Live Design touches base with leading UK designer, Tom Piper, on his work for the second season of The Bridge Project—a collaborative effort by BAM, The Old Vic, and Neal Street Productions. This season features a double header by The Bard: The Tempest and As You Like It:
Live Design: What was your process for designing the two shows for the same space, considering the short turn around from matinee to evening and the fact that the shows were meant to tour...
Tom Piper: We decided to focus on the BAM space rather than design for a tour. I felt that if we got it right there we could then make adaptations for the tour. Keeping true to the spirit of the building, which was rescued by Peter Brook and Chloe Obolensky, whom I assisted on their production of The Tempest in 1990, I wanted to create a single space where both stories could be told: A one-room environment in which the boundary between audience and performer is blurred, and in which we are continually aware that we are in a theatre space, rather than creating an illusion of a woods or a desert island. We could then add elements to this space to change its atmosphere between the two shows without changing the walls and floor. As work on the productions developed, we began to see a way to link them, partly influenced by a quote from Ted Hughes in the program placing As You Like It as "the tragic overture to The Tempest," and "Propsero's island as "what remained of the forest of Arden after the holocaust of the tragedies."
As You Like It begins in a way that confirms the cynicism of Jaques: there is no love, only exile, hardship, and death. The forest of Arden is initially not an attractive place to live in. We wanted it wintery. At the end of the first half, the old faithful servant who has followed his young master into exile dies, the cycle of man is complete and ends as Jaques predicted in frailty and death. However the second half explodes into romantic comedy and we filled the space with grass, to completely transform the atmosphere: A deliberate image of fertility and lushness.
For The Tempest I cut down all the trees and flooded the upstage space with water, a few charred stumps remain of a world that has been ravaged. I was interested in the island actually seeming to be running out of resources.
LD: Are there changes for certain venues, BAM VS VIC for example, do the different stage configurations require changes in the set?
TP: The Old Vic has a raked stage with the stalls not having a clear view of the show floor, while at BAM the audience looks down on the action. So it is much harder in the Old Vic to get the stalls audience to be aware of the water up stage, for example, and we have to rely on the reflections of Paul Pyant’s lighting to establish the dreamlike nature of the rear space in The Tempest. The Old Vic is narrower too, so we have had to cut down the back wall.
LD: What inspired your design for each of the productions, and how do you approach Shakespeare to give the plays a new feel?
TP: For The Tempest we looked at a diverse range of images from the burning oil fields of Iraq, to abandoned factories. I was attracted to desolation and man-made disasters. Initially, Sam Mendes (the director) wanted to stage it with a giant desk that would act as stage, but half way through rehearsals changed to a disc of sand. In earlier models, we had both shows on a disc raised above the BAM floor.
I have designed many Shakespeare plays and in this case have done As You Like It and The Tempest before with the RSC. In fact, the As You Like It was only six months before the BAM project and it will be coming to the Armory in New York next year. To keep it fresh, one has to stay as open as possible in discussion with directors and other creative collaborators. I think I learnt from past productions what themes I felt worked, and the emotional journey of both my As You Like It's is similar, although the theatre spaces were so different that the solutions feel different.
For The Tempest, the nature of the storm was very problematic, as it is in all productions. My previous one was just post 9/11 so we were drawn in an abstract way to stage the storm as an impact that came out of nowhere, destroying the ship of state. The rest of the play took place on the ruins of this structure. At first, with Sam Mendes we did consider the storm as a plane crash—the final 'phone' messages of the nobles seem very evocative in this context—but as we worked on the plays, Sam and Stephen Dillane moved towards the far more stylised approach of Prospero being in control of the storytelling, sitting at the side of the action and controlling it. The circle of sand, inspired perhaps by the Brook production I worked on, gave a simple and clear way of creating a bubble in which the actors were trapped. The water area upstage became a holding zone where the character were suspended until their next moment in the story.