Behind the Curtain: A poetry challenge with the V&A

For this challenge with the V&A Museum, we’re asking you to take a step back from the bright stage lights, and go backstage into the murkier world behind the curtain.

© V&A Images
© V&A Images

The Victoria and Albert Museum this year celebrates the rich creative theatre talent in the West End of London and New York’s Broadway, two world class centres of theatrical excellence. Curtain Up: Celebrating 40 Years of Theatre in London and New York explores the extraordinary range of craft and collaboration that goes into creating award-winning plays, musicals and productions. Our friends at the V&A’s Theatre and Performance Department share with us some amazing images and stories from behind the scenes to help inspire your own creative responses.

The V&A’s Sophie Reynold’s told us:

“The idea behind the exhibition design was to create a feeling of going backstage at the theatre, and discovering all sorts of things that you wouldn’t normally see if you were in the audience watching the show. So we have set model boxes, costumes, designs, a lighting desk…”

The world of the theatre is an alluring one to so many people – whether it’s running the show, actually treading the boards, or simply sitting on, spellbound, in the audience. For this challenge, we want you create a poem that represents the lesser-seen characters of theatre-land.

You might imagine you’re a director, designer, stagehand, or an audience member waiting to meet their idol at the stage door. Think about the people you never see on stage – the make-up artist, greasepaint in hand, working painstakingly to create a cast of new faces night after night, or the theatre technician, timing the exact split second to bring up the spotlight for a grand entrance. Write a poem that gives a voice to one of these understudies, and snatch the spotlight away from the more obvious stars of the stage.

For more ideas, read Greta Stoddart’s ‘The Curtain‘. This poem really interestingly uses the idea of the stage curtain to convey the sense of disjunction between public and private space, how that “particular split in the air” marks a dividing line between who you are in the ‘live action’ world of the stage, and who you are to yourself, when the curtain drops back into place. Behind the curtain is a complex, secretive space, both familiar and mysterious. How might you represent this elusive world, and those who inhabit it, in a poem?

Creative costumes

The V&A has also shared with us some incredible images of costumes – designs and drawings, as well as the finished outfits – that have played a part in some of the biggest theatrical hits of recent times. You might try creating a poem that uses one (or more) of these costumes as your inspiration – but we want you to get past the frills and finery, and give us a poem in the voice of the person behind it.

Costume Design for the Ladies Chorus in Rigoletto, 1982 Designed by Rosemary Vercoe
Costume Design for the Ladies Chorus in Rigoletto, 1982
Designed by Rosemary Vercoe

Rigoletto (1851) is an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. Rigoletto, a jester at the court of the Duke of Mantua in 16th century Italy, is cursed for his inappropriate laughter, which leads to a dramatic tale of forbidden love, revenge, and violence.

These costumes sketches were made for the ladies chorus in Jonathan Miller’s 1982 production of Rigoletto, which re-imagined the action as taking place in New York’s 1950s Mafia underworld

Idea for a poem

Most of the women in Rigoletto get pretty poor treatment – one of the opera’s most famous arias, ‘La donna è mobile’ translates as ‘The woman is fickle’! – and they are often treated only as objects, to be admired and sought-after by the Duke and his court.

Think about how the chorus’ costumes work either for or against that stereotyped image, and write a poem that takes on one (or more) of their voices. What steely personalities might be shining beneath the furs and flounces? What might those long, gold-gloved hands be capable of? Think about the movements and gestures would you use to express yourself in this tightly-controlled, courtly environment.What might you say or do to express your independence?

The Phantom of the Opera

Costume Design for three dancers and singers in The Phantom of the Opera, the Masquerade Scene, 1986 Designed by Maria Björnson With the permission of the Maria Björnson Archive
Costume Design for three dancers and singers in The Phantom of the Opera, the Masquerade Scene, 1986
Designed by Maria Björnson
Reproduced with the permission of the Maria Björnson Archive

Many of us are familiar with this tale of the cursed, mysterious phantom, who lurks in the depths of a Parisian opera house, entranced by the beautiful soprano voice of the orphaned Christine.

These costumes were designed for the famous masquerade scene, in which the Phantom makes his first terrifying appearance. You can see in the designer’s notes that the intended effect for these masquerade dances was to appear spectacularly bizarre, intimidating, even grotesque.

Many of the materials for these costumes were made from sari fabrics, and the half man-half woman costume was created by a husband and wife team of costumiers; she taking charge of the dress, while he looked after the suit tailoring.

Idea for a poem

Write a dialogue poem to showcase the perspectives of the two half-and-half costume makers. What might they discuss as they work to create this sensational outfit? Would they be envious of one another’s work, or supportive? Would it turn into a tug-of-war among the buckles, feathers and lace?

Think carefully about the personalities you could create in this poem – grumbling and world-weary, scornful of the actors who wear their beautiful clothes? Or  proud and protective, revering the world they help to create…


Prizes for winning poets will include publication on the Young Poets Network, a much-coveted Young Poets Network notebook, and other assorted poetry goodies. 

How to Enter

This challenge is now closed – huge thanks to all who entered. You can read the winning poems by following the links at the top of this page.

The V&A’s Curtain Up exhibition is a free and immersive theatrical experience taking visitors from the stage, to the design workshops and through the history of the awards to the red carpet. For more information, visit the exhibition’s website.

Published June, 2016

4 thoughts on “Behind the Curtain: A poetry challenge with the V&A

  1. If our idea is the author of a book, whose book was turned to a play. Would that be eligible?

    Can we also give voice to the playwright? Would that be eligible? Or does it have to be backstage as in crew.

    Thank you,

    1. Hi Rayan.

      Sorry this has come a little late – but yes, all those ideas are definitely acceptable!


      Young Poets Network

    1. Hi Artemis,

      We hope to announce the results of this challenge in mid to late September, so do keep checking back.

      Thanks and good luck!

      Young Poets Network

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