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My Cultural Life: Tom Piper

The theatre production designer on what he's listening to, watching and more

tom piper theatre set designer
Tom Piper

One of the theatre world’s most prolific creatives, Tom Piper has enjoyed a fruitful working relationship with former Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Sir Michael Boyd, and was awarded an MBE in 2015. Piper’s work beyond the stage includes the collaboration with artist Paul Cummins in which 888,246 ceramic poppies flowed from a window of the Tower of London to mark the centenary of World War I, proving so successful that it later went on to tour the UK in a condensed form. Likely to be equally theatrical is his vision of Lewis Carroll’s ‘wildly imaginative’ world for the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition at London’s V&A Museum, due to open this autumn. vam.ac.uk

My all-time favourite piece of music? Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin. For instant joy, it has to be Another Girl Another Planet by The Only Ones.

The book that has influenced me the most is Peter Brook’s The Empty Space. It’s a seminal work based on the notion that to create great theatre all you really need is an empty space. Much of my work is a search for that poetic ‘empty space’ in which to tell stories.

egyptian wedjat eye frront and back
Image Library

My father was a museum director so I was lucky to grow up in that world. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has a wonderful Egyptian section, and the funerary models inspired my early interest in design.

The last theatre production I saw was Pass Over at The Kiln, which is a powerful reworking of Waiting for Godot, with a great performance from Paapa Essiedu. The Kiln is my favourite London theatre and I have been very lucky to work there regularly with its artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham.

My favourite film? With five daughters, I’ve watched a lot of family movies over the years. I still think Toy Story 3 is a bit of a masterpiece.

The last exhibition I saw was the ‘Year 3’ project by Steve McQueen at Tate Britain. I was impressed by the serried ranks of formal school portraits – so much diversity and promise. And I hope they can all have the future they deserve.

steve mcqueen 'year 3' exhibition at tate britain
David Lennon

Designing an exhibition is a very collaborative process. My initial sketches for Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser were in response to the themes and passages from the book that inspired me. Then I made card models to see how these ideas will translate into 3D, and how the flow of the exhibition might work. But an exhibition needs to be more than just an immersive experience – the objects are the real stars (in the same way that a theatre design means nothing without actors) so our job is to make sure that we bring out all the narrative threads and allow the objects to speak to each other.

If I won the lottery, I’d buy a couple of Rothkos. I’d have to get a bigger house, too.

My favourite place in the world is the eastern British coastline. Last time I stayed on Holy Island in Northumberland was during the Painted Lady butterfly invasion, and hundreds would fly up as you walked through the grasslands to empty beaches under vast skies.

lindisfarne castle, holy island, northumberland
Robert Harding / Alamy

I hope that after this chapter our shared cultural spaces bring us happiness and creative stimulation, and as a society we address how we value both frontline workers and the legions of freelance creatives behind the art, theatre, film and online content that we have come to appreciate so much.

A version of this article appeared in the June 2020 issue of ELLE Decoration

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