What does it take to build a set for Broadway? We spoke to Edward Pierce, the TONY nominated scenic designer for Angels in America about the challenges of transferring a show from the West End and where he draws his inspiration from.
What was the inspiration for the Angels in America set design?
Well, a lot of the work that we would have done on the production has to do with adapting from its preliminary production at the Littleton Theatre at the National in London. This version of the show premiered there last summer, and a lot of the work over the last year has been to adapt the design from what was a very massive stage to a not‑so‑very massive stage here on Broadway. And to really find a way to continue to deliver the same energy and the same concepts, but in a much more limiting fashion here on Broadway.
We basically took all the design concepts that were initially conceived for the London production, along with a lot of new ideas that wanted to be included as enhancements to the original production and then balancing that with the actual real estate and logistics of how we would make this work for the Broadway stage. That involved a fair amount of design and technical study and ultimately resulted in a physical excavation of the stage of the Neil Simon and in the trap room below to be able to incorporate all the machinery and the method necessary to deliver the same design concepts, just more enhanced and in a more sophisticated fashion for how to store the show on Broadway.
The whole design is conceived to start with something that is generally more realistic, and ultimately over the course of the eight hours of the two plays, starts to get stripped away and starts to become more minimal. Ultimately to the very end when we come to the epilogue, we fly out all of the stage masking and reveal the bare theater itself, and in doing so, we have hidden every piece of scenery, every piece of furniture, every prop, every costume. All that is revealed at the end when Prior comes forward for the epilogue is the empty space. And that’s a huge challenge because we have had so many different pieces of scenery and scene changes over the course of eight hours, that to try to find a home for all of these items squirreled away in all the little nooks and crannies of the theater was probably the single most difficult challenge.
What prompted the decision to make the sets vastly different from the original Broadway production?
I think that every time a production like Angels in America is conceived, especially with this new production, it starts with the director’s vision. She really saw Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika was one complete story as on the original Broadway production. As you may know, Millennium Approaches was the first play, and then about a year later the second play was actually completed and then produced and ultimately ran in rep with the first. In this instance, Marianne Elliott, the director’s vision was one complete arc and it was one play told in two parts and so everything serves that from a design point of view. Everything really has the same kind of arc, that the two are linked together, thematically and dramaturgically and physically.
They are very different in the sense that there is a marked shift in the storytelling what’s going on, but from a design and conceptual point of view, the idea that the reality gets slowly stripped away and represented a little bit more abstractly is part of the overarching arc between the two plays.
It’s really a unique approach – again, the two plays offer different challenges or whereas in the first two parts, the Millennium Approaches, the locations that you go to are a bit more realistic and come at you a little bit more dynamically. We use a series of turntables to kind of be able to construct transitions between these dozens of short scenes, and although the locations are sparsely furnished, we use architecture that has jagged edges and other elements to represent those. Again, as we get to Perestroika, we have an opportunity to be a little bit more fluid and it’s more of a visual response. So the fact that the play breaks down, the characters use them themselves.
What is your favorite piece of scenery in Angels in America?
I think the neon room is probably one of the most exciting pieces. That’s a kind of the beginning of Millennium on all the walls that we have edges of the set lined with an LED neon and it’s more of an underscore than an accent piece, but as the play moves towards Perestroika, we use less walls and more neon, ultimately culminating in a room that is constructed as specifically of only neon and so that’s a real visually interesting piece. And then from a choreographic point of view, we work on that wall into three or four parts that get choreographed by actors and visually assembled and disassembled on stage. I think that’s a really fun piece.
When do you personally know that you completed a project and that you are fully done?
Opening night. Curtain falls down, you have to walk away. Obviously this play, they have been working on for 25 years so the play itself continues to breathe, and every time a another director comes forward in Angels of America, they find different things and different stories to tell and even the playwright himself constantly wants to change things. The designer and creative changes are always trying to refine your work and make everything a little bit better, but eventually there is an opening day and there is a moment where everybody has to stop working and take a deep breath and trust in the work that’s been done and hand it over to the audience.
What are some challenges you face while designing the set?
Well, I think it goes back to the concept of stripping away and finding places to physically store everything. Also, the set when it is viewed appears to be quite simple and at times looks like a bare stage, but simplicity on a stage is not easily achieved. It’s always about making sure that stage space frames the actor well and also transitions seamlessly so that the action of the play and the storytelling are never interrupted by scenic transitions. We worked very hard with both scenic coordination and with choreography to make sure as we move from one moment of the play to the next that was always handled very carefully and artistically and thematically.
You have worked on so many Broadway productions, do you have a favorite?
I probably would have to say Wicked, primarily because we were with that project from literally day one when it was nothing more than script pages. I have had the opportunity over the last 15 years to continue to produce and adapt the design for markets all around the world. I have travelled all around the world doing productions of Wicked and meeting theater people from Japan and Korea, Australia, Europe – everywhere and it’s been really nice, a really beautiful opportunity to share our work with people around the world and to collaborate with theater artists and all different cultures.
We would take the designs a year before the show was produced and we would meet with the local producing team there and with scenic shops and crafts people and collaborate with them to oversee them building the sets and the costumes and the props and the automation well in advance of doing the production. Then we would work with the directors and choreographers and the theater stagehands to actually produce the show and get it open and running and on their way. So we have been part of the process from the drawing board all the way to the stage.
Where is the most interesting place you have been able to do that?
I really enjoyed Japan. Honestly, I have been back there a dozen times among doing other productions there, and I just find the culture and the people in Japan to be very special and really enjoyed that collaboration.
EDWARD PIERCE operates a NYC-based design studio specializing in the production design of Broadway, touring, and international live stage productions.
Notable Broadway collaborations include: the TONY® Award nominated scenic design for the revival of Angels in America; the TONY® Award winning scenic design for the hit musical Wicked with Eugene Lee [additional adaptations for both National Tours, Chicago, London, Los Angeles, Japan, Germany and Holland, Australia, UK Tour, Korea, Mexico, Brazil, Universal Studios Japan]; international design supervision for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies and Billy Elliot; design supervision for the Best Musical Revival of Pippin; the scenic design for 9 to 5 – The Musical; the scenic design for Boublil & Schönberg’s The Pirate Queen; Bright Star; Chaplin; Glengarry Glen Ross; Dead Accounts; The Homecoming; You’re Welcome America. A Final Night with George W. Bush; the TONY® Award winning lighting design for Disney’s Aida; the lighting design for Ragtime (TONY® nomination); the lighting design for Cabaret (TONY® nomination); the designs for Bring in ‘da Noise / Bring in ‘da Funk and The Tempest.
Select designs include: NBC’s variety show Maya & Marty; Broadway scenic designs for Amazing Grace, Holler If Ya Hear Me, and The Other Place; lighting design for the recent Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire; the Broadway presentation of Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It; Universal Kid’s Emmy-nominated daytime series Sprout House; the national tour of The Gazillion Bubble Show; Pope Benedict XVI Pastoral Visit to New York – the Mass at Yankee Stadium; NBC’s Primetime Upfronts at Radio City Music Hall; designs at the McCarter Theater for Bathing in Moonlight, Piano Lesson, Baby Doll, Five Mile Lake, and Antony & Cleopatra; The Long Red Road (Goodman Theatre), The Lark (Stratford Festival), Hughie with Brian Dennehy; and Tell Me on a Sunday (Kennedy Center).
Edward represents designers as a trustee on the Executive Board of the United Scenic Artists Local 829 Union and supports the industry as a member on the Advisory Board of the American Theatre Wing and the Tony Award Administration Committee. Edward balances his professional life with the joy of raising three children with his wife in New Jersey.