Last month, Brooklyn-born director Robert Allan Ackerman was in New York for the prestigious Golden Globe Awards, for which he had nominations for his TV movie of Tennessee Williams’ “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” and his TV miniseries, “The Reagans,” which CBS refused to screen. This month he is in Tokyo directing a new stage production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” — which won a TV miniseries Golden Globe for director Mike Nichols — with a Japanese cast for tpt (Theatre Project Tokyo).
Always drawn to the stage, Ackerman first began acting while he was teaching high school, before making his debut as a director in 1978. Since then, he has become a quiet giant on the world stage, whether in New York, London, Los Angeles or — since 1990 — in Tokyo. In recent years, Ackerman has tended to split his work between screen directing in the United States with the likes of Meryl Streep, John Malkovich and Ann Bancroft, and — in Japan only — directing for the stage. Last week, the director made time in his busy schedule to share his thoughts on issues from acting and angels to politics and censorship with readers of The Japan Times.
You did “Angels” 10 years ago at the Saison Theater. The play is especially relevant to the 1980s, so why did you decide to do it now in Japan?
It was written in the ’80s, but I think the things it talks about are very relevant to what’s going on in the world right now, and certainly AIDS has not gone away. When we did the play originally at the Ginza Saison Theater 10 years ago, I think we all thought that in 10 years there would be no more AIDS, but AIDS is bigger now and it’s more prevalent throughout the world than it was even then, and I think post-9/11 what’s happened to the world, all of the things that the play prophesied would happen, we can see them every time we turn on the news — death and destruction everywhere — and I think the play is more relevant in many ways now than it was then.
Since your production at the Saison Theater, has your understanding of “Angels” changed? Have you made any new discoveries?
Yes, quite a bit. There was more of a certain naivete about it 10 years ago. As I said, I think then we thought AIDS would be gone in 10 years, and I think now the actual magnitude of it and the destruction is even greater than it was then, and politically I understand a lot more about the play than I did then. Then I did the movie about Ronald Reagan, so I have a lot of information about the Reagans and the Reagan administration that I wasn’t as intimately connected with the first time I did the play. So, I think that this production is in some ways more cynical than the first one — more sophisticated than the first one.
What, to you, is the meaning of working in theater as opposed to movies or television?
Because I started my career in theater, for me the theater is still like coming home. The wonderful thing that happens in a rehearsal, that you don’t get when you are doing a movie, is because you don’t have that kind of rehearsal time to make all those discoveries together with the actors and to really refine them. Also in many ways, doing theater, especially something like this is much more challenging to your imagination. Because in a movie, when the angel flies, you can just do some special effects and wires, or now computer graphics or whatever — and now the angel is flying. So it’s much more challenging to one’s imagination to do theater. You are much more limited in what you can do physically, so it makes you have to use your imagination more.
In “Angels” there are many tragic episodes, but it finishes on an optimistic note. Do you think that since it was first staged the world has progressed?
I think the world has not made much progress, and I think the state of the world is worse than it was then. I think we still have to have optimism and hope, but I think for me in this production there’s more of a feeling of it’s really up to each person, each individual, to make the world better. The world can only be made better by each person, one by one. An individual really has to make a difference, to change their ideas, their attitudes, their behavior. And that’s the only way ultimately that the world will change.
So are you still optimistic?
Well, I think one has to be. If one is to survive one has to try to be optimistic. But though you said “Angels” is a tragic play, it is also very funny and I think having a sense of humor helps us to deal with tragedy, and I think how people survive is to have some sense of humor.
In contrast to Reagan and the Bushes, with their traditional Christian values, how was it during the Clinton era?
Well, I think in the Clinton days there was a sense of optimism. I think America was in a much better position in the world — certainly than it is now. I’m not a political expert at all so I don’t really know that much, but certainly the sense of America’s position in the world was much more favorable — I think people saw America in a much more favorable light than they do now.
Certainly the economy in America was better, the morale of the country was better, more people had jobs; there were no wars when Clinton was president. So I think things have really taken a turn for the worse since Clinton left office.
Why was “The Reagans” not broadcast by CBS — what were they afraid of?
