two-part, seven-hour political and emotional manifesto that every professional actor aspires to dive head-first into. But since it was published in 1991, only four Colorado theatre companies have taken on the challenge. Maybe it’s the play’s sweeping magical realism, complex symbolism, rampant sex and operatic political diatribes. Or maybe it’s that angel who comes crashing through a bedroom ceiling. Whatever the reason, Angels in America is a monumental dissection of American society, AIDS and religion – and it’s simply above most companies’ artistic capabilities.
All of which makes the opportunity DCPA Education Head of Acting Timothy McCracken is currently affording 10 Denver Center acting students no less than once-in-a-lifetime.
Part One of Angels in America, along with Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, are DCPA Education’s two designated fall Master Class productions, which culminate in free public performances on alternating weekends December 6-15. And McCracken insists it’s the perfectly sized exercise for an adult student ensemble with widely ranging stage experience.
“Kushner’s own introductory script notes say Angels in America benefits from a pared-down style of presentation with minimal scenery and rapid scene shifts,” McCracken said. “The play was first introduced and developed in spaces that had very minimal production values. So I take that as an invitation for theatrical magic to happen where it’s OK to let the wires show.”
DCPA Education offers acting classes for every age and ability. Those students who have completed at least two previous classes are eligible to audition for McCracken’s quarterly Master Class projects. Those chosen to participate automatically receive full scholarships from the Lewis Myers Scholarship Fund through The Denver Foundation, so they do not have to pay to play.
Master Classes are the highest level offered by DCPA Education, which serves about 142,000 students every year. The Master Class program was launched in 2012 by McCracken’s predecessor, Larry Hecht. Previous undertakings have included a six-actor version of Macbeth, Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, Margaret Edson’s Wit, Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and an evening of Stephen Sondheim songs. The most recent offering was Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando, presented largely on trapezes.
For the first time, DCPA Education is conducting two master classes simultaneously. Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation is as intimate as Angels in America is epic. It’s the deceptively simple story of how four lost New Englanders are changed when they enroll in a community-center drama class. It’s directed by Billie McBride.
“I’m interested in plays that strike me as having a profound impact, or that have something to say about the nature and behavior of human beings,” McCracken said. “I think Angels in America is an utterly timely piece because it’s not only an AIDS play but it’s talking about so many other issues that resonate enormously in regard to the socio-political landscape right now. Issues that resonate not only with the audience, but with the people working on the play as well.”
Class is in session
The DCPA’s Master Classes draw both serious actors from the local community – and others who aspire to be. Some enroll to boost their confidence while others sign up simply for the fun of it.
Jon Fortmiller, who is playing his dream role of Prior Walter, is a longtime art teacher at Kent Denver School and has been taking acting classes at the Denver Center for more than a decade. Angels is a seven-week commitment with about 100 hours of classroom time.
“I keep coming back for the fulfillment of having an artistic outlet, the satisfaction of the learning experience and the pleasure of networking with talented, caring people,” Fortmiller said. “When I saw this project listed in the DCPA Education catalog, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Angels in America is a beautifully crafted script and an essential story to tell.”
McCracken said the goal of the Master Class productions is not to wow the public with stagecraft but to simply demonstrate honesty and growth in the students. “This class is process-based,” he said. “I’m challenging the actors to really consider the choices they’re making and to think about objective actions, obstacles, given circumstances, relationships and motivation.”
Fortmiller calls McCracken, a 2017 True West Award-winning actor for his work in the Arvada Center’s Waiting for Godot, a joy to work with. “His insightful coaching helps me build my acting skills each day,” said Fortmiller, who needs it to play Prior, a man who is abandoned by his lover soon after learning he has AIDS.
“Prior’s strength and humor in the face of pain and adversity is an inspiration,” Fortmiller said. “As an actor, I get to work on layering and fluctuating Prior’s fabulous energy with the agony of his physical conditions. It sure isn’t boring.”
The view from the audience
Having the chance to witness an opus like Angels in America in a classroom setting is a gift for curious theatregoers as well, McCracken said.
“It’s free theater, and I think it’s a great opportunity for people to see a really enjoyable show,” he said. “I am very proud of the work that’s been done here in terms of what my students are realizing, and I’m glad that it helps give our students visibility in the community.”
Some might think it’s an affront to take on Angels in America without a deep roster and even deeper pockets. Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater in New York and the man who asked Kushner to write Angels in the first place, is not one of them.
“It’s unbelievable the reach that play still has,” said Eustis, who built his substantial reputation by taking gambles on high-risk material such as Fun Home. “When I teach Angels in America to undergraduates, they respond to it as if they wrote it themselves — and they weren’t even born yet. So I say damn the torpedoes, and full speed ahead.”
For McCracken, the experience is all about opportunity. And the fact that the material may be a little out of his students’ reach going in is the best part about it.
“I will say that these actors are making discoveries,” he said. “They’re growing. They’re learning. They’re giving themselves permission to risk and to go to places they’ve never been before.”
As the Angel says: “Greetings, Prophet! The great work begins!”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
DCPA Education Master Class Public Performances
Circle Mirror Transformation: December 6-8
- Written by Annie Baker
- Directed by Billie McBride
- Marty: Diane Wziontka
- James: Hugh Hutton
- Schultz: Greg Palmer
- Theresa: Carie Millard
- Lauren: Josette Axne
Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches: December 13-15
- Written by Tony Kushner
- Directed by Tim McCracken
- Roy Cohn: Paul Curran
- Joseph Porter Pitt: Andrew Covin
- Harper Amity Pitt: Lilia Vassileva
- Louis Ironson: Ryan Stack
- Prior Walter: Jon Fortmiller
- Belize: Chelsea Frye
- Hannah Porter Pitt and others: Suellen Winstead
- Angel and others: Debe Hultgren
- Henry and others: David Jensen
- Lies and others: Christopher Robin Donaldson
All performances at 7 p.m. in the Newman Center for Theatre Education, located at 13th and Arapahoe streets.
Admission is free but seating is limited, so please RSVP your intention to attend by calling 303-446-4892 or by sending an email to email@example.com.