The Dream Begins
Childhood - World War II - School - Bakers Cross - Model Theatre - Innovation and Backstage - National Service - NT Foundation Stone is laid.
I had to be the star—well, I was ten and staging my first production.
The first theatre I designed was on the second floor landing in my parents' home: a large Victorian house in Beckenham, South East London. A pair of dark-red velour curtains divided the rest of our house from my mother's parents' flat. Gaga and Gramps' front hall became my narrow stage. The auditorium had to have raked seating; the audience sat on the stairs, which of course were asymmetric, because the left staircase came up from the ground floor, while the right continued upstairs.
I was directing, writing, designing, and acting in a new revue, entitled A RICHARD PILBROW PRODUCTION. I cajoled my cousins and compliant friends into playing supporting roles, and dragooned the family into forming the audience. (I had always been very bossy.) I played Nelson dying at Trafalgar; Rommel, Desert Fox, battling (and losing) in North Africa; Caesar with Cleopatra; a hero of the Free-French resistance; and an SS colonel. I forget how I was both torturer and victim—maybe theywere in different scenes.
The show was a huge success. The audience had to suffer a cash collection, with proceeds donated to Mrs. Winston Churchill's Aid to Russia Fund. This, of course, was World War II. I still have her mimeographed letter dated 16th November 1943. In that kind note she thanked me for helping "the heroic Russians in their terrible but victorious struggle against the wicked invaders of their country."
My hard-earned contribution to the Battle of Stalingrad was one pound seventeen shillings and seven pence (maybe the equivalent of fifty dollars today).
I am told my mother and father took up hobbies during their long engagement. My mother, Marjorie, qualified as a music teacher and was my artistic mentor. My father, Gordon Pilbrow, took up fencing and became British Amateur Sabre Fencing Champion in 1934—a title he recaptured four times and kept until 1950. He was in the British Olympic Team in Berlin in 1936 and in London in 1946. He was a hero, tall and an athlete. He hoped to mold my elder sister, Anne, and me into his image . . . athletic. Unfortunately neither of us qualified. When I was twelve he summoned the Olympic coach, Professor "Punch" Bertrand, to try to turn me into a fencer. After thirty minutes of continual lunges, I would burst into tears.
During my early childhood my Dad often traveled on fencing trips. The world center of the sabre was in Budapest. I remember his leaving home, and especially his return—with presents. Once it was an entire miniature Hungarian gypsy costume—white skirt, embroidered waistcoat—but with a real policeman's helmet that had a silver spike on top. Many years later, he explained a photograph that had been taken of his departure from Budapest. He was being seen off at the railway station by the chief of police and an honor guard. What did not appear in the picture was the inside of his suitcase: it was stuffed with jewelry he was illegally smuggling out of the country. Many of his friends were Jewish, and he made trips to bring out their assets before the Nazis arrived.
In 1934, my father visited New York for an international fencing competition. He returned with a souvenir brochure of the city, in which the Chrysler and Empire State buildings looked as magnificent then as they do today. In my very earliest memories this was a glimpse into a wonderland. It became my most treasured possession. While some kids dragged around a security blanket or a teddy bear, I clung to my dog-eared book of dreams.
Theatre Beckons . . .
Granny Pilbrow took the whole family to a pantomime: ROBINSON CRUSOE. I was five and this was my first-ever theatre visit. I can still vividly see the endless expanse of white sand, palm trees, crashing surf, and blazing blue sky stretching to infinity—just like a movie. As this was at the local weekly Bromley Repertory Theatre in 1938, the scene must actually have been the shakiest, most wrinkled, flapping backcloth. But my imagination was in hyper-drive; it always was. I was never myself, but always living in a different and totally all-consuming world.
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
World War II
To an eight-year-old boy, the Blitz was mainly exciting. In the mornings I would emerge from the cellar (which my dad had fortified in 1939 and where we slept during the worst of the air raids) to scour the garden for the tail fins of incendiary bombs and shrapnel that littered everywhere. "Careful," my mother would say, "Make sure they're not still hot!" They were great bartering tools at school: One tail fin equaled several bits of shell fragment.
Doodlebugs were less fun. They were scary. Despite a loud ventilating fan that my father had installed, we could still hear that a flying bomb was on the way. When its engine cut out, the bomb would glide to earth . . . somewhere . . . hopefully, past you and on to someone else. Five of these massive bombs fell very close to our house. Many weekends, my father had to re-paper over the windows that had been blown out during the week. One time while he was on fire duty, the latest bomb exploded really close by. Our chimneys and roof slates crashed down, trapping us in the cellar. We had to be dug out. Dad's face was the first I saw—he looked very worried.