I can only tell you what they said. We made the movie; the script was written; everybody knew what the script was. CBS approved the script; CBS approved the casting; all the time we were shooting it they were seeing the rushes every day and they were happy with what they saw. And then an article in The New York Times came out and mentioned — it was written by somebody who really liked what we were doing — but he mentioned that there were things in the movie that were not flattering to Ronald Reagan. And immediately the right wing in America — the extreme right wing — the rightwing press and TV networks became incensed about the movie and started to complain about it before they ever even saw it.
It was never intended to be a movie against Ronald Reagan — it was critical of him, but we weren’t trying to defame his character in any way, or Nancy Reagan. But in any case people heard things and they read things in the NYT out of context and then the head of CBS actually got very frightened, I think, and he asked for many changes in the movie and they were impossible changes to make and they tried to make all those changes and when they put the movie together with all those changes then the movie didn’t make sense anymore. So finally he just decided not to show it.
Recently at the Golden Globe awards I saw him and he said to me, ‘By the way, I never got the chance to tell you, but it’s a terrific movie.’ So it was very strange . . .
Is there now growing concern about the role of corporations in curtailing free expression in the media in the U.S.
Yeah, there is that fear in America now that the big corporations are yielding to the right wing. But I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t have enough information about that to tell you the truth. I really don’t know what’s true and what’s not true.
I know that I think it’s dangerous that if big corporations are applying pressure in America to censor art, I think that’s a very dangerous situation. But I don’t know that it’s true; I don’t really have any example of it. I still don’t really know why “The Reagans” was not shown; I don’t know the real reason.
In the Bush administration and all over the world people are talking about America regarding itself as the leader of the free world and the world’s policeman. Do you think it is qualified to be either of these?
No. I don’t think any country is. One of the things that is frightening is when a world power such as America decides that its values are the values that everybody has to live by; I think it’s a very scary thing. And I don’t think that all Americans feel that way either. I don’t think that all Americans think that everybody all over the world has to live like we do in America.
To get back to “Angels in America,” what is the metaphoric meaning of angels in the play? After all, they’re angels, not God.
I think the way [Kushner] uses the angels in the play, the angels are sort of the intermediaries between God and human beings — the messengers, emissaries of God; the middle men. They’re the go-betweens between God and the people. I think it would have been impossible for Tony Kushner to have God be a character in the play, so in place of God we learn about God through the angels.
And because God has abandoned the angels, we never meet him. And the angels are sharing the same sense of abandonment that we are feeling as human beings.
I think what he is talking about is that the entire metaphysical universe is suffering from the same sense of the lack of leadership, the lack of some higher power, that we’ve all been abandoned, that we have to now make our own. We can’t rely on something higher. We have to do it for ourselves, without any leader, without any leadership, really, just from our own sense of life.
What are your ambitions in theater?
My theatrical ambition is simply to just keep doing work that I love. Really, I don’t see myself as a theatrical revolutionary who is going to change the state of the theater or who’s going to necessarily change the world through theater. But I would like to just continue doing the kind of work that I really love.
I would love to have some impact on the Japanese theater. I would love to see talented people get the opportunity to rise to the top of the profession regardless of politics or what management they are with.
I would like to see a Japanese theater that really supports great work and is not so involved in the star system, and really creates an atmosphere where great artists can work freely together and be recognized.
Because of your work, many people probably expect you to be a leader or agitator of the theater world.
Well maybe. I don’t know. I would like to shake up the theater world a bit and make it more possible for talented people to get the opportunities they deserve.
So did you derive a lot of satisfaction from this production?
Yes, very much so. There were so many discoveries all the time. We never quite knew how we were going to do things, and then when we discovered how to do them it was very exciting. For example, we never knew how the angel was going to fly. And suddenly the idea came — just to do it the way we do it, which is so simple, but I think it’s very beautiful and very theatrical. So in that regard it’s very satisfying.
You have directed so many good productions here and influenced many Japanese people, but what have you taken from Japan?
A very strong sense of pride. A willingness to be open to new ideas. To support new ideas. To do adventurous work. Especially here at tpt to put their support behind what they believe is good and to support people they believe in and to support the kind of work that they believe in. And that to me is a great reason to be here.