Glastonbury Festival stage design

The glowing Pyramid Stage is an instantly recognisable icon of Glastonbury Festival. Inspired by the Giza pyramids in Egypt, its bold and enduring shape, and carefully considered location are testament to the festival founders who created the first pyramid structure on the site back in 1971.

Creating an iconic stage

Along with Stonehenge and the Glastonbury Tor, the Pyramid Stage is at the heart of the Festival. Nestled at the bottom of a hill, it is a focal point for audiences who gather on the surrounding slopes. The topography of the land creates a natural auditorium, enriching the multi-sensory festival experience for the audiences who gather in their thousands. Today it remains a beacon at Worthy Farm.

The evolution of the stage over five decades reveals much about the changing nature of performance and music technologies. In 1971, the first incarnation – designed by Bill Harkin, and built to the same scale at the Pyramids in Egypt – was a temporary structure made from scaffolding and clad in metal sheets. The pyramid was a secure construction that housed the stage for performers; its apex was illuminated and visible across the Glastonbury site. It played host to David Bowie and Marc Bolan with their limited sound systems and acoustic guitars, paving the way for future generations of musicians to push the limits of outdoor acoustics and spectacle.

Pyramid Stage, 1971. © Peter Ball

The second evolution of the Pyramid Stage came in 1981, when it became a dual purpose stage and cowshed, to house Worthy Farm's cows. This tactical decision by Festival organisers ensured that the stage became a more permanent and functional feature on the farm.

In 2000 a new Pyramid Stage was created and constructed by local villager Bill Burroughs. This 30-metre tall steel structure, covering a footprint of 1,600 square metres, provides the infrastructure and framework for state-of-the-art staging and ground-breaking festival performances.

Pyramid Stage under construction, 2019. © Glastonbury Festival

The Apex of the Pyramid

In the 1980s the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) logo was visible at the top of the pyramid – a powerful signal to performers and festival-goers. Glastonbury has always been a platform for addressing global issues. The Pyramid and other stages continue to be adorned with sculptures and banners, often drawing attention to charitable causes. In 2013, Joe Rush and the Mutoid Waste Company created a 6-tonne kinetic Phoenix on the canopy of the Pyramid Stage. The bird with enormous wings was at the time the most daring and complex engineering projected attempted in the Festival's history. Symbolising the Festival's return after one fallow year, the phoenix came to life as a spectacular finale to the Rolling Stones' headline performance.

(Left to right:) Phoenix on top of the Pyramid Stage. © Rosanna Westwood; Phoenix with flames. © Glastonbury Festival

In 2019, Joe Rush and his team created a sculptural planet earth at the top of the Pyramid to draw attention to Climate Change and David Attenborough's Seven Worlds, One Planet campaign. At the top of the Other stage, behind the Pyramid, they created an enormous metal bee titled 'Insect Rebellion', demonstrating the Festival's support for activist group Extinction Rebellion.

Embracing new technologies

Glastonbury has always been at the cutting edge of stage technology and design, pioneering new approaches to sound, light and video experiences. While the sun setting behind the Pyramid can provide a dramatic natural backdrop, stage designers have also created spectacular light, video and pyrotechnic shows for night-time events. Technical demands increase every year as ambitious performers strive to create something new. Today, the scale of Glastonbury's backstage areas is immense, often with production crews working on a changeover between acts of 15 minutes.

Pyramid Stage. Image: Designing Buildings Wiki

In 1997, and again in 2017, Radiohead's lighting designer Andi Watson created mesmerising, sculptural lighting installations, reminiscent of the work of Czech theatre designer, Josef Svoboda. Watson's designs supported the band's powerful music by creating atmosphere, mood and a visual aesthetic that seamlessly integrated the stage with the music.

Radiohead at Glastonbury Festival, 2017. © Anna Barclay
Radiohead at Glastonbury Festival, 2017. © Jason Bryant

In 2010, the Gorillaz performed in front of dramatic projections that combined their distinctive cartoon visual style (created by Jamie Hewlett) with video montage to create an audio visual feast. In 2019, The Chemical Brothers pushed the boundaries of lasers and holograms, using the latest projection technology to extend beyond the physical stage and create a sensational array of visuals. The digital performance intensified the moment and the sense of shared experience. By contrast, Kanye West's 2015 Pyramid performance followed a more minimal approach which was powerfully unexpected. The design included an internal ceiling that lowered across the stage, immersing the performer in beams of light. He later appeared in a crane hovering above the pyramid as he performed the song 'Touch the sky'.

