How Angels in America Got Its Wings

With its record-breaking 11 Tony nominations — the most for a play in Tony history — and star-studded cast led by Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane, the new production of Tony Kushner’s two-part masterpiece Angels in America has become one of the theater season’s hottest tickets. But one of its paramount achievements isn’t tied to the celebrity names on the marquee: it’s director Marianne Elliott’s singular interpretation of the titular Angel. Though often depicted onstage as a beatific sentinel — one who, in stark contrast to the AIDS-afflicted protagonist Prior Walter, whom she visits, radiates health and power — the Angel of Elliott’s imagination is a gray and hobbled being, with giant but withered wings (“more Gollum than godlike,” as our critic put it), fearsome in part because she seems the very embodiment of the virus infecting Prior. Working closely with a team including puppetry and movement expert Finn Caldwell along with Steven Hoggett — one of Broadway’s most innovative movement directors — Elliott (who also directed the puppet-theater tour de force War Horse) created an Angel lifted only briefly by wires, and mostly held aloft by a team of dancer-puppeteers known as the “shadows” (in the play’s second part, Perestroika, they double as set movers). Along with actress Beth Malone, who recently took over the part full-time from originator Amanda Lawrence, the team spoke to Vulture about the astoundingly detailed project which brought the Angel to life.

The Concept

Marianne Elliott, director: I had never seen it done [onstage]; I’d only ever seen the HBO version when it first came out. I remember Emma Thompson in it particularly, but I didn’t remember much about it. I was aware other people had done the Angel as a kind of Greco-Roman being with lovely white ruched robes, but I felt that wasn’t the Heaven I saw in the play, or therefore the angel I saw. When you look in great depth into what Tony Kushner says about Heaven, he says unequivocally that it’s a place God has abandoned, a place similar to San Francisco after the huge earthquake at the beginning of the 20th century, with the angels being like bureaucrats, wandering around aimlessly.

Given those details, I thought Heaven felt like a place with a lot of rubble and ruined glory, with people feeling very apocalyptic and lost. So I felt like the Angel shouldn’t look pristine and clean and beautiful. She should be something that’s crawled out from under the rubble. She may have had past glory, but it’s definitely decaying now.

Beth Malone, the Angel: I feel like the word bug was in the breakdown. The analogy they were using to describe her was buglike, feral, cockroach-y. Not your pretty angelic angel. When I put myself on tape for the initial audition I knew it was a darker interpretation, more animalistic. It was really fun to play with filtering-angel-through-bug.

Elliott: She maybe feels a bit feral, or monkey- or locustlike. We had a lot of discussions about monkeys and insects, how the way she moves would be that way. Angels can be feral and unpredictable and therefore scary. So that’s where it started from.

Finn Caldwell, puppetry designer and director; movement: Marianne and I have worked together for many years. I was puppetry director of War Horse. She came to me and said “I want the Angel to be like nothing I’ve seen before. Will you have a think on it?”

Malone: At first I thought, She’s flawed, she’s less than perfect. But she is also incredibly powerful and not human. Even a weakened angel is still an enormously powerful being. Compared to Prior, she could crush him like a grape at any moment. And she isn’t real. She’s real to me, and to him. It’s a snake-eating-its-own-tail thing. I really only exist because Prior needs me to.

Caldwell: For years I wasn’t thinking of the Angel in particular, but what wings on a human being could do emotionally for the performer onstage. And also for years I’d been thinking, Wouldn’t it be fun to work out what would be necessary, the demands on the body, what the anatomy of an angel would be. I was interested in the idea of massive angel wings you really thought were part of this creature, kind of like a beast in some ways.

The Wings

Caldwell: Immediately it was obvious that the wings were very exciting.

Elliott: We felt like the wings were a telltale sign of things the Angel‘s not necessarily expressing vocally. It’s a bit like a cat’s tail, telling us if she’s frightened, if she’s frustrated, if she feels glorious or sexy. They made her very, I think Tony uses the word other.

Caldwell: But they’re not gonna sustain onstage if you just think they’re flapping. The audience will only be excited if they’re like a puppet with their own persona. I started thinking about it, and I contacted Nick [Barnes], who’s a technical puppet genius and is the co-designer with me, so we started thinking about making them both massive and functional and emotionally engaging.

