Playwright, author and activist Larry Kramer will receive this year’s Isabelle Stevenson Award, a non-competitive Tony award given to an individual from the theater community who has made a substantial contribution on behalf of humanitarian, social service or charitable organizations.
“Writers who are activists are very rarely taken seriously as artists,” Kramer said in an interview. “I look upon this recognition as acknowledgment that a serious writer can also be a serious activist, and no less an artist for it.”
“When you think of all the great South American writers, they’re all huge political activists in their own country,” he added. “It doesn’t exist here. You’re frowned upon.”
Kramer said so few playwrights in the U.S. write about politics, and instead focus on plays about personal relationships and families, “which I consider of lesser interest to me as a writer. If you compare it with Britain where every major playwright — David Hare, Howard Brenton – has written about what’s going on in the country, that doesn’t exist here.”
Kramer said he has been “frowned upon as a serious writer” ever since his 1985 play “The Normal Heart,” which is based upon his own experiences co-founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
Kramer said he had a difficult time getting “The Normal Heart” accepted by theaters because it was considered too political. “It was turned down everywhere until Joe Papp [founder of The Public Theater] took it on,” Kramer said. “Every major theater company, director, agent — no one would touch it. They’d say so: ‘Oh it’s just too political.’”
Kramer, who will turn 78 years old in June, won a 2011 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, for the revival of “The Normal Heart” on Broadway, which starred Joe Mantello, Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey.
Kramer also wrote the screenplay for a coming HBO film based on the play, which will be directed by Ryan Murphy (“Glee”) and star Mark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks, the young activist at the center of the story.
“We are so excited about it,” Kramer said of the film, which begins shooting in New York in June. “It’s much bigger than the play. It’s the same basic plot but one is able to open it up and show much more about AIDS and also explore the character of the doctor [which will be played by Julia Roberts] which I wanted to do in the play, but it didn’t work.”
Does Ruffalo — an actor-activist who has spoken out against fracking and participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement — remind Kramer of himself?
“I should look so good,” Kramer said. “I think that we do agree about activism. I like to think that I taught him a little about how to do it. I gave him my book of essays about how to be an activist. I know he read it cover to cover.”
Kramer is based in Washington Square Park with his partner, architect and designer David Webster.
Previous winners of the Isabelle Stevenson Award include Bernadette Peters, Eve Ensler, David Hyde Pierce and Phyllis Newman. The award is named after Isabelle Stevenson, the late president of the American Theatre Wing.