(Left to right:) The Chemical Brothers at Glastonbury, 2019. Credit: Andrew Whitton/NME; Kanye West at Glastonbury, 2015. Credit: Emily Barker/NME

In 2016, Es Devlin's dramatic staging for Adele's Glastonbury debut turned the iconic Pyramid structure into a multimedia canvas. With spectacular video design created by Luke Halls, Adele's features wrapped the Pyramid, adding narrative and context to her memorable performance.

Adele at Glastonbury, 2016. Image: Es Devlin
Adele at Glastonbury, 2016. Photograph by Iwona-Pinkowicz

Misty Buckley's set design for Stormzy's 2019 performance

As a platform, the Pyramid Stage gives performers an opportunity to present a campaign, or carefully tailored image to millions of viewers at home and on site. Dolly Parton braved the familiar Glastonbury mud in a gleaming white one-piece sprinkled with diamante jewels, bringing glitz to the Pyramid on a Sunday afternoon. Kylie managed five spectacular costume changes in her popular and emotional 2019 set. In the same year, Billie Eilish followed the Glastonbury ethos of supporting good causes by donating her signature look, as worn in her festival performance, to Oxfam for a fundraising auction.

Beyond the Pyramid

Over 50 years, the festival has increased in size to cover 900 acres. By 2019, the Pyramid is now one of over 100 stages, as festival organisers have enabled new areas of the site to become a springboard for imaginative performance. Organisers Michael and Emily Eavis have retained their overall vision for the Festival, while considering both the safety and enjoyment of the festival-goer, and putting in place the necessary supporting infrastructure, from sanitation to visitor flow. Each new area of the Festival has emerged from the landscape with its own aesthetic, atmosphere and programme of activities. Performance design extends across the site, where the green fields act as a stage for the most imaginative minds to create alternative worlds, visions of utopia, escapist universes and political theatres.

Glastonbury site map, 2019. © Glastonbury Festival

Since 2008, Shangri-La, an area of Glastonbury led by Creative Director Kaye Dunnings, has created bold pop-up universes with radical artists that provoke discourse and hold a mirror to society. Shangri-La aims to expand minds, open hearts and motivate people in politics and play. For example, a towering octopus created from plastic bottles conveyed an important environmental message about ocean pollutants. In 2019, Shangri-La created the Gas Works, a mesmerising 360-degree projection theatre with music and story driven video design revealing apocalyptic universes.

Gas Tower, Shangri-La. © Hannah Sherlock

Another ground-breaking festival area run by Arcadia aims to create extraordinary collective experiences through radical, ethically-conscious mediums. Their iconic Spider – a stage for circus, dance and music – dominated the Festival landscape until 2018, revealing an extraordinary spectrum of theatrical experiences. In 2019, the spider was replaced with Pangea, a giant crane, repurposed after decades of service at Bristol's Avonmouth Docks. These mechanical, kinetic structures, beacons of light, energy and performance are a magnet to festival-goers after dark. Their scale and form may be at odds with the landscape, but they are an integral part of Glastonbury's unique scenography, fusing circus, fairground, theatre and nightclub cultures.

Arcadia’s Spider at Glastonbury. © Anna Barclay

In 2019, Festival collaborator Block9 created IICON – a vast sculptural stage and outdoor arena that transformed by night with projection mapping and lasers. The specially created stage took the form of a diagonally tilted head with a cube intersecting the face. Visionary creators of IICON, Gideon Berger and Stephen Gallagher created NYC Downlow, their first Glastonbury project in 2007. The after-hours partying area was inspired by New York's gay nightclub scene, celebrating queer culture. Working with a massive technical team, the duo creates temporary alternative realities and bespoke shared experiences which are monuments to ideas and visions. Their work conveys the visual expression of electronic music, bringing artists to the stage to communicate complex and challenging narratives.

IICON by Block9 at Glastonbury. © IICON

At Glastonbury, visitors can move between festival tribes and experience other worlds, immersed in a heady collage of sounds and visions. Each zone is a mix of creativity, politics, and performance, shaped by collaborators, technology, the site and the festival-goers themselves, all contributing to a unique Glastonbury scenography.

Ministry of Happy at Glastonbury Festival. Image: Charles Gervais
Header image:

Misty Buckley stage design for Stormzy's Glastonbury performance, 2019. © Misty Buckley Design