Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika
by Tony Kushner
Directed by Vineet Gupta
Lights by Kane Zha
Set by Allen Wehner
Costumes by Charlie O'Donohue
Photos by Frank Chen
Stanford Theater Lab
Nitery Studio Theater, Stanford, CA
ABOUT THE PLAY:
The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning classic explores the intersection of religious, political, racial, and sexual identities over the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic in New York City in the 1980s. Perestroika opens in the wreckage of Part One, and over the course of the play, the characters struggle to claw their way through their new lives and close the rifts torn in their world. New connections are made, others are broken, lessons are learned, demons confronted, sins forgiven, prophecies… fulfilled?
Stanford Theater Lab produced Angels in America, Part 1 in the winter of 2017. I was not able to see the production, as I was playing a concert the same weekend, but I was provided an archival recording of the production. I chose to only watch snippets of the production, choosing to be in conversation with Part 1, rather than trying to imitate or replicate it. Part 2 is also very tonally different, with the supernatural occurrences creating exciting design opportunities.
Going into the show, I was first struck by the enormity of the show. Not only was it over three hours long, but it tackled big questions in a way that was initially intimidating. It was always changing, always moving towards the next thing, barely taking time to breathe. This feeling of motion, combined with a line from Part 1 where Prior compares the voice of the Angel to a viola led me to the motif of a tuning viola. Between each act, we heard a viola tuning, moving through the strings, never settling, until at the final moment of the play when the strings finally ring true. This motif not only helped create a sense of movement through transitions, and act divisions for the audience, but a sense that the play is about getting ready to move forward. The end of the play is the characters getting ready to take the next step, to begin to play. I recorded a friend tuning her viola for these and was able to layer different takes and localize them to different speakers to, when put through a reverb, create a sound that seemed to come from every direction. While recording these tuning sessions, I also recorded a snippet I had written that became the basis for the sound of the Angel flying. This also helped connect the tuning motif to the content of the play.
Perhaps the most exciting artistic challenge from this production was creating the sound for the Angel and Heaven. I knew the final sound had to be a delicate balance between the natural and the unnatural. I began by layering sounds from nature, synthesizers, and other sounds from the script to create beds for the sound of Heaven and the Angel. Those beds were supplemented with naturalistic sounds life fire and thunder to reflect the blocking and stage directions. I also wanted to have the Angel sound distinctly otherworldly. This was achieved by body mcing the actor with a DPA 4060 and adding reverb and delay to her voice. This also had the added effect of adding a slight delay and reverb to the voices of those around her, which the director and I enjoyed, seeing it as a physical manifestation of how she was affecting the other characters.
Most of the show is set in a more realistic space. For those scenes, I was particularly interested in playing with silence. For example, in the hospital scenes with Roy and Belize, I used the sound of a fluorescent light and a clock. Not only do these sounds help clarify the location, but I was able to fade them up and out at appropriate times to reflect the rhythm of the scene and add or relieve tension. For many of the naturalistic scenes, I used sound in this way. This also provided a contrast to the more supernatural scenes where not only was the design much louder, but also was tonally much darker.
The system design was fairly straightforward. I opted for a LCR main system so I would be able to isolate the voice of the Angel in the center channel and not have it be muddled with the sound in the main. Supplementing that were three rear surrounds, to provide additional localization and immersion, as well as a speaker at each side of the stage, and one inside of the bed for the diorama scene (3.2). Since we had no real wing space to speak of and the set was modular, these had to be well hidden. The subwoofers were located underneath the audience bank, which allowed me to use the low-end to fully immerse the audience in the design, especially for the scenes with the Angel. All hung speakers were from the space stock, with smaller speakers borrowed or purchased.
Angels In America, Part 2: Perestroika was only the second straight play I had designed up to that point. When I applied to work on the show, I knew it would be a creative challenge and an exciting learning process for me, since I had primarily worked on musicals. I was also working with a new producing group, which gave me the opportunity to work with new people, but also came with some challenges. Many of the shows I had worked on before had much larger budgets--which, as musicals, they needed--and with those larger budgets came a well-oiled bureaucracy. This lack of structure and financial support did not hold me back, but they did make things slightly more difficult. I had to be creative about where I sourced equipment for the show, borrowing from on-campus locations and making some compromises. Beyond these structural challenges, which were generally reasonable to meet, the overall process was relatively smooth. Weekly design meetings meant that designers were in constant contact both with the director and each other, and I was able to receive feedback as I built and sourced effects for the show.
Especially for a show of this length and scale, we had limited time for tech. This time was even further limited when we ran into a technical issue with some lighting equipment, forcing us to start tech without lights and re-tech through the beginning of the show when the issue was resolved. Despite the limited time with actors, I felt I was able to make all of the revisions I wanted, leaving me with a show I could proudly watch.
AUDIO & VIDEO SAMPLES
AUDIO - TOP OF SHOW
This is an example of the tuning motif used in act transitions throughout the show. Explained above, it helped define act transitions and served as a guiding metaphor for the overall design. The show also employed several voiceover effects, one of which is shown here.
VIDEO & AUDIO - ACT 2, SCENE 2 (ANGEL)
This was one of the most exciting scenes in the show to design. Unfortunately, the night we recorded archival footage, the microphone had issues so I've elected to show a portion of that recording, as well a clean mix of the soundscape for the scene. (I was not in the house that night, but I seem to recall that the microphone was placed too face back and was catching in the actor's hair. It was fixed at intermission.) The element of the design that cannot be translated, especially on headphones, was the presence of the subwoofers. As the scene built, so too did the rumble in the subwoofers, which were placed under the audience banks to facilitate this effect. The audience could feel the tension building in their own bodies. Each physical manifestation of magic by the Angel was associated with a sound, usually a clap of thunder or a gust of wind. This allowed her supernatural abilities to still be intrinsically tied to the Earth, grounding her.
VIDEO - ACT 3, SCENE 3 (DIORAMA ROOM)
While this was, technically speaking, one of the more straightforward cue sequences in the show, it came with the slight challenge that there is nothing else in the show quite like it. It had to be executed in a way that immediately made sense within the greater context of the show. Caleb and Orrin's lines were recorded, and during the scene transition, the actors placed a small speaker inside the bed. This speaker not only localized the voices to the bed, but also provided a more tinny sound without manipulating the raw files. This tinny sound was ideal, since we were aiming to match the sound and acting one might find in a low-quality animatronic. I supplemented the speaker in the bed slightly with the main center speaker to ensure audience members in the back of the theater could hear the lines. This allowed the sound to be sourced correctly without losing intelligibility.
VIDEO - ACT 5, SCENE 1
This was another exciting design moment with the Angel. Since the earlier microphone issues were resolved during intermission, this serves as a clearer example of the reinforcement and playback aspects of the design working together. Much of the design was creating in reaction to the blocking of the scene, creating the magic the Angel uses to push the other characters around the room. Midway through the scene, Prior ascends to Heaven, and we hear the motif that was also used when the Angel did the same, making it clear what his destination was.
AUDIO - ACT 5, SCENE 2 (HEAVEN RADIO)
This sequence enters the show in a bit of an odd place. Though it is our introduction to the location of Heaven, it is extremely anti-climactic and almost sedentary, with the other angels clustered around the radio, occasionally commenting over the recorded dialogue. This radio sequence allowed me to develop the layers of the Heaven soundscape in the background, without drawing the audience's ear until we hear the generator failing. To create this soundscape I used similar elements to those I used to create the Angel soundscape but notably added not only the generator but the sounds of birds and water. I wanted Heaven to exist in this duality of machinery and nature, of progress and stasis, much like the angels.