Guest author Paul Arrowsmith talks to Tom Pye, the designer of The Royal Ballet's new production of Cinderella.
Tom Pye has reimagined anew Frederick Ashton's 75-year-old ballet Cinderella, for The Royal Ballet at London's Royal Opera House, opening on 27 March.
A few days later Pye will learn whether he has bagged an Olivier best design award for My Neighbour Totoro, the RSC's stage adaptation of Studio Ghibli's animated film. Pye is already winner of a WhatsOnStage award for the production.
Pye has worked internationally in theatre, TV, film, opera, and dance for over 20 years. Collaborators include Peter Brook, Sally Wainwright, Deborah Warner, Yuri Possokhov, Phyllida Lloyd, Fiona Shaw and Pierre Audi, among many.
Ahead of Cinderella, I caught up with Pye, beginning by asking him about his career highlights:
“Gosh! What a question. There's a top-five, I suppose: Sally Wainwright's Gentleman Jack for the BBC in 2019 was a joy, a once in a hundred years' job. A queer woman, never hidden – a designer's dream to dress, so stylish and energetic.”
Pye also highlights Death in Venice, Benjamin Britten's opera, an international coproduction created by Deborah Warner for English National Opera in 2007. It won Pye a Franco Abbiati Prize, awarded by the Italian music critics, when later seen at La Scala in Milan.
Another production with Warner was Samuel Becket's Happy Days. Instead of the mound of earth typically enveloping Winnie, the central character, Pye filled the Lyttleton stage at London's National Theatre with a landscape of boulders.
“Working with a director is an organic process that develops through conversation. The director comes in, you have a cup of tea and start talking and see what interests you, whether you are interested in the same things. If a director came in and said ‘this the brief' I would find that tricky, I wouldn't be delighted. Designers like to find their own way through a text, like actors.”
Another highlight for Pye was John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer for English National Opera in 2012 and subsequently at New York's Metropolitan Opera. Depicting a Palestinian hijacking of a cruise ship and subsequent death of a Jewish passenger, Pye says: “If anybody says opera is a dead art form, they should see this. It was challenging politically. For us as a collaborative team, finding the balance was important. In New York we had protesters inside, the CIA outside the theatre, and I received death threats. The set had a glass wall, separating Jews and Palestinians – but the moment when the Jewish chorus planted olive trees the audience went quiet.”
For Pye, the RSC's stage adaptation My Neighbour Totoro, originally a fantasy animated film, was “a joy. Adapting something for the stage from a different medium was particularly challenging. It was truly a project like no other. I'd never worked on a project that had such big demands. There's a house on stage, then there's a forest, and then there's a giant cat bus. Extraordinary.”
In addition to Pye designing the sets, with costumes by Alexandra Byrne, The Royal Ballet's new Cinderella credits Finn Ross as video designer with illusions by Chris Fisher. Lighting is by David Finn. “The brief was to reinvent the ballet for modern audiences. It would be foolish not to. Over the 20 or so years that I have been working, technology has changed. It is now just another tool. Before, technology was used badly, as a way to replace scenery. Now it is a wonderful way to create another dimension.
“I have worked very closely with Wendy Somes on Cinderella. Really, this production has grown out of her history with the show [having performed various roles in previous stagings and who inherited the staging rights to the ballet after the death of her husband, Michael Somes]. I believe Ashley Wheater from the Joffrey Ballet may have recommended me to Kevin O'Hare [director of The Royal Ballet] after seeing my designs for Death in Venice at ENO, and then The Nutcracker for Atlanta Ballet and Yuri Possokhov's Anna Karenina for the Joffrey.
Designing a new ballet like Anna Karenina is quite a different process compared to a revival of an existing work like Cinderella. With Anna Karenina, I didn't have a clue about the choreography, what it would be, or how it would unfold. When I started to design that show all I had was the novel. The libretto for the ballet came later, so I simply guessed the obvious scenes I knew needed to appear. I then made a sort of scenic kit I knew I'd be able to shift and adapt as the choreography grew around it, it needed to develop along the way.
