The Great (Scenic) Work Begins with Reinvention for “Angels In America’s” Edward Pierce

Noah Golden

For scenic designer Edward Pierce, the biggest challenge of bringing the much-lauded London production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America” to Broadway was the sheer scale of the show. The two-part, eight-hour show has over 70 locations from the realistic (an apartment, a synagogue, a doctor’s office) to the fantastical (a hallucinogenic version of Antarctica and a version of the afterlife). The London production, helmed by Marianne Elliott and designed by Ian MacNeil, was housed in a cavernous theater with plenty of wing space, a luxury not afforded in New York’s Neil Simon Theatre. Luckily, this is just the kind of challenge Pierce specializes in.

Originally from Columbia, Maryland, Pierce had a love of music and theater from a young age but faced a big decision during his college years at the University of Richmond: study scenic and lighting design or go pre-med. “I was either doing organic chemistry lab hours or scene shop hours,” he said, “and obviously I went with the scene shop.” That decision sparked a successful career working professionally in both scenic and lighting design for the last 23 years. He’s designed Broadway shows (including “Amazing Grace” and “Holler If Ya Hear Me”) and worked as a design supervisor and adaptor on many large productions. His longest and busiest collaboration has been with “Wicked.” Pierce worked closely with the show’s designer Eugene Lee on the Broadway production and has been adapting that original design to fit tours and sit-down productions all over the world.

On June 10th, Pierce will be up for a Tony Award for his work on “Angels In America.” To learn more about his journey with “Angels,” I spoke to Pierce over the phone. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

NG: What were some of the biggest challenges in bringing such a large production to Broadway?

Photo Credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Photo Credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

EP: One is simply the size of the theater and the real estate available. In London, the stage was 50-feet-deep and had 30-foot-deep wings, so everything could be built monstrously large. We worked with the creative team and [director] Marianne Elliott to lay all the design concepts on the table as if we were essentially starting from scratch. It was interesting and refreshing that the creative team simply decided that all of the ideas they had already done were now research for creating the next level. Of course, there were certain moments that everybody really, really loved and wanted replicated. But the truth is that theater is a living, breathing art and it never stops developing until someone pulls the plug.

NG: Can you tell me about some of the design elements in “Angels?”

EP: The design starts off generally realistic and over the course of the plays, we start to become more minimal and strip away. It starts off with walls that look as if they've been extracted from a larger structure. You see the framing and the makeup of the wall on the edges and then we carefully line certain segments of the walls with LEDs that can change colors and can help accentuate elements of the design. As we move through “Millennium” and into “Perestroika,” the physical walls disappear and what's left are the lines of neon. This is best shown in what we call the neon room, which is where we make Prior’s hospital room out of bars of neon that are manually choreographed by the actors to come together. That's the elegant part of the design, which is that through the use of choreography and pieces, we create rooms instantly and then instantly they evaporate and transition to the next. One of the challenges was when we get to the epilogue, we're stripping away to the theater space. We're flying out the masking, we're seeing the actual brick wall of the Neil Simon. We're looking into the wings and not seeing any of the furniture or scenery. So, the biggest challenge was where do we actually put all this stuff? We spent weeks and weeks figuring out every little nook and cranny where we could hang or shove a piece.

NG: I saw “Wicked” not too long ago and what struck me was how, despite the large, detailed set and use of special effects, there was a real economy to the use of space. Almost all the locations were created using only a few simple pieces. That also seems to be true in much of “Angels.” Is that instinct to create spaces using a more theatrical or minimal approach rather than automated, realistic set pieces part of your overall style?

EP: Every designer approaches things differently, right? Some designers are like, ‘it says dorm room, I’m gonna make a dorm room and now it says classroom, so I’ll make a classroom.’ They just make all of these individual spaces with their own ideas. That is not how I approached design. We learn about design through the people that you work with and with “Wicked” I was working with longtime friend and mentor Eugene Lee. His approach is always to find a vocabulary, find an environment that speaks to the whole and, when you find those elements, you need the least amount of things to tell you where you are. Audiences need to be taken care of through the course of any play or musical. When you're dealing with the visual and physical environment, you do not want to lose them in a moment of transition because then it becomes all about the transition rather than moving the story forward. In “Wicked,” the world of the gears is very much the world of the wizard. Then you use design tools to focus it. Most of the scenes are two women standing downstage singing, but even in this massive environment, you still feel taken care of because everything in the design supports what you’re supposed to look at.

NG: What projects do you have lined up next?

EP: I have a beautiful little play that's opening Off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theater in the next couple of weeks. We're also have been asked by Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Groups to adapt the original Hal Prince production of “Phantom of the Opera” for a new world tour. This is right up our alley. We're taking a show that for 30 years has really only done large, sit-down productions that take a couple of weeks to load in and takes another week to load out and we’re retooling and adapting the design so that the audience will still enjoy every single moment of the “Phantom” they know, but with a show that can load in in two days. We'll be doing dry tech this fall and opening an Asia in February.

NG: What advice do you have for young people who want to follow in your footsteps?

EP: I think it's great that we encourage our schools to continue to include arts education. I have three young kids in middle school and now one in high school. I think that the best way to learn in the theater is to just do it. You may not be doing it the correct way, but you're doing it. It's a big trial and error kind of business. Just keep doing it and meet people because it's always the people you meet. Who are the people who help pull you along to the next job?