Malone: When you get the wings and the puppeteers involved, it’s about trying to make what I’m doing physically make sense with how a flap might happen. Is it a violent flap, is it a tiny tentative flap? There are so many different ways the wings work. They work emotionally, as protection, as weapons, as a mode of transportation. Their modality is a huge spectrum.

Photo: Helen Maybanks

Caldwell: The wings are pretty heavy — and as with any large puppet, any time you hold weight away from the center of your body, you’re challenging the core muscles. The performers in London almost groaned when they got the real wings for the first time. The performers in New York started with the real wings. They become their own workout.

Elliott: She does have times when she doesn’t have the wings; they go to the floor at times and she’s completely without them. In Beth’s version, there’s a moment when she sits on Andrew’s lap and cuddles him on the floor, she leaves her wings aside then. It’s when they don’t necessarily add [to the scene]. And of course she can be quite human. She plays other parts [in the show], but she always has the same strain of character traits — quite reactionary, conservative, they say things like “Don’t change, stay put, don’t move,” so in Prior’s mind, the Angel could be all of those human characters.

Caldwell: The main time we see the Angel is in the Anti-Migratory Epistle. It’s a 20-minute scene that’s like a play in its own right, and the Angel doesn’t really stop speaking. Everything the wings did had to be dictated by the thoughts the Angel is having, whether she’s reacting to Prior or amplifying the thoughts in her own text or, rarely, betraying her and acting out her subconscious. We had to choreograph, essentially, those thoughts, to make it look like it’s happening via the wings.

Elliott: At one point in rehearsal, Andrew was working out how he, as Prior, would physically threaten the Angel. The only thing in the room was a chair, so he picked it up. And then he saw a coffee cup, and he threw that, and the Angel was like, Uh, what are you doing? That’s something we actually kept. It shows how pathetic he is.

Malone: There’s only one point where [the wings] are attached [to her harness], in the initial flight for “Greetings, Prophet. The great work begins.” But they get them unhooked pretty fast. We used to have them attached for the big wrestle, but the first time I went on I gave the cue to fly and they weren’t attached, and they flew separately, and we never attached them again. We had a big rehearsal making sure it was safe to do that.

Elliott: We wanted the wrestling [scene] to feel quite enormous and unjust. A weak, ill human battling with this supernatural being with 12-foot wings. It’s 25 feet up in the air he goes, and he’s just holding onto her with his hands.

Caldwell: Most of the time the shadows propel her through the space, but in the final moment of the fight she’s in the air and we had the crazy idea that if she’s gonna fly, let’s fly not only her but her wing puppeteers as well. I hope you see that and  think it looks like she just takes off. The coordination in that moment is off the scale.

The Shadows

Elliott: With War Horse, I saw firsthand how puppeteers can disappear to the audience if it’s being done well enough. So we took that into puppeteering humans when we did the Tori Amos musical The Light Princess. The princess basically floats the entire time. Initially we thought she’d be flying from a wire, but in our workshops it quickly became obvious that that was just so boring. The wires are limiting and predictable. So on that production, we got circus acrobats and puppeteers who moved her around the whole stage at different levels through their agility and skill and strength — sometimes just on their feet. We then used that technique a bit further in Angels in America. Again, I just thought putting her on a wire would be boring. Why shouldn’t she have these kind of minions — shadows — that help her supernatural weirdness?

Caldwell: We were very keen to have a strong sense of the shadows — they needed to not only be able to puppeteer the wings but have this movement quality, kind of like the sheer will of the Angel manifested in the body. We talked about the shadows as “particles of unwell.” They have the ability to look like they’re infesting or roiling on the stage. To do that alongside puppeteering the wings was a big demand on the performers.

Ellliott: Once the Angel hits earth they become like these infectious microbes that are everywhere — until the point where Prior decides to leave Heaven but be blessed. That’s when they disappear.

Caldwell: They’re a combination of dancers and puppeteers, and they needed to be egoless. With our shadows, there’s six of them onstage plus the Angel and they’re all working toward the same goal. There can’t be a lot of “Oh, I think I want to do it like this.” Weirdly, the Angel is sort of the captain. The shadows probably all know each others’ roles inside out — they’re super aware of everything happening onstage.

The Movement

Elliott: Finn started a week before me in New York with the shadows and the Angel, getting them sort of versed in the kind of movement and exercises to get their fitness levels up. We were constantly talking about, “I like that because it looks like she’s going to suck the life out of him,” or “I don’t like that because it’s too ballet, too dance-y.”

