Tom Piper MBE is an award-winning theatre designer. He has designed more than 35 RSC productions and works extensively throughout the UK. Tom is an RSC Associate Artist and for 10 years (2004-14) was the RSC's Resident Associate Designer. He talks about designing The Tempest aiming to be an environmentally friendly production and the challenges faced to meet the Green Book standards of sustainable theatre.

I always try to reuse and recycle in my practise, but it's difficult as a freelancer, because you go into an organisation and you don't know what stock they have, and often they can't store and save things. The better you know a theatre, its resources and staff, the easier it is to design with the resources of that theatre in mind.

Before this show, I did a production at the Kiln Theatre, London, Girl on an Altar, which had a surrounding environment of wooden plank flats that were burned to make them match the Kiln's auditorium. These were made of repurposed wood, so they'd already had a life before the show. We had enough time to plan and collaborate with the Kiln, so when that show finished and the set came out, an RSC truck came to take much of the set to its storage facility until we needed it.

Tom Piper in rehearsals for The Tempest

Likewise I was doing Wind in the Wilton's at Wilton's Music Hall with Elizabeth Freestone (The Tempest Director). For that design we had lots of trees and reeds and natural materials. So I put the production managers for The Tempest and that show in touch and when it finished we took the reeds and other bits to use in The Tempest.

We also went around the RSC's storage facility identifying saved items from other shows, not just ones I had designed, that we could repurpose. So we're also using fake earth mounds and a proscenium frame structure from the History Cycle and we are repainting the floor that was in The Winter's Tale. The painters are trying to make any texture that we paint on removable, so the floor can be reused again.

Challenges for sustainable theatre

One of the challenges of Green Book practice for a designer is, although I'm very keen to reuse things,  you don't want the audience to start thinking they are seeing the same thing over and over again. I rely on the skills of the RSC craft workers to take items and repurpose them to a new design.

The wooden flats from the Kiln have been distressed further with vegetation added these are then stacked up to create the feel of an abandoned theatre, full of old flats and cloths. I love the fact that many in the audience see these as the remnants of shipwrecked boats. It wasn’t my intention, but theatre allows us all to create our own imaginative story world from the elements a designer brings into the space. Several metaphors can live together at once, ruined theatre, environmental disaster and shipwreck.

Our biggest challenge is in costume, where for Green practice we want clothes to have had a pre life and an after life. It's great when you're making things look aged and broken down you can find things in the store or from charity shops to work with, but not when you want new stuff - when you want costumes for characters who are very rich.

The nobles in our contemporary telling of The Tempest are the mega rich people who are polluting the world. They are cruising around the Mediterranean on their luxury yachts, complaining about the litter on their private beaches. Shakespeare’s text specifically says, in the words of Gonzalo, how beautiful their garments are in "their freshness and glosses" new minted and to serve the play, we need to deliver that idea.

There’s also the laundry needs for the show. If someone has trousers that get wet or broken down, we need a double of those so they can be dry for matinees and evenings. So the character might need three or even four pairs of trousers to run the show. That makes it very difficult to source pre-used trousers because you need four pairs the same.

We have managed for some characters - we found sets of clothes in the Costume Store that were duplicates. The other ones we've tried to source from ethical companies, trying to avoid fast fashion and to combine deliveries or go to shops rather than get stuff delivered by courier. At least we know with those things, we'll look after them, and then they'll go into the store where they will have a future life.

All the Elizabethan elements in the show, used in the Spirits of the island and the Goddesses, all came from the RSC store. People imagine that the store is an endless warehouse full of everything you could possibly want, but in reality it reflects the designs of past RSC shows, so has strengths in particular periods, and less stock in others. Even at the RSC space is a problem and we will have to consider carefully in the future how to keep more of every production, so that even more of a show can be sourced from the store than is now possible.

The set of The Tempest with the large mirror from the Kiln Theatre


My Kiln Theatre set also had a wall of gold mirror panels that cost a lot for them to buy. At the end of the show they wouldn’t have been able to store it (most smaller theatres can't afford to have a large storage facility), so would have had to throw it away. There’s a double benefit that the RSC took it, have given it a future life and also paid some of that material cost to the Kiln. It's still cheaper than us buying it new.

I work a lot in Scotland and there is this sort of theatre sharing ecology within the theatres of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth, Pitlochry etc - all the stage management and costume  teams know each other, so they always borrow from each other. We all need to just do more of this – to link to together to create these networks, make all creative teams who come into a theatre really aware of what is available  and can be used for a particular show.

Storage is the biggest problem within the industry, commercial storage rates are so high that it is cheaper to build new than store. This rapidly needs to change, we need to adjust where the money goes - putting money into people, not materials. We need to pay for a person to take this scenery apart and  pay for somebody to properly log and look after and store and make networks to share. All those things take time and money, but that can all become part of our process. 

As designers too we will have to change our mindset that budget is not the only challenge to our creativity and that the ethical sourcing of our raw materials is now integral to the process. Budget constraints have always worked to spark creativity and imaginative solutions, the Green Book will do the same.

Propero and Miranda on a tiny island amid a storm

Making a green tempest

Our 2023 production of Shakespeare's The Tempest is inspired by the climate emergency, asking us to examine the delicate balance in our personal relationships as well as with the fragile ecosystems that surround us. 

These blogs explain how everyone behind the show, from scenery builders and prop makers to the actors on stage is working together to create a sustainable Tempest that responds to and reflects the climate emergency.

Go to The Tempest

You may also like