Known for it’s out-of-the box production concepts, the Menier Chocolate Factory in London has revived Pippin, Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 coming-of-age musical, with cutting-edge scenic and video design by Tim Bird, founder and executive creative director of Knifedge.
The story is that of Pippin, heir to the throne of Charlemagne, who is searching for fame and magic, but encounters lust, sex, war, politics and religion along the way. Bird collaborated with director Mitch Sebastian and lighting designer Ken Billington to create an immersive environment that places the audience in a virtual video game.
“There were three key elements to the design process,” explains Bird. “On a very practical basis, I approached the process as someone who designs the moving image within the live arena, and in this case since I did the set design as well as the imagery, the result is very integrated. I enjoy working with other designer, but there is not always the time to collaborate as fully as one would like.”
The goal here was how one might reinvent Pippin for a contemporary audience: “The show is a rite of passage, about finding yourself, so we designed the musical like a video game. You enter and go from level to level as you conquer and achieve various things,” adds Bird, who was nominated for a Tony Award (along with David Farley) for the scenic design of the New York version of the Chocolate Factory's revival of Sunday In The Park With George. “The Chocolate Factory is a challenging space—small—and the building gives you very little room to stretch.”
Reinventing Pippin as a computer game: how would Bird do that using projected images and animated graphics? “The musical is ostensibly set in the court of Charlemagne in medieval times, yet it has a contemporary resonance,” he notes. “Look at computer games, some of them almost have a hazy medieval feeling to them, or a faux or enhanced medieval environment. But on second thought, with any sort of projected image, where is that sitting within the real environment. That is always my concern with a live show. The beauty of real theatre is the realness of it, but you can get a lot out of creating a world with projected images, but not a screen over here while the scene is playing out over there.”
With the computer-game concept, Bird asked 'who is the audience, what are they doing here'? “So we created a back story for ourselves,” he explains. “Let’s say the audience is watching the manifestation of a video game played live, as if in an arena space, but perhaps this is all in Pippin’s head or on his computer screen, and maybe there is someone else manipulating his screen.”
To enhance the environment, Bird added stairways that move, mirrored by virtual stairways that also move: “like an Escher drawing come to life in the concrete basement of the Chocolate Factory to create an immersive space.” Bird also added a laser beam and sound effect as you walk in: “You feel as if you are being scanned, and at every fourth or fifth person a voice says ‘a new player has entered.’ In a scene in Pippin’s bedroom, where he is playing with an Xbox, and about to be selected to play this game that he thinks will lead to a great life, the audience is part of the process in encouraging him to take his own life… in our own back story, they come to rescue him, tell him he has become obsessed, and should come back to the real world, give up the computer technology and remember to live!,” Bird explains.
“At The Chocolate Factory, you feel as if you are going into another world, but that would not feel the same in a traditional theatre,” he adds. “In the original version, Bob Fosse tied into the flavor of the time and the Manson family and cult, so we wanted that same flavor of being invited to something a bit dangerous.”
Early in the process, LD Ken Billington was brought into the mix: “This is a small-scale London show, not as much money as you might usually get,” comments Bird. “Ken and I did Sunday in the Park with George together, and we understand each other’s working process… the right level of collaboration. Even the cleverest technology in the world can go wrong —it’s all about the people. I understood very early on in the process that with all these projected images we needed absolutely the right lighting designer… in a way this production is akin to a “ride” — in an immersive environment. The medium is light, like photons flying around, so we needed to be on the same wave length.”
Bird describes "hell" as when there is a “screen” onstage. “Theatre is different than working for a screen, like TV or film. What fascinates me is working with the projected image on 3D scenery, anything that is on stage, and mapping the images into places you don’t expect it. “I’m not as interested just in the animated image but also the physical space itself and how it supports the imagery helps communicate the storytelling to the audience.” Pippin, which runs through February 25, is a perfect example of this.