Ion tackles ‘Angels’

Posted: November 18th, 2011 | Arts & Entertainment, Interviews | No Comments

“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”

Through Dec 11

ion theatre company staged at the Lyceum Space

79 Horton Plaza, Downtown

(619) 600-5020

“Millennium Approaches”

  • Tues & Thurs 7:30 p.m.
  • Sat & Sun 2 p.m.


  • Wed & Fri 7:30 p.m.
  • Sat 8 p.m.
  • Sun 7 p.m.

Special Engagements: Opening performances, Sun Nov 20 and Closing performances, Sun Dec 11: “Millennium Approaches” noon, “Perestroika” 5:30 p.m.

The “great work” begins as we celebrate World AIDS Day

(l to r) Kyle Sorrell and Jessica John Gercke in ion’s “Angel’s in America” (Courtesy ion theatre)

By Charlene Baldridge | GSD Reporter

Seated in the middle of the stage at Hillcrest’s Blkbox @ 6th & Penn, Claudio Raygoza—administratively and artistically one half of ion theatre company—gestures toward the former photography studio next door and says, “That space can actually hold more seats than this space.”

The former studio, which ion took possession of a month ago, is now used as rehearsal, office and storage space. Currently, there are no plans to create another black-box theater, but ion may generate revenue later by renting the rehearsal space to other groups.

Ion comprises Executive Artistic Director Raygoza, his spouse, Producing Artistic Director Glenn Paris, 14 company members and a host of devoted supporters.

The company’s most expensive and highest grossing production to date, “Gypsy,” continues at the Hillcrest Blkbox location through Nov. 26. However, Raygoza and Paris will take over the Lyceum Space of the San Diego Repertory Theatre to present the next record-holder for ion’s most expensive production ever.

The pair are co-directing Tony Kushner’s two-part “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” comprising “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.” Previews of begin Nov. 17, with the production running from Nov. 20 through Dec. 11.

As Raygoza points out, productions are staged to coincide with greater happenings around them, and as 2011 marks the 30th year of the HIV epidemic and with World AIDS Day on Dec. 1—as well as the current Occupy San Diego movement happening right now—ion theatre company’s production has perfect timing.

Gay San Diego: You seem to be into big things in small spaces lately, “Gypsy” in the 88-seat Blkbox and now “Angels” in the Lyceum Space. What are you trying to prove?

Glenn Paris: We think the space is ideal for “Angels,” which needs a larger venue because of the show’s special effects. We’re also hoping it will attract a broader audience.

Claudio Raygoza: What appeals to ion audiences is being so close to the actors that they can’t fake it. They feel like they’re onstage, in the actor’s lap. With a piece of theatre as spectacular and epic as “Angels in America,” you have a rare opportunity. You don’t have a distance of 15 or 20 rows; you look into the eyes and souls of the characters as they take this epic journey. That was what drew us to being in the [Lyceum] Space.

[In regard to] the magic, Kushner holds that it’s okay if some of the wires show. The magic should be amazing, and by that he means entertaining, but it’s okay for it to be low tech. It doesn’t have to equal Cirque du Soleil. He wants us to see some of the mechanism: actors involved in scene changing, actors in charge of the forward movement of the play rather than technology.

GSD: What do you consider the major themes of “Angels in America?”

CR: [Extended laughter] Do you have seven and a half hours?

GP: We’re always talking to the company about the major themes, which we’ve identified as forgiveness, what is America?, what is democracy? [and] what is freedom? The play is set in the height of the AIDS epidemic, but it’s about so many important things. I feel the country has turned its back on AIDS. We got through the initial crisis and over the years, medication has evolved so that people can live with HIV and AIDS. On a worldwide scale it’s still a huge catastrophe. The younger generation, who did not experience the catastrophe, has a hole in their awareness and consciousness. We want to reach that audience.

GSD: When were you first aware of “Angels?”

GP: I was in New York directing a small theatre company at the time Kushner was writing it and it was being developed regionally [It premiered at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre Company in 1991]. At the same time, my family experienced a personal catastrophe, and we lost one of our brother’s sons to AIDS. My mother was very deliberate when “Angels” debuted on Broadway. I bought us tickets to “Millennium,” and a year later, to “Perestroika.” It became part of our healing process. Experiencing it was one of the seminal experiences in my life, and I thought to myself, hopefully I’ll be able to come back to this one day as an artist and actor. That’s my personal journey.

