Adaptive Design

by Michael Eddy
Daniel Stern, Laurie Metcalf and Zoe Perry in The Other Place (photo:Joan Marcus)
Daniel Stern, Laurie Metcalf and Zoe Perry in The Other Place (photo:Joan Marcus)

Scenic Designer Edward Pierce talks design supervision, and 70 scene changes
Edward Pierce has worked for over 20 years on theater and entertainment projects around the globe including the Broadway scenic designs for Holler If Ya Hear Me, Amazing Grace, and The Other Place (the last two with co-designer Eugene Lee); lighting design for the Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire; and he was associate scenic designer on both Bright Star and the Tony Award-winning scenic design for the hit musical Wicked. 

Edward PierceThis year, Pierce shared a Tony nomination with scenic designer Ian MacNeil, for the recent Broadway revival of Angels in America that came over from London’s National Theatre. For this production, Pierce was credited with design adaptation for making the changes necessary for the move from London to Broadway. Pierce heads up edwardpierce studio, who with designers Jen Price-Fick and Stephan Devan, have carved out a niche as design supervisors for Broadway productions that are going to tour or sit-down for a long run, both nationally and around the world.

Pierce and MacNeil have worked together before, going back a decade. “Ian and I started collaborating on Billy Elliot,” says Pierce. “after it became a success here on Broadway, and needed to be adapted for the road and international rollout. My studio came in and worked with him and director Stephen Daldry to reconceive how it would all go together for its future incarnations. We’ve been doing that literally for the last 10 years, behind the scenes as that show has been going around the world in various markets—Asia, Europe, and such.”

Pierce talks about how the role of design supervisor came about. “I kind of created the title,” he says. “It grew out of my collaboration on Wicked, which has now been 15 years. I was an extremely close collaborator with my mentor, friend, and colleague Eugene Lee when we did Wicked. We had worked on several projects together and then Wicked came along. For what Eugene brings to a production, and what the collaboration required to get it to the stage, was very specific on a project like that. From that, our studio has had 15 years of supervising that design and adapting that design for all subsequent productions. After it was up on Broadway, that’s not really Eugene’s bailiwick any more. He’s really more focused on new productions and not necessarily adapting the design and seeing it into markets throughout the world.” 

A Unique Role
The set of Wicked (photo:Joan Marcus)
Pierce and his team at edwardpierce studio grew the concept of design supervision from their extensive experience with the many productions of Wicked globally. He explains, “It’s really taking the design and adapting it, starting with the core idea, but then, of course, maintaining that core idea and adapting it for all the other venues. As well as all the other parameters that a production needs to do to continue to live and breathe and be profitable. That’s the same thing we’ve applied to our role on Billy Elliott and on a lot of other projects where the design might have existed once before, and now it really needs to find a new life in a new place along its way. Since theatre in general is a living, breathing art and you apply that to the design and what it needs to do as it moves through its journey. We are just the curators of that and help take it from one step to the next step.”

A large part of Pierce’s success as a design supervisor comes from his background and training as a designer and having the best interests of the design maintained throughout its further iterations. “It’s always reaching back to the core design rather than thinking about it as a technical approach, which, obviously has been done in the past where a designer’s work is given over to the shops and the technical team to break it up into bits. That’s not always, necessarily, serving the design at its fullest. It’s really about making sure that the design is always a thing we’re talking about and we adapt the design to meet the technical demands.”

A lot of the work that Pierce and his studio have been asked to collaborate on are either large musicals where there are, “many, many, many scenes—or Angels in America, which is essentially two musicals-worth of scenes smushed together,” Pierce notes. “There’s 70 scene changes in Angels in America. My approach has always been to focus on those transitions. If you have an overarching design concept that you can always find your aesthetic within, that’s really how you take your audience through the journey of the story visually. That, to me, is the challenge that we like to attack. Then we work on what it looks like later. How you get from A to B to C to D; that’s always been something that Eugene has instilled in me as one of the most important things to think about as we pick our journey through the evening. If you have that skeleton to rely on, then adding meat to the bones and flesh to the meat and cosmetics on top of that are all just layers.”

