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  • A Pilgrim's Progress through the Angel Project
  • James Westcott (bio)

"Angel Project?"


"Get in."

The car bowled gently down the empty road and we were silent for a few strange seconds.

"I've never been to Roosevelt Island," I said.

"This is exactly the spot where everybody tells me that," the driver said.

Deborah Warner, the English director revered for her salvation of the hitherto hopelessly violent Titus Andronicus (1987), hounded by the Beckett estate for her unorthodox production of Footfalls (1994), and adored by New Yorkers for her Medea (2000), has a reputation for taking the audience to unexpected places.

"Where are we going?"

"Not far."

The car deposited me on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island near a crumbling gothic castle suffocated by ivy; it could have been Miss Havisham's house but was in fact a smallpox hospital. This is where the Angel Project, the centerpiece of Lincoln Center Festival 2003, began. It was a suitably ghostly and serene beginning, just a tiny sidestep from normal New York life but one that took the audience into an unfamiliar, plaintive parallel city.

Warner has done something like this before, in a derelict hotel in London in 1999 and in various buildings in Perth, Australia, a year later. Audience members become participants in a performance that uses all the city as a stage. Warner sketches a trail between abandoned buildings and intervenes in those empty, yet pregnant spaces to suggest a recent angelic presence. Occasionally visitors may encounter an angel directly. There were reports from Perth of solitary pilgrims taking 12 hours to complete the trail; along the way they were apparently provoked to contemplate their own divinity-or otherwise-and the fallen state of the city. [End Page 98]

But never had Warner made an Angel Project on this scale, and never in a city as congested, anxious, and over-explored as New York. How would the stubborn city yield to Warner's delicate, dreamy theatrical treatment? And with New Yorkers more nervous, property owners more suspicious, and insurers more conservative than ever before, how could Warner pull off such an ambitious scheme? The Angel Project in New York encompassed nine separate, specially manipulated sites. Since there was no money (a $90 ticket charge was still massively subsidized), all of the spaces had to be donated. The first two weeks of the performance, scheduled as previews, were canceled because buildings were lost at the last minute-regulations weren't met, things weren't safe enough, realtors got cold feet. It was a miracle that the Angel Project happened at all.

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Site 1 of the Angel Project, underneath the bridge on Roosevelt Island, looking toward Manhattan. The Angel Project (2003), directed by Deborah Warner. (Photo by Stephanie Berger)

I stepped into a white cabin near the castle and was given instructions: No talking. No cell phones. Be alone. Take your time. Here's a Metrocard. Here's your trail map.

"This is weird," I said, needing to say something. She just smiled.

"But I guess that's the point," I said, pointlessly.

The same car took me to the first site proper of the Angel Project: underneath the Tramway bridge, looking over the East River. A placid-looking man sat in a rotting rowboat fingering an ancient hemp net, occasionally glancing at the river, never looking at me. He was unmistakably an angel, even though he had no wings. His calmness was otherworldly. Opposite him sat an old man with flabby, leathery cheeks and big friendly eyes. His umbrella was poked in the ground and his open lunch box lay beside it. His fishing rod was resting against the railing. I wasn't sure at first whether he was an angel or just an old Roosevelt Islander doing his thing. Then I stepped inside the beat-up hut on the grassy knoll and looked through its glassless windows. The two creatures were composed so perfectly through each window, in a painterly way-with the arch of the bridge, the river bank, the river, and the city behind it just so-that I felt sure they were both angels, thoughtfully...