Interview with ‘Angels in America’ Director Brian Weaver and Actor Wade McCollum

As I watched some early rehearsals of the Portland Playhouse’s upcoming production of Angels in America: Part 1, Millennium Approaches, the excitement was palpable. An epic play, Angels seems to be one of the most sought after for actors and directors alike to be a part of. The Playhouse was especially excited to be able to put it on this year, which is its 20th anniversary. I found myself easily swept up in the excitement, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting opening ever since.

The Portland Playhouse cast of 'Angels in America.' Photo by Laura Domela

If your not familiar with Tony Kushner’s 6 hour play, it follows the interwoven lives of several individuals in and around New York, most of whom are gay, during the early days of the AIDS crisis. Though the Playhouse is only putting on Part 1 (for now) there is plenty of drama to fill the 3 hours. The Pulitzer Prize winning script delves into the broader themes of the AIDS crisis, politics, religion, hypocrisy and more through the eyes of a WASPy gay man afflicted with the disease, Prior Walter, and his Jewish partner, Louis Ironson. Ironson struggles with this reality and eventually leaves Walter for an affair with a closeted Mormon, Joe Pitt. The other principal character is Ray Cohn, a deeply closeted gay man, who is also dying of AIDS, even as he actively espouses anti-gay and McCarthyist Regan-era politics, and serves as the play’s biggest villain. Through it all an angel watches over, and other characters, alive and dead, weave in and out of surreal scenes, memories, hallucinations.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. This story could have you talking for days. And the Portland Playhouse is acknowledging that with a lunchtime panel discussion the Sunday of opening week, December 11th, 12:30pm at the World Trade Center Theatre lobby. This panel, Angels at 20, is free and open to the public and features panleists Kate Bredeson, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Reed College, Wayne Miya, Executive Director of the Portland nonprofit Our House, which provides health care, housing and support for people with HIV/AIDS; and Portland Playhouse Artistic Director Brian Weaver. Globalization of the epidemic, medical advances and other factors have changed the face of the disease over the past 20 years though it still remains exceedingly relevant.

Questions such as these, as well as insight into the play and the motivations of those involved in this particular production are just some of the topics I got to speak about with Director Brian Weaver and principal star Wade McCollum, who plays Prior, in the interview below. You can also hear complete and unedited audio from our visit at the end of the written interview and be sure to check back after opening night for a full live review.

Interview with Director Brian Weaver

qPDX: So tell me about what made you decide to be a part of this production, or how it got started.

Brian Weaver: It’s always been one of my favorite plays of all time. It’s dramatic and hilarious and heartbreaking and impossible. You know, I’ve always thought about it but this is the 20th anniversary year and I can’t believe that it’s that long ago. It’s a fairly small theatre company, so it was extraordinary we got the rights to do it in this big year.

q: And tell me about how you think it is still relevant, or how its relevance has changed over the last 20 years.

Portland Playhouse co-founder and 'Angels' Director Brian Weaver

BW: Before I thought about Angels in America again, I remember hearing something about NPR that AIDS, after 15 years of decreasing, [new incidents of infection] were starting to rise in the US. I found it surprising how much it had dropped off my radar.

Do you think that perceptions around HIV and AIDS have changed in the past since it premiered? What do you think that people will take away from this now that perhaps they didn’t when it first came out?

It’s a huge perception shift. When first creating the play, AIDS was still a death sentence, and certainly that’s the world that the characters are living in. Now it’s something that people can live with, and there’s a whole medical industry built around it.

Where did you start to look for your cast, and how did that process go for you?

We have a wonderful cast. It’s six local and two from New York, all exceptionally talented, passionate. It’s both the cast and also many other artists that I speak to, people are very attached to this play. People want to do it. People, I think both here at Portland Playhouse but also in theatres all over the country right now, actors want to work on it.

Have you worked with some of these cast members before?

Yeah, Wade who is playing Prior was in Dying City last year. Mickey who’s playing Harper is my wife. It seems like I’m always directing her in plays where she’s making out with other people.

How’s that for you? [Laughing]

Oh it’s great, I love it. I think I’ve only ever worked with her in plays where she is kissing other people.

Have you made any changes to the original script? For now you’re only doing Part 1, correct?

Right, we’re doing part 1, Millennium Approaches. When it first opened it was only Millennium Approaches, and then a year and a half later part two came along. The script has been the same for 20 years, but Tony Kushner made a couple revisions for the new edition which just came out this year. The published version’s not out yet. But we have the new script. It’s very, very similar.

Do you have any plans to do a part two in the future?

We’ve thought about it. You have to just endure it, it’s such a beautiful, heartbreaking, tremendously huge play. Tony Kushner said if you have to do it, you have to break your heart. So we’ll see if we break our hearts on this one, then if we have anything left we’ll go back next year for part two.

It is a particularly, not only long but also intense play. Has that been more difficult than other productions, both in terms of length and subject matter?

I’ve been surprised. Into rehearsals, we were really preparing to do a lot of work in a short amount of time, but it doesn’t seem long. It flies by. There are two intermissions. There are three acts in there, an hour each, so three hours, but it’s like the quickest hour that you can spend. There’s a lot of suspense and it’s funny. It’s a gay fantasia. It’s a heartbreaking subject, this subject of loss and broken relationships, and I don’t think we could endure it if it were a three-hour drama. So it’s a three-hour gay fantasia that makes it possible.

>>Continue to the next page for an interview with actor Wade McCollum

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