A Challenging Transfer
Angels In America
For Pierce, Angels in America provided a number of challenges, especially in taking the London production and adapting it for Broadway and still having it work as originally intended. “Angels was a project that was full of creative solutions,” says the designer. “When Angels was presented initially at the National Theatre in London, it took full use of the technical capabilities of the National’s Lyttelton Theatre. Realizing what was done at the Lyttelton and getting it into the much smaller Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway really was where we had to put our thinking cap on.” 

The design team went back to the original, core ideas and looked at how they could achieve the same results, but sometimes by changing the approach. “We took a lot of ideas that Ian had conceived in spirit—and in a much looser, more elbow room environment—and reimagined how to deliver the same idea, but not at all in the same solution. Often that meant physically deconstructing the pieces of scenery—not only technically, but artistically—so that they could be manipulated in a choreographic way but come together to still fulfil the same final vision.”

An example of this process is in Perestroika, where there was a massive neon room used to create Prior’s hospital room. At the Lyttelton, it was a massive truck platform with a big metal structure and it just rolled way upstage 50-feet and stored in a wing. “It’s a great idea,” says Pierce, “but we didn’t even have half of that space available to us at the Simon, plus we still had to do all of Millennium Approaches. That’s a good example where we knew we wanted to end up with three walls out of neon and a platform, and a bed, and a chair, and an angel has to appear. How do we get all that delivered? We had to break it up into bits, bits that then also worked with the rest of the puzzle pieces of the play.”

One of the key puzzle pieces in Millennium Approaches was the major transition when it flips into a dream version of Antarctica. “In that moment, the whole world that we’ve created up until that point drifts away and snow begins to fall and we’re in this hallucinogenic space of Antarctica,” explains Pierce. “How do you make that moment work on Broadway? We spent a lot of time thinking about it, and ultimately what we had to create for the whole show essentially served that moment. Then we had to back into everything else after we had solved that.”

Pierce has always been technically-minded and interested in the mechanics of things like automation. He marries that knowledge with artistic expression to make a scenic transition work—how it moves and syncs and moves from one theme to the next that its like what music or choreography does, just with scenery. “In Angels in America—to the degree that we could, all of the first play, Millennium is beautiful movements of turntables that are sometimes five-minute long cues,” explains Pierce. “Because it’s just perfectly ticking away as the scene unfolds and lands beautifully on a very specific moment; intricately timed and caressed to give the most beautiful journey through the play and following the characters. To me, that’s very exciting to do.”

Moving Aesthetic
Saul Williams (aloft) and the cast of Holler If Ya Hear Me  (photo:Joan Marcus)
While there is no one aesthetic that would be a hallmark of Pierce’s work, he does feel that that movement is the closest way to identify a design with him. “What I think is identifiable would be how it moves, its sensitivity to its construction,” he says. “It’ll be impeccably constructed and conceived; every moment thought about; as much as you can. It will have a strict adherence to detail, especially with how it moves and how it breathes and how it withstands the test of time.”

To ensure that his designs are supporting the narrative, Pierce immerses himself in the world of the story and finds the inspiration through research and collaboration along with the creative team of a production. “I think with any project, you have to dive into the world that you believe is the world of the piece,” he explains. “If it’s set against some historical backdrop, then obviously you need to dive deep within that world and then find visual storyboards that are places you could be. My approach, always, is to find an overarching environment that most of the play speaks to. Then, within that environment, you now have tools and visual information to help you solve individual moments.”

He continues, “Then, I think, pushing through the show transitionally, as I mentioned, to make sure that there is a full arc of how we’re going to get from the beginning to the end, knowing that in the middle we’ll work out some of the smaller details. It is all the things I have learned from all my work with Eugene Lee, that is inherent in how I approach work now. Just come out swinging and come up with a big idea knowing that the little ideas will all work themselves out. Start strong and end strong.”