Cinderella was the polar opposite, The choreography all existed, and the design slowly evolved around it. To be honest each new design usually requires a different approach, a new aesthetic, and a new work structure to find. It's that conceptual part of designing that I enjoy the most. With Cinderella, audiences will still see old-fashioned techniques of distraction but with more modern technology. Really the technology is just another way to create colour, light or shade, and texture but I hope that audiences won't be able to tell how the moments of illusion have been created. People who love the ballet will find it intact, but it has been flipped and made fresh.
“I'm very aware of the limitations that respecting the existing choreography gives me – the fireplace, the doorways, the staircase, even the width of the steps [for Cinderella's arrival at the ball]. One major change for me has been how we incorporate the seasons' fairies in the first act. It used to be that the kitchen scenery disappeared and each fairy appeared against a little vignette of her season. I have tried to make nature more of a big feature visually. I have studied archive video of previous productions but mostly I have been back to illustrations in children's books of the story – Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham. Their imagery explains the role of the seasons more. I was particularly struck by their imagery of flowers, so the second act, [traditionally staged in a ballroom] will take place outside in a big garden, framed by grasses and flowers. It begins at dusk and as the action heads towards midnight the scene becomes very dark and moody.”
Pye rejects the notion that one designer must design sets and costumes, that they are an inseparable whole. “Theatre is all about collaboration. Alexandra [Byrne]'s costumes are extraordinary. It's always great to have another pair of eyes and a creative mind to work alongside.”
Pye trained at the Wimbledon School of Art in the late 1980s. “There was a real buzz about the place. It was competitive, and there was lots of talent there, but it was mutually supportive. I was dyslexic and had needed remedial classes at school. My brothers studied chemistry and physics, but I always knew I wanted to do something creative. Theatre sparked something in me.
I particularly remember seeing the RSC do [Arthur Miller's play] The Crucible in Lincoln cathedral. What was so exciting was how designer Bob Crowley used the whole nave of the cathedral. It was basically a traverse set up with raised seats on two sides facing each other, but with ‘groundlings' who, like me, stood around the action which took place either on rough wooden tables pushed together into various shapes by the company or on rugs laid on the stone floor.
“As the play developed we were moved around at greater speed and urgency by the company leaving it very hard to not be drawn right into the story, with the court cases happening inches above you, and the final scene between John Proctor, played by the great Alun Armstrong, and his wife played down the full length of the dark cathedral with chains around their necks leading out of sight, which just denied them at the last beat of the scene to reach out and touch one another, with just an inch between their outstretched arms… I've a long interest in how space is used and how space can affect you emotionally.”
John Napier, designer of the original productions of Cats and Les Misérables, as well as Maria Björnson, who designed widely in opera before her career became synonymous with The Phantom of the Opera, were formative influences on Pye. So too was the work by Cheek by Jowl and Complicité. Another RSC production, Deborah Warner's Titus Andronicus with Brian Cox in the title role at the Swan theatre in 1987 is still a vivid memory for Pye. “It all goes into your subconscious. That's how you learn the language of theatre, the ways to tell a story. Design is not really about aesthetics – it's about how to tell a story. Aesthetics only come afterwards.
“The challenge with design is not to repeat what has been done before. My choices are wide and that is driven by research. Research, research, and research. For anybody wanting to work in design, I'd say look around you. Know your social history and art history. Research everything. Learn from books and libraries. Don't trust what you see in the media or on the internet! Every job you do will create new opportunities.”
Pye's next production is Brokeback Mountain at Soho Place, London's new 600-seat auditorium: “A different scale to Cinderella entirely – and cowboys too!”
Cinderella is in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 3 May.
Find out more about Tom Pye here.
Royal Opera House Production Workshop in Thurrock, January 2023
A selection of Tom Pye's designs
Paul Arrowsmith has been watching dance for 45 years after Peter Wright's Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet was his baptism in dance in the UK. He wrote for Dancing Times between 2010-22, reporting from China, Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, along the way interviewing Alessandra Ferri, Akram Khan and Miyako Yoshida among many. He has a particular interest in design for dance and has profiled the work of Natalia Goncharova, Jürgen Rose, John Macfarlane and Anthony McDonald. Paul collaborated with Sir Peter Wright on his memoires Wrights & Wrongs and in 2016 was programme consultant for the BBC documentary, The Ballet Master: Sir Peter Wright at 90.