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Tom Piper: ‘I wanted to shine a spotlight on designers’

War Horse at the New London Theatre. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg War Horse at the New London Theatre. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

How do you capture the thrill and urgency of live theatre in an inert exhibition space? That was the big question facing Olivier award-winning designer Tom Piper when the Victoria and Albert Museum approached him to design Curtain Up: Celebrating 40 Years of  Theatre in London and New York, an exhibition celebrating the West End and Broadway, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards.

No doubt the V&A arrived at Piper because of the excellent job he made of Shakespeare: Staging the World at the British Museum three and a half years ago. The breadth and complexity of that show proved he was a creative unafraid to take giant, imaginative leaps. He also worked closely with artist Paul Cummins on the Tower of London ceramic poppy installation, which is currently touring the UK.

Piper says he was keen to accept the invitation from the V&A because it provided an opportunity to celebrate “the great craft skills we have in British theatre”.

“I wasn’t that interested in celebrating stars, or the more glitzy commercial end of theatre, but rather to shine a spotlight on our amazing designers and makers,” he adds.

As well as marking the Olivier milestone, the brief was to embrace theatrical endeavour on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, since Curtain Up will move lock, stock and barrel to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at the Lincoln Center – home of America’s great theatre archive – in October this year.

John Owen Jones as The Phantom of the Opera. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
John Owen Jones as The Phantom of the Opera. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

The fact that so much of Broadway’s output emanates from Britain has not escaped Piper’s notice. “When you look closely at American theatre, you can see how enormous the influence of British talent has been. Transfers like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Matilda the Musical have raised the bar in terms of innovative design.”

Both these shows are strongly represented in Curtain Up. Visitors will be able to enter a scaled-down simulation of the ground-breaking Curious Incident set, using light projections and video clips from the show.

Other highlights include a full-size Joey from War Horse emerging from broken planks out of the exhibition floor; an outsize Olivier award affording photo opportunities; some of the original satin top hats from A Chorus Line suspended in space; and an abstract flight of pigeons made out of  West End theatre programmes, flying across a Shaftesbury Avenue graphic, meeting a similar flock made out of Broadway theatre programmes.

“I’ve used a kind of scaffolding grid that runs across the top of the exhibition, from one end to the other, intersecting at various points, to create suspended displays. It also accommodates a lighting grid, so it resembles a theatre show rather than an exhibition. We wanted people to feel they were walking backstage and experiencing the processes that go into creating a piece of theatre – lighting, sound, design, costumes, prop-making.

“We’ve tried to cram in as much as possible,” says Piper. “Making it more interesting than just a series of costumes and models has certainly been a challenge. What I find quite ironic, as a theatre practitioner myself, is how things become theatre objects, treated with reverence, once they go into museums, in a way they never are when they are part of a living, breathing show.

“Unlike a lot of exhibitions, which can be fixed and rigid, Curtain Up has evolved through its design process, just like a piece of theatre. Like all good theatre projects, this has been very much a collaborative venture between myself, the architect Alan Farlie, the lighting designer Zelina Hughes, and the graphic design consultants Northover Brown.

“Generally, I think the V&A does very well, given the constraints of being a gallery space. That’s why they are keen to do these temporary exhibitions at regular intervals. There is always the danger that the longer something sits in a showcase, the more fossilised it becomes.”

The museum’s curator of modern and contemporary theatre, Anna Landreth-Strong, agrees it is important for the V&A to work alongside contemporary practitioners in order to inject new life and ideas into the gallery. “We want visitors to experience the energy and excitement that comes with being in the West End or on Broadway, in the heart of Theatreland, and we felt Tom was the person to achieve that. Obviously our ultimate hope is that the exhibition will encourage people to want to see some of the shows we’re featuring.”

Curtain Up: Celebrating 40 Years of Theatre in London and New York will be at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from February 9-August 31

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