Spotlight: Tom Piper, Royal Shakespeare Company’s Associate Designer

Tom PiperTom studied at Magdalen College School, Oxford, began a BA in Biology and switched to Art History at Trinity College, Cambridge. When school friend Sam Mendes, now director of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, needed a set designer for a university play Tom volunteered to do it. He went into complete a postgraduate course in Theatre Design at the Slade School of Art, and is now the Associate Designer for the Royal Shakespeare Company. 


How did you get into theatre designing? 

I enjoyed building tree houses as a child and then at university where I was meant to be studying Biology I got into student theatre . I did thirty shows in four years; I built and painted them all myself with not much sleep, including trips to Edinburgh and Avignon with shows


What skills are important to be a theatre designer? 

You have to be able to think like a sculptor, engineer, dress maker, painter, model maker and have a passion for theatre and how plays work. Be a collaborator and be prepared to change and develop your ideas all the time.


How much do contemporary concerns affect your creative choices?

After 9/11 I was designing The Tempest and it very much influenced how we thought about the production. The ship was an abstract structure made of tall ladders almost like a tower. The storm a bright light that seemed to hit the structure. The island was made out of the ruin of the tower. Modern politics often seems to be reflected in Shakespeare’s plays which deal in universal themes, the rise of popular leaders, and their inevitable downfall.


Do you think theatre reacts quicker to news than other art forms?

Not always. There are examples of plays that are made in a rapid response to world events, but there is still the time it takes to commission, write and rehearse. Another example was when I was doing a production of Twelfth Night that started rehearsing immediately after the 2006 Tsunami. All the initial reference material I had gathered of ship wrecks and storm damage seemed voyeuristic after the horrors of that event, so we move away from any literal depiction of the storm and instead found a more abstract way of representing the terror of a ship wreck.


What would you say to young people about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Twelfth Night to encourage them to see it?

Theatre in the Courtyard is an immediate and very involving experience. The actors are in the same room with you, the audience are on three sides, so there is a very direct communication between the actors and audience. It is not the stuffy experience you might imagine in an old fashioned theatre. There is a great mix of people throughout the theatre, with even seats up in the gallery having a great view. Nobody is more than thirteen metres from the stage.


Twelfth Night, at the Courtyard Theatre runs from the 15 October till 21 November, and at the Duke of York’s Theatre from 19 December till 27 February 2010.


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