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.
Matt Saunders first became known to Philadelphia audiences as an actor and designer for New Paradise Laboratories, which he co-founded. He’s worked on numerous stages around town as both performer and designer, including set designs at the Wilma for Age of Arousal, My Children, My Africa!, Rock’n’Roll, and now Angels in America. In this first installment, he speaks with Wilma Theater Dramaturg Walter Bilderback about the design process and how his design concept came about.
Walter Bilderback: For Angels in America, you and Blanka Zizka met frequently, and you’ve come up with a strikingly bold scenic design. Can you tell us a little about the process, and how the set design evolved?
Matt Saunders: We started by just reading the play aloud as a group – your Roy Cohn was really good, actually – we traded roles, and we basically had no idea where we were gonna go with it, design-wise. And as usual working with Blanka the focus – whether it’s design, acting,… – the work was just about the play for a long long long long long time. I think there were certain things that we sort of agreed on early, especially in terms of how the play moves, and the givens, the fact that there are split scenes and there are scenes that overlap and all these different locations, and we knew that we wanted to create a scenic environment that allowed for the play to move the way it’s designed to move. And there’s that epic nature that we knew we had to sort of embody, and acknowledge. But for me, the epic nature of it – it isn’t so much about the set needs to be epic. I feel like the epic nature of the play is found within the idea – the scope of the idea is in the overlapping narratives and stuff.
WB: What do you mean when you talk about the meetings being “all about the play”?
Since Angels in America is set in the later months of 1985, we wanted to provide you with some real-life events which lead up to the beginning of the play.
March 11, 1985: Mikhail Gorbachev takes power in the Soviet Union following the death of Konstantin Chernenko. Gorbachev begins his policies on Glasnost [“new openness”] and Perestroika [“rebuilding”]. AIDS is reported on every populated continent of the earth. U.S. cases surpass 9,000, with 4,300 deaths.
July 12, 1985: Rock Hudson (Pictured) collapses in a Paris hospital while undergoing experimental treatment for AIDS. The news of his diagnosis creates the first real mobilization against the disease. The Reagan Administration responds by increasing AIDS funding to $100 million.
September, 1985: Four years after the outbreak of the epidemic, Ronald Reagan publicly utters the word “AIDS” for the first time, although he would not make a statement on the issue itself until 1987. More than 12,000 cases have been reported in the U.S., with nearly 6,000 deaths.
-Emily, Millennium Approaches, Act 2
When he was writing his “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Tony Kushner felt it important to have a character “who can claim antecedents stretching back a millennium.” Placing this in contrast to his Jewish, African-American, and Mormon characters emphasizes, as Kushner told the New York Times, that “a certain sense of rootlessness is part of the American character.” It also gave him a way to remind his audience that “Plagues and epidemics are nothing new,” by bringing in two prior Priors in Act 3, both victims of horrible plagues that struck England in the 14th and 17th centuries. But why did he give the character such a “weird name,” as Emily notes?
Well, there actually was a “Walter before this one.” In an interview with American Theatre magazine, Kushner says he’d “been looking for one of those WASP names that nobody gets called anymore,” but that the name really came out of a conversation with his friend Kimberly Flynn (to whom Kushner dedicated Perestroika). They often discussed the German-Jewish Marxist writer Walter Benjamin, whose writings Flynn had introduced him to. Flynn “said jokingly that at times she felt such an extraordinary kinship with him that she thought she was Walter Benjamin reincarnated. And so at one point . . . I said, ‘I had to look up something in Benjamin – not you, but the prior Walter.’”
On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control reported a cluster of a rare form of pneumonia in five gay men in Los Angeles. Soon, doctors were noticing more people – homosexual men, hemophiliacs, heroin users and Haitians (called “the 4Hs”) – developing this disease as well as other rare diseases such as the blood cancer Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS), with an extremely high fatality rate. In July 1982 the acronym AIDS (Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome) was introduced. A year later, French and American researchers working separately identified the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) as the root cause of AIDS. It wasn’t until 1987 that AZT, the first drug capable of slowing the disease’s progress, was discovered and approved for use.
Today there is still no cure for the disease. HIV/AIDS is considered a world pandemic. More than 33 million people (0.6% of the world population) are infected, the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa. 25 million people are estimated to have died from the disease, with an additional 2 million dying every year. In the U.S., more than 18,000 people with AIDS die each year: gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men represent the majority of deaths. Pennsylvania ranked 8th out of 50 states in the total number of AIDS diagnoses in 2008. The rate of HIV infection in Philadelphia is five times the national average.