Designing Angels in America
How light and projections bring the Signature’s revival to life
For designers seeking challenges, Angels in America pulses like the North Star. The two halves of Tony Kushner’s seven-hour play—Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika—ask for all sorts of “impossible” things, like a talking diorama, a hallucinatory trip to Antarctica, and oh yes, an angel crashing through a ceiling. Moments like these feel integral to the play’s poetic vision of New Yorkers struggling with AIDS, sexuality, and religion, and they ask a creative team to use all their resources.
Now, the Signature Theatre is asking for just a little bit more. Its current revival of Angels is running on a modestly-sized Off-Broadway stage, and for lighting designer Ben Stanton and projection designer Wendall K. Harrington, who both suggest dozens of locations with their work, this brings a new set of variables to an already complicated job.
“It’s an incredibly small theatre for such epic plays,” Stanton says. Harrington adds, “I wanted to make things that would gigantically shift the stage from one place to another. The reality was when I got there, it was much smaller. Everything felt much more minute, [and] the thing I had in my head required much more vista than one could get.”
Obviously, though, the designers didn’t give up, and their work makes the Signature’s theatre (which is roughly 18 feet high and 30 feet wide) seem bigger than it is. So how did they do it? How did they make their designs suit both the needs of the space and the vision of the play?
For Harrington, part of the solution is getting audiences to look up. Her projections are often transitional, showing us images of cabs or trains or clouds to let us know that the play is rocketing to another location. As the scene shifts, however, stagehands often have to move pieces of the set. “If you’re not looking at the fabulous stagehands pushing and grunting and carrying out that table, then you’re more likely going to take this journey with the play,” Harrington says.
Therefore, her projections flicker at the top of the playing space, which is unusual “That’s the antithesis of projection,” she explains. “‘Don’t make people look up, you’ve got to make people look down, because the people are down.’ Now, it’s ‘Look up because that’s where the people aren’t.”
On the other hand, Stanton tends to get low. When a scene moves to a new space, the lighting has to communicate whether the characters are inside or outside, and sometimes it has to suggest that the people on stage left are in, say, Central Park while the people on stage right are in their bedroom. “Shallower angles and lower side lighting can really open up the playing space,” the designer says. “Lower angles also give us a sense of more natural light. It’s a subtle thing, but I do think it helps give a subconscious feeling of interior versus exterior and containment versus breadth.”
Along with the dimensions of the stage itself, Stanton also has to account for Mark Wendland’s set design. The “permanent” pieces—the ones that are on stage for most of the show—create apartments and other interior spaces, and they could ruin the illusion of an outdoor scene. “I need to give a scene on a park bench the feeling of daylight, sunlight, specific direction,” Stanton says. “But I also need to figure out how to keep the light off the bookshelf or the wall.”
But not all the design choices are purely practical. For instance, Stanton uses angles to support the character of Harper Pitt, an unhappily married Mormon who scarfs pills to escape into a fantasy version of Antarctica.
“Harper feels trapped in a brownstone in Brooklyn,” he says. “I think she feels trapped in her mind and in her relationship. She doesn’t get out, so it’s important that when we first meet her, she feels confined, both emotionally and geographically.” With his lighting, then, Stanton confines Harper to a tiny area, leaving the rest of the stage dark. “But when she goes places in her mind,” he adds, “I need to help create a sense of vastness and that she can go anywhere.” Those are the moments when light floods the stage.
Harrington uses her projections to reflect the pace of Kushner’s writing. “I tried to be very specific about trains and cabs and New York City and life moving quickly, so that the notion of stasis has more impact,” she says. She notes a lengthy scene in Perestroika where two characters confess their feelings at a beach: “When they’re at the beach, the clouds are not moving. The water is not moving. That’s conscious.”
Her work gets metaphorical when an angel visits a character’s apartment at the end of Millennium Approaches. While the lights, set, and sound are going wild, her projections include a massive wing fluttering on the wall. “It seemed to me that there wanted to be a visual gesture,” she says. “And what is that visual gesture? Everything else seemed pithy. Nothing else seemed big enough. And [the wing] seemed absurd and beautiful.”
Of course, not every playwright requires absurd beauty. Harrington notes, “When you’re dealing with language like Tony Kushner’s, which is poetic in its very nature, it calls for a kind of grand gesture.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor