When designer Bill Dudley and his wife, director Lucy Bailey, met with producers in 2007 about a revamp of Peter Panproposed for a tent in Kensington Gardens in London, Dudley saw an opportunity to bring the vision of projected scenery he had been perfecting for five years full circle, literally.

In 2002, Dudley undertook probably the most expansive use ever of theatrical projections for the premiere of Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia at the National Theatre’s open-stage Olivier Theatre. The three-play epic about the philosophical forefathers of the Russian revolution spans 30 years, at least that many characters, and 75 scenes set in seven cities. To accommodate that multitude, Dudley flashed animated scenery from three pairs of Barco projectors across a curved screen on the Olivier’s revolving stage over the course of the trilogy’s nine hours of playing time. Everything on stage—actors, multi-part revolves, physical scenery, projected images, projection screens, lighting—moved in an intricate choreography as close to cinematic montage as possible with live performers.

“I’m trying to cinematize theatre,” Dudley says while sitting in a quiet corner of the Olivier’s lobby to talk about Peter Pan. “Cinema owes a tremendous debt to theatre. They’ve borrowed our actors, our writers, even our designers and...” he dramatically pauses and lets out a big chortle, “…it’s payback time!”

Dudley’s love affair with movies began when he was a boy with Disney’s Peter Pan. “In those days, you could get in for about a shilling and stay all day,” he says. “My mum would make me sandwiches, and you saw the whole thing through again. And you might go a second time in the week.” So he jumped at the chance to design a live production using his video animations as the prime scenic element. When he saw the plans for the tent, an unobstructed white conical interior with all its support structure on the outside, he told the producers, Charlie Burnell and Mat Churchill, “You’ve got all the makings of a 360˚ movie house there.”

Since his art school days, Dudley has been fascinated by the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat plane. As a theatre designer, he says, “I really want to do what many people want when they go to a big gallery and look at paintings and say, ‘I wish I could walk into that.’” To achieve that effect for The Coast of Utopia, Dudley curved the projection screens. Our brains are accustomed to interpreting the illusion of space on a flat surface as either a painting or some type of cinematic image. “But if you curve the focal plane, the brain starts to half believe it’s in your space,” he says. “That willing suspension of disbelief is enhanced on an open stage by taking away the obvious visual frame of the proscenium. If the film reaches out to your space, it’s becoming more like theatre.”

For The Woman in White (ED, “Victorian Secrets: The Woman In White,” January 2005) in 2004, he curved the screen 220˚. For Peter Pan, he says, “There was no reason not to complete the circle.” He and Bailey persuaded Burnell and Churchill to seat the audience completely surrounding the stage, which had the added bonus of increasing capacity from 900 to 1,100. A small wedge of stage space was left for physical scenery, including the nursery window wall and Hook’s ship.

When the credit crunch caused Peter Pan to be postponed last year, Bailey moved on to other projects, but Dudley kept his calendar open. “I’ve always wanted to do it to try to celebrate London,” he says. “I’d never get a chance to do Peter Pan again, to look over London, to fly over St. Paul’s. I hung in there for a year.”

The production resumed in late January 2009, which meant an intense window of work before previews on May 26 and press opening on June 10. “We did burn the midnight oil,” Dudley says, “with 100-hour weeks, and not just me.” His team included Tim Clapham for effects and compositing, Janine Pauke for lighting and composition, Michael Vance as Neverland artist, Alex Cox for editing and projection, and Matthew “Mash” O’Neill as London flight artist and CGI technical director.

On his website (www.3dfluff.com/mash), O’Neill says Peter Pan has “probably more technology crammed into a tent than has ever been attempted for a stage show before—ten giant high-powered projectors embedded into the center stage beam outwards over the audience’s heads. The 3D video is projected at 10,000 pixels wide, but with the overlap, it ends up around 8,500 pixels wide, as it goes 360˚ around the tent.

O’Neill adds that, in previous shows with Dudley, the video was a part of the show like any other backdrop. “Much of what we have done before could, if push came to shove, be replaced with stationary painted back cloths,” he says. But with Peter Pan, the video work was used as one of the major selling points to investors and then ultimately to the general public. “The actors were interacting with it, the composer was writing the score to it, and whatever timings we came up with would guide significant portions of the show,” O’Neill adds.

The challenges were many and enormous, starting with finding a way to render the video to the shape to fill the unconventional projection screen. “Not only is it an insanely wide image at roughly 9:1, but when it reaches the end, it has to loop back onto itself,” O’Neill says. To fit the conical shape of the tent, it had to be much thinner at the top than at the bottom. “As we fly around London at night, we couldn’t have the moon stretch out fat and wide when it was near the bottom of the screen and then turn into a thin oval when it reached the top of the tent,” he adds. O’Neill went through numerous approaches to try to pre-distort the 3D images while rendering, so when they were played back, they would counteract the distorting effect the tent was having on them. “All in all it worked out quite well,” he says.

Quite well indeed, according to both critics and audience response. “A seemingly nutcase summer project turns out to be a real surprise,” said Michael Coveney in The Independent. “The big-top atmosphere is perfect for Peter and the Darling children to fly through the air on elaborate coat-hangers . . . The circular environment, designed as a large bedroom easily converted to the dream world of Neverland, and the piratical deck is sensationally complemented by William Dudley’s wrap-around cinematic projections.”

Originally scheduled to end in August, the production was extended into September. A 12-month North American tour begins in Chicago in May 2010, and a second production opens a Far East tour in New Zealand starting in Auckland in January 2011.

Arnold Wengrow is a contributing editor of Theatre Design and Technology, the journal of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT).