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Answer Box: Angel Wings

Jay Lasnik • Answer BoxJune 2021 • May 25, 2021

This story can be read by clicking the image above, or reading below, or in our June 2021 digitial edition

I want an 18’-wingspan. Big. Like albatross wings,” Angels in America: Millennium Approaches director Rick Lombardo says at our first group angel meeting. The desired effect entailed the roof and ceiling crashing in, the angel descending, and her wings deploying on the last line of the play when she raises her arms and announces, “The messenger has arrived!” If I recall correctly there might have been some suspicious eyebrows raised, but after taking a deep breath and maybe a little gulp, I said, “OK, we can do that.”

‘But how?’, I thought to myself. I had no idea. But coming up to the challenge, facing the unknown is one of the best parts of working in props and costume crafts. Like every department in theater, well, the fact is, it has to get done. People have bought tickets; there will be an opening night. It’s going to happen. We have to figure out a way. 

Only a short time prior to this meeting did I learn that I was ‘doing’ the wings, or ‘volun-told’ as some call it. But I figure I work at a school with students who are there to learn, so I made a deal with several others—props would do the skeleton and mechanism, costumes would do the feathers, and the TD would do the rigging, of course.

Research & Development
I don’t think many of this generation of new theater artists know how easy it is to research things these days. I had my pick of a dozen or so videos from various cosplay performers to choose from. I took the best two ideas and combined them into a design that would work for what we wanted. 

Weight was a concern; there was the weight of the PVC ‘bones’ that made up the skeleton but there was also the weight of the ‘feathers’ which were made from 1/8”-thick EVA foam and other costume fabric. Altogether, we had wings that weighed about 25 pounds total. Using 12” throw pneumatic cylinders mounted in a crisscross fashion in a box upstage of the actress, they pushed the PVC wings up very smoothly.

Flight Testing
I made a wooden mock-up of the flying rig. Once I had my PVC cut, holes drilled, and bolts attached I suddenly realized that, with our next show, Spamalot, soon to be staring me straight in the eyes I would need to hand the angel over to someone else. MFA scenic designer and props shop assistant Ryan Douglass constructed the cylinder-mounting box and fine-tuned the wing action on the new steel rig. Once we tested it in the shop to our satisfaction, we turned it over to costumes. MFA costume technology student Jessica Hill and her team were simultaneously making feathers. After an adjustment of replacing the droopy-from-weight PVC top wing bone with metal conduit, all was good and they attached each individual feather onto a small bolt and tied them together so that when the wings opened the feather that was farthest offstage would ‘pull’ the rest and they would now lay vertically, (having been previously bundled up.)

On Time & Under Budget
I’d like to take a moment here and let everyone know that not only did we come in on time for load in, but we also came in under budget. We came in on time because all the departments planned, rehearsed, and thought ahead. As any student or crewmember in my shops can tell you, I am always talking about ‘how is it used?’ I am telling them that we have to solve the problems in the shop before we take it to the theater. There are going to be problems, but let’s deal with all the known problems and extrapolate them into the unknown. When we truly ‘own’ the project and know every tiny aspect of it, then whatever does happen in the theater will be doable to solve and not a big deal. I want my props department to be as low maintenance for itself and for all the other departments. I don’t want there to be any problems in the theater that we could have solved in the shop. There should be no surprises. And there were none. 

Crash Debris
For the crashing ceiling we used a large container of oatmeal dumped from the catwalk and a pillowcase-sized bag of compressed-paper drop ceiling tiles. They are light, they don’t bounce, are the right color, and look great when they accumulate on the stage. The oatmeal looked phenomenal with Devin Koening’s lights.

Working on these wings was a perfect project for me to work on as an artisan and project leader: creative, technical, aesthetic, functional, mechanical, artistic, collaborative. Any good prop and costume craft is a character unto itself. You can’t have an angel without the wings. 

Jay Lasnik is props master at Penn State University. The rest of the creative team for Angels in America included: costume designers Kayli Warner and Richard St. Clair; set designer Sophia Tepermeister; sound designer Alex Pregel; technical director Chris Swetcky, and lighting designer Devin Koening.

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