Caldwell: It takes several weeks, but if you program in a minute level of detail for the performers, after a while they can start to improvise together, and they know each other well enough, they know the Angel’s thinking and intonations and the rhythms of her thought so well and they know the puppet of the wings so well that they can improvise with her, preempt the rhythm of her thinking. It’s a very pedantic, slow, rigorous choreography that eventually becomes improvising something.

Steven Hoggett, movement consultant: I was brought in just before the Broadway transfer so an existing vocabulary was there, but there were things I thought we could develop further with the language of the Angel. In lots of ways it was about, first of all, looking to the text, because it gives you everything in terms of the rhythm, the vernacular is incredibly rhythmic, it’s very heightened language, so I was following the language and looking at the ways in which [the Angel] was incredibly sad, or aggressive, or elevated. You have to look at the emotional register that’s being played out.

Caldwell: Me and Steve, we’ve worked together before.  Steve’s technical proficiency is in sort of the athleticism of the lifts, how that would work — he’s done a lot of that before. My specialization is in the puppetry, so we sort of imaginatively brought those things together, making sure the lifting of the Angel and the puppetry came together to accentuate the Angel’s thoughts.

Hoggett:  I’m often working with actors or dancers using a specific devised movement vocabulary, making sure we are moving alongside the narrative rather than just dismissing it. That was crucial to Marianne — she needed to understand why things were moving a certain way. I adore working at times visibly and at times invisibly. I love giving actors a real sense of how small you can sometimes make movements onstage to achieve what you need. There are two enormous wings going on and a powerhouse performance so in lots of ways, you really don’t want to get in the way of that.

Hoggett: Beth seems to have a sense of pushing and very much being on the front foot with it all.  In her audition, we were creating a sequence with some Angel people, and Beth just strode through the air, it was a staggering audition, she just seemed to relish it and was very much making the group underneath her push forward. She trusted that group entirely very quickly. And in those situations, the group does behave accordingly. They bring their A game very quickly.

Malone: Steven Hoggett’s workshop-y moments in rehearsal were like, “Behave like a virus.” A virus goes down many hallways before it reaches something it can destroy. It gets to a dead end, it backs up, it takes a turn until it hits an organ it can attack. That’s the way the shadows were informed to move. Those rehearsals were really intense and wild and kind of upsetting and disturbing also. When are you asked, “Go pick up that lamp, but do it like a virus?” I wonder if Baryshnikov was asked to do that.

Hoggett: Yeah, what the hell? [Laughs.] But she did do it, I’ll say that for her! The idea of [the shadows] being viral in whatever sense of the word, that ended up being quite a big idea for us in terms of getting things to move in a certain way. The idea of infection and sterility.

Caldwell: There are times Beth is pushing her body into the shadows, which allows her to be moved relatively effortlessly around the stage, and that takes a lot of internal awareness. And she needs to be aware of what the wings are doing and at time give space to them onstage.
Essentially, she’s a puppet–human hybrid.

Elliott: Beth was very good physically, which was of high importance. She brought a very different quality I hadn’t seen before; a kind of quirky, light sprightliness. She felt feral but with a sort of sweet side which was also a little frightening; you can be sweet and yet you know it’s a bit malevolent. And she had to trust the shadows and throw herself into that. When you puppeteer anything, you have to be so highly attuned to everyone else so you’re always moving in the same direction.

The Angel in Flight

Malone: The key is to make it a magic trick, and I think we’re really succeeding at that. People seem really amazed by it. Ultimately, I think you stop looking at the shadows — unless, I guess, you’re really into puppetry, which would have been me.

Hoggett: On a good day, when you watch that team come together, it’s really exciting. I like to think you’re not really aware of the amount of people on it, and we worked on that extensively — not feeling there’s a character who’s being overshadowed by the amount of performers onstage. It was a lot of figuring out what the minimum we could get away with was.

Malone: What’s more fun than flying around with a bunch of people lifting you? Once you get it, you’re speaking that language and flying around in an angel costume and mandating an epistle to the amazing Andrew Garfield … it’s pretty fuckin’ fierce. It’s totally worth it. It’s like, Wow, we’re achieving something great in real time.

How Angels in America Got Its Wings