Interview with Tom Piper
Tom Piper works as the RSC’s Associate Designer. As well as working on numerous productions Tom has also been involved in the development of The Courtyard Theatre, the RSC’s new, temporary theatre. Tom is also the designer for Michael Boyd’s creation of a major staging of the rarely seen Henry VI trilogy which opened the new venue in July 2006.
Why do you think it is important for the RSC to have a thrust stage as its main performance space?
The most important thing is that we have a ‘one-room’ auditorium where the audience and the artists are in the same space. The Courtyard Theatre has a ‘deep thrust’ stage into the auditorium with the audience seated on three sides. It allows for a much better connection between the actors on stage and the audience members. It is a relationship that we know works well for Shakespeare’s plays.
It feels intimate. Having a thrust stage means that the audience has multiple view points wrapped around the action on stage, unlike in a cinema or in a proscenium arch theatre where the audience are all looking from the same view point, but those in the cheap seats are forced miles from the stage. This is a much more democratic space, where the audience is intimately involved in the action. In the existing RST the furthest seat is 27 metres from the stage, in the new theatre it will be around 15.
Tell us about your role as Associate Designer in the development of The Courtyard.
The Courtyard has been a real collaborative effort. It began with a study of how we might redevelop the Royal Shakespeare Theatre [RST] to try and fit a new theatre form within the ‘bookends’ of the fly tower and the original foyer spaces. It then became apparent that in order to keep the company running during the redevelopment we would have to create a space to perform in while the main theatre was shut. The Complete Works Festival then acted as a catalyst to develop the theatre early as a venue to run alongside the RST during this exciting year.
I have worked with the RSC’s technical teams and two different theatre design consultants (Ann Minors and Charcoalblue) on the shape of the auditorium; While the conversion of the The Other Place [TOP] foyer space and the rusting metal shell around the auditorium have been developed with Ian Ritchie architects. It has been an exciting experience, and I never realised how difficult it would be to decide on the details of the interior. We have tried to create an aesthetic that is stylish and contemporary, while aware of the temporary and raw nature of the building and its cuckoo-like relationship with the much loved TOP (which will be returned to its former use as a studio theatre as soon as the new RST re-opens).
What have been the main considerations in the development of the space?
Good sightlines, trying to fit the maximum number of people in as close as possible. We have tried to remain honest in the choice of materials, while respecting the original function of spaces such as the TOP auditorium. Trying to be bold and innovative! And perhaps most importantly making sure there are enough toilets in the foyer!
The Courtyard Theatre is temporary - will people notice this when they visit the theatre?
We learnt a huge number of lessons when we constructed a temporary performance space at the Roundhouse in London. Although temporary The Courtyard Theatre has all of the facilities a visitor would expect from coming to see an RSC production. The seats have been specially designed – there are 20 different types throughout the auditorium, to maximise comfort and to get the best possible sightlines. There are proper toilets and lots of them, built in the old scene dock of the TOP; dramatic bar spaces are being created on the lower and upper level of the new foyer, air conditioning and a high standard of sound proofing. Although this theatre is removable, once the RST reopens, it will be a fantastic venue for its brief life. I fully expect a campaign to save it to start up soon.
It’s an exciting new space, but still a staging post on the journey to our redeveloped RST Theatre. It is a temporary space, where we have had to judge where to spend money, to make it as exciting and comfortable as possible while not being profligate. That’s important as the money to develop it comes from our fixed main budget for the redevelopment of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
How similar will The Courtyard Theatre auditorium be to the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre auditorium?
Although, in many ways, The Courtyard auditorium will be the same shape and scale as the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre auditorium there will be many differences. This will be a space that we hope to last for many years. This will be reflected in the materials used, the colours, the technical support to the stage, the way the auditorium links to the foyer etc.
The use of scenery in the RST will be very different. We have limited space in The Courtyard development which means that there isn’t much room for large scenic elements, whereas the Royal Shakespeare Theatre will be very much a scenic space. You will be able to have your ‘heaven and hell’ where scenery and actors can come up through the floor and fly in from above. The RST auditorium is currently being designed, although the shape of the outer walls of the auditorium will soon have to be decided, there is still a long way to go and it’s great that we will get the opportunity to try out the space in The Courtyard, and feed lessons learnt into the development of the new space.
What impact does a thrust stage rather than a proscenium arch theatre have on the work of a theatre designer?
In a thrust space a designer has to think in a more sculptural way. The images created through the combination of the actors, their costume and scenic elements are seen from many different angles. In a proscenium setting the creative teams can create pictures in an almost tableaux format, which although potentially beautiful and exciting, can remain very flat, behind the arch. There can also be a tendency to turn the actor into a visual bit-part player within an overall composition.
A thrust automatically puts the actor to the fore, and the focus is on how the actors interact not what the scenery is doing. The audience too becomes part of the environment and their reactions, clearly visible to cast and other audience members alike, become part of the world of the play. In the Henrys I’ve explored how we can use relatively transparent objects such as ropes, ladders and cages, suspended within the space to create exciting dramatic imagery over the thrust space. There is still a ‘set’, but because of sightlines this cannot be behind a proscenium, but it can provide entrances, balconies etc and the key to the nature of the design for the production. The floor surface also becomes very important as it is the dominant feature for all the audience in the gallery levels.
How will The Courtyard Theatre differ from the Swan Theatre which is also a thrust stage?
The most fundamental difference is the scale. The Swan holds approximately 450 people whereas the new auditorium seats 1,000. It feels much bigger yet still an intimate theatre. Also the choice of materials used. The Swan auditorium is predominantly timber and brick while The Courtyard doesn’t use those materials. Although the shape of the auditorium is similar the two theatres will have very different environments.
When I worked on the History Cycle in 2000 we began in the Swan and then moved to a 1000 seat auditorium in Michigan. The experience of enlarging a Swan show to fit a bigger space was exhilarating, scenically it benefited from the more epic scale, yet the intimacy remained. It was an experience that encouraged Michael and I to think that you could create thrust stage theatre on a bigger scale than is available in the UK at the moment.
What experience can an audience member expect to have when they visit The Courtyard Theatre?
I hope it will have the buzz of visiting an exciting festival venue, with a great combination of a bold, strikingly simple building, dramatic foyer spaces, excellent theatre, and the excitement of knowing that they are part of the development of the new RST theatre, and did I mention the toilets!?