On September 19, 1996, Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP) premiered Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America. Before even opening, the play attracted a wagon load of controversy. “Why are taxpayers still having to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars to a company that stages a self-indulgent production many feel is abhorrent? It is simply not right,” expressed the Calgary Sun.
A number of Alberta MLAs were also on the record questioning provincial funding of ATP, which was $550,000 that year, about 1/6th of its operating budget. Calgary-Shaw Tory MLA Jon Havelock suggested that plays offending community standards should not receive public funding. He added, “It seems to me that in some instances people confuse sexual expression with artistic expression.”
Calgary-Fish Creek Tory MLA Heather Forsyth called Angels obscene and about ATP said: “If they can’t come up with better shows than this, maybe they shouldn’t be getting funding.”
ATP’s producing director, Michael Dobbin, rejoindered that MLAs were wrong to attack the play without seeing it first, and he criticized their community standards argument. At the theatre company’s Annual General Meeting, just days before the play opened, he expressed equal outrage: “I say, back off! I say, let the ballots be counted at the box office! That’s the only censorship that I’m prepared to accept.”
Calgary’s reactions to the controversy were polarized; there were dozens of articles and editorials in the Calgary dailies extremely for or against. A conservative radio call-in show buzzed with furor, and ATP itself fielded a number of strange or hostile phone calls, including one who pledged to “shut the show down – we are not going to stand for it in this City.”
There were heartfelt published defenses of Angels in America too. A well-known educator, Dariel Bateman, wrote a guest column in the Calgary Herald on September 13th. She described the play as: “a glorious opportunity to stare down despair, to make sense of things, as we must.”
On of the most fascinating developments was when the Calgary Herald’s Don Martin managed to get protesting MLA Havelock to actually see the play with him. He summarized the experience in an article titled: Angels in America: The sequel: It’s easy to be a critic before the house lights dim, published on September 27th. As the play progressed, surprisingly Havelock became engrossed. At one point he felt compelled to spontaneously applaud; he loved it. He wrote, “thoroughly enjoyable” on a comment card before he left.
The conservative and sometimes inflammatory publication, Alberta Report, made Angels in America its cover story on October 7th. It took the ATP promotional image of an angel and altered it for its cover, making it sickly: thinning muscles and adding skin legions.* Alberta Report writer Kevin Grace opined that Angels “is an artistic failure but it bears a powerful revolutionary message. While it elevates the belief current in the ‘AIDS community’ that victims of the disease are holy martyrs, homosexuals and AIDS victims are only one division of Mr. Kushner’s vaster army: one that seeks to destroy the very concept of the law – on earth and in heaven.”
He sensationally concluded his three-page article with: “those who see Angels in America as mere entertaining, diverting theatre, should know what they are getting into. In hell, the Marquis de Sade is smiling.”
Ultimately, ATP found themselves smiling. The controversy put extra bums in seats and attracted almost $50,000 in individual “Angels Consortium” donations. The play doubled expected ticket revenues and was sold out in its final weeks – setting audience records for the company.
* Photographer Jason Stang filed a lawsuit against Alberta Report for altering his image claiming the publication: distorted, defaced and mutilated his work.