Heaven is a Place at Actors

Courtesy Photo

A Conversation with ‘Angels in America’ Set Designer William Boles

By Minda Honey  |  Arts & Entertainment

William Boles has made a career out of make-believe. Boles is the set designer for Actors Theatre’s upcoming production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches” and “Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika,” opening August 31 and September 21, respectively. His sets start as ideas that become intricate drawings that are then brought to life on the stage. Boles says, “Everything you see on stage is a choice. It’s a fully designed world. Things don’t happen by accident.”

And although it might be his thoughts and experiences that spark the idea for a set, it takes many people fanning the flame for that idea to catch fire. Boles says, unless you’re behind the scenes, it’s easy to be unaware of the amount of collaboration and the number of people it takes to create a set for a stage, but Actors makes the work easier than most. “They have a really great production department. That really makes it a joy to get to collaborate there and create.”

He also spoke highly of Angels in America director, Meredith McDonough. “She has followed this play since high school. She saw the original production in San Francisco multiple times and she directed the first play when she was in grad school.” The additional insights that she brought to the design process were invaluable because as Boles explains, “‘Angels in America’ is this epic piece that you don’t ever get to touch because it’s not often done because it’s so ambitious. You have to deal with the scale of the locations and the flying.”

Ah yes, the flying. Boles likened the challenge of designing this set to a math problem. The script calls for an angel to come crashing through the ceiling and the set design must allow for this to happen night after night. The team has constructed ceiling partitions that can break open and be reassembled, as well as supporting actions like the chandelier shaking and bits of ceiling falling to the ground. They must also take into account how the flying affects the lighting.

The overall aesthetic for “Angels in America” is “an abandoned but once beautiful space,” says Boles. “A strong feeling of ‘the party’s over.’” Which led he and McDonough to the idea of an “old, ornate-like ballroom in disrepair.” To accommodate the many location changes – Boles says there’s nearly 60 scenes per play – projections and moving panels will be used that can speak to both the physical and psychological spaces the characters are dealing with. One character, Harper, is struggling to come to terms with a revelation within her marriage, and takes a mental escape to Antarctica, which the set makes happen through projection and lighting.

Boles favorite bit of the set? It’s the old, threadbare rug that sits in middle of the stage during part one and then rises during the second part to become a table where the angels are seated in the Heaven Counsel Room. “We tried to get at the idea that we’ve always been in heaven, the space is heaven, but we don’t realize we’re really there until we arrive in the Heaven Counsel Room.” VT