CR: I’ve never seen the play performed. I really struggled with understanding when I first read it. I was at a place in my evolution where some of the messages were too strong for me. Later, I learned from Roberta Levitow, who was dramaturge of the original production, to respect it, respect its power and see aspects of the play that might be understood in a broader context. I carried the script around with me for years, and it wasn’t until I became my authentic self that the play finally spoke to me on a different level, and I was able to understand it.

GSD: How did you approach the work?

CR: We met with the actors unofficially for quite some time before coming into the rehearsal process, so they’ve been on this trek for quite some time. In e-mails and phone calls after we get home at night, the actors have been pouring out their souls: ‘I’ve discovered this,’ and ‘how can we talk about it?’ So we’ve become organized to help guide them, so to speak. One thing that’s emerging right now is that theater creates a synergy with whatever’s happening in the world at the time it’s performed, which is why no two productions of a single play will ever be the same: they’re always contextually different in terms of what’s happening in the world.

We have a phenomenal cast. They have come together. And they’re all so excited about this play. They each have their own story of personal connection. They’re steeping themselves in it. Actors arrive an hour before rehearsal and just want to start working. We ran it for the first time a week ago. It’s like traveling to another planet. I’m just sitting there, pulled along. How exciting is that? Their journey is my journey and it’s the journey of every person who comes to witness.

GSD: Did Kushner risk a lot with his otherworldly magic?

GP: He purposely challenges the audience. That’s part of his objective as a writer. Claudio and I believe that theatre should not merely entertain, it should provoke. It should change people’s lives. Kushner’s right on track. He’s got the breadth of technique, and he’s got the magic. We have a comfort level with challenging the audience, like Kushner does. And we trust that the audience will go along for the journey.

CR: Our audience surprises us when they show up in droves for shows like “Grace” and “Lieutenant of Inishmore” and then they want more. They want to be challenged, but they won’t say it out loud. If they say it out loud they’re dispelling that magic. There’s something about being in the same room with the actors that put you on edge a bit, making you uncomfortable and then making you feel like you’ve been to that gymnasium of the soul, and you walk out feeling a little more limber in terms of your own body.

GSD: Is Kusher developing archetypes?

CR: Kushner is developing a mythology. Outside of Native American tradition, we don’t have that mythological birthright they have in other parts of the world. Fortunately, I’m Yaqui so I know how to go on a spirit quest of my own. But I look at the rest of America, and say, ‘You’re not going there.’ I have to do theatre so I can take you there. We have to be able to go on these magical journeys together. Theatre is the one place where we can open that gate and say, ‘Come on in.’ There’s a powerful line when Louis and Belize are in a coffee shop. Louis says, ‘There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political….’

One of the things Kushner is trying to say is that there are angels. We need their mythologies. We need new types. Who’s to say when you go to a Greek play and see snakes coming out of someone’s head that’s any more challenging than coming to watch a play today in which people are trying to fix the ozone layer? How is that different? Kushner is challenging us on that level theatrically. Three hundred years from now, when this great nation is still around, we will look back at some of these characters as our heroes.

GSD: How can you afford to do this production?

GP: “Gypsy” was a calculated risk. We take a lot of risks. We have a campaign for “Angels,” relationships with social service organizations that will help us bring people to the piece. There’s a Chicago company that’s flying out here to build a winch system for us.

CR: Say that in your article. This “Angels” has an angel that flies. Some people will find that important.

GP: Karson, the brave angel who was cast the first day, will be fitted with a special vest so she can fly.

CR: We’re attracting attention in L.A., Massachusetts, Connecticut and Seattle. People are flying out to see this production and we’re very excited about that.

GP and CR [back and forth, interrupting one another]: You get a sense from the company that they’re on a mission. You seldom have that in theatre. They don’t want to take a break. They want to keep working. They are so dedicated. From the onset, they’ve been a collective. They want to share something important with the audience. At whatever risk they have to take, they want to make sure the story is done to the best of their ability. We’re so grateful: let us now begin; let’s take that risk.

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