Interview with Set Designer Matt Saunders - Part 2

In this second installment, Matt Saunders describes the challenges of designing Angels in America and what he learned from the technical rehearsals and preview period about the set.

Walter Bilderback: what are the particular problems that Angels in America presents for a scenic designer?

Matt Saunders: I think one of the biggest challenges is the multitude of locations that the play calls for and that are inherent in the script. I mean, the scenes are relatively short, and they move, there are like nineteen or twenty different locations in Part One. I think the sort of conventional, illusionistic designer impulse is to think, “Whoa. I need a turntable, I need to be able to have all these walls, and how am I going to show all of these different places?” That impulse is in me, just because I’m a designer, but I really believe in the direction that we went – the stripped-down rehearsal room aesthetic. And the other challenges with this play are of course the magic moments, and the special effects. This play has a supernatural quality to it, and the trick is trying to figure out how to balance the pedestrian world with the sort of magical realism that Kushner writes in. What we’ve landed on  - I hope -  does that in a sophisticated way, because we’ve done is, we’ve kept everything in the pedestrian world, very earth-bound. Nothing flies in and out, all of the scenic pieces, they roll on, and they’re very connected to the earth, and to this world. Magic, and stage magic, I feel like, there’s a relativity involved with that. So you know, you don’t want to play your hand too early – it’s six hours worth of play here, and I hope we’ve been very selective and judicious and sort of careful with when we introduce the magic.

WB: That sense of making sure the magic is connected to the earth feels kind of important to Kushner’s metaphysics as well.

What was the biggest change or lesson you learned about the set design through the tech and preview period? We had the whole whole play storyboarded before rehearsals began, but what we storyboarded was not identical with what the audience saw.

MS: Well, I learned to be okay with spike marks. [“Spike marks” are pieces of tape placed on the stage floor that show the stage crew where furniture and set pieces should be placed in a scene change.] That’s first and foremost. I learned to let that go. Um, what else? I learned was that it’s okay to not know sometimes. I feel my impulse in the past, and I know this is also true of a lot of my colleagues in the set design field, is to want to micromanage everything about the design – you know, how things are moving and flowing, and you know, I think that that level of perfectionism is good but I also learned an important lesson on this show that it’s okay to kind of not know. Especially on a design like this, you just have to trust your instincts and your original impulses. So that was valuable. And what else have I learned about this set…the box is too big. The box we made is way too big.

WB: This is the box that most people who have only seen Millennium Approaches don’t even realize is there, of course.

MS: Right, it’s tucked away in the corner. And this is something I think I kind of knew already, just from my work with New Paradise and Exile and stuff, but I feel the low-tech version of something is a lot of times the best avenue to go down, especially in a play like this. You know, everyone talks about “Ohhh, we’re being, technology, techno-ooh,” Technology has been advancing scenic design for hundreds and hundreds of years. So it’s not really a new thing –

WB: The Greeks had the wagon coming through the center doors at Athens

MS: Yeah, but there’s a balance, I think that we need to see the human hand in theater, that’s what we have going for us. To see the ropes on the angel when she flies in, and to see the stagehand, when he’s pushing Prior’s dream wagon on. And he’s pushing it so beautifully and slowly and elegantly, but we see the stagehand. I think that’s fine. We don’t need a remote-control platform. For me it’s more charming and more meaningful. I feel that working on this show has been a great reminder of that, the sort of romantic nature of people in a room, trying to tell a story, with objects and ideas and stuff.

Photo: Kate Czajkowski, Luigi Sottile, and James Ijames on the set of Angels in America

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