A Professional Stage Manager
The following Monday I stepped through the stage door of Her Majesty's for the very first time as a professional—a moment I shall never forget. During the show, my duties included guiding the beautiful geisha girl (our leading lady) backstage during blackouts for scene changes; but were otherwise modest—until Alf, the property master, went on holiday. He bequeathed to me the job of looking after the goat in the show. This included taking it back and forth from its lodgings, a stable near Victoria Station. Viki and I had acquired a green 1936 Hillman car. It worked intermittently, but I had no driving license, nor did the car have registration or insurance. I thought nobody would notice.
Every day, I had to drive through the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace. Since the goat's head was sticking out of the window, the policeman would stop the traffic, wave me (trembling) past, and inquire after my health and the goat's.
This New Breed of Specialist
There appears to be a new breed of specialist creeping into the West End theatre today: somebody called ‘the lighting designer.' If last night's debacle is anything to judge by, this preposterous new fashion will not be with us long.
This is paraphrasing what Felix Barker (critic for London's The Evening News) wrote about my work on an ill-fated production at the Cambridge Theatre. So slamming was the attack, so horrendous was the production, that I've blotted its name out of my memory and the cutting out of my scrapbook. The quality of the lighting I'm not so sure about because, just as the already-chaotic production was about to move onstage, I was struck down by stomach trouble and spent the final week of rehearsal in bed. I had asked that my name be removed from the program, but producers tend to forget that sort of thing. As I lay listening to Viki read the respected Mr. Barker, I was certain that my fledgling career was terminated.
I suppose there must be confident lighting designers, but despite the act I could put on, I was not one of them—nor am I today. The process of lighting a show—beginning with a long, exhausting fit-up, followed by a focus session fraught with frustration from frequent interruption, and ending with cueing—always was a pretty hellish thing. While setting cues, you have to perform in front of your peers. Surrounded by director, designer, perhaps the producer and numerous hangers-on, you have to turn the stage into magic. This is not good for the nerves. I remember after the last lamp had been focused, stealing away and locking myself in a nearby toilet for a private bout of nausea. I don't think there's a theatre in Britain where I did not know which toilet was closest to the stage. I know about stage fright for actors. Even Olivier was at times crippled by it. I found lighting-fright to be pretty debilitating. When you do go out there and get behind the production desk, the first cues seem absolute torture. How could anyone work more slowly than I, you wonder. How could any stage look worse? How could everything I've thought of and painstakingly focused be just off its proper mark?
A Business Grows
Our time had obviously come. In fact, too much had come too soon. We quickly realized that it was impossible to run the business, service the equipment, drive the van for deliveries (we'd bought a van!), draw the plots, light the shows, and cope with all the necessary paperwork. I was the only full-time staff member. Bryan still had an evening job and Viki worked in TV during the day. We spent our free evenings de-rusting our equipment. But we needed help. Our first full-time paid staff member, Jack Ritchie, joined us to work on the equipment and drive the van. Financial results in 1959 were turnover £4,871 with gross profit £1,249! TP was getting bigger, if not more profitable.
In January 1960, I lit an extraordinarily bad play named GIRL ON THE HIGHWAY, directed by Peter Cotes. The chief electrician at the Prince's Theatre was one Robert Ornbo; we hit it off immediately. According to Robert, this is how he became my lighting assistant: "We sat in my shop under the stage and you said, ‘Would you like to come and work for me?' And I said, ‘Yes, I would.’" He joined during a week in which three shows had to be lit at once. "It was all a blur, that first bit. It was fairly hectic." Somewhat of an understatement—we still joke that he arrived for work on Monday morning and went home three weeks later.
I had been fascinated for a long time by the possibilities of scene projection. The largest Strand projector then was the Pattern 52, a 1,000-watt effects projector that used a 3″ slide. One of my favorite lighting books had been the 1930s book Stage Lighting by Ridge and Aldred. It contained a photograph of German large-scale projection using a pre-distorted 7-inch (18mm) slide.
So Viki and I went back to Berlin to visit Reiche & Vogel. I described my need to the technicians. This was to project on to a semi-circular cyclorama from a very short throw, on a stage no more than 25 feet deep. They were startled. Nobody had attempted this before. I asked how they pre-distorted their slides. They said it was simple; you put the projector in place on the stage, projected a blank slide on to the screen, and marked the shape required to fit on the slide. The designer then painted his artwork to fit the required shape. I said that I thought I had a problem: We needed about 50 pairs of slides and we had to get into the theatre on a Sunday and open the following day. There was much alarm, some Teutonic laughter, and chattering in German. "Impossible!" was obviously the technicians' consensus.
In 1962, I received a letter from Tony Walton that precipitated a life-changing event. He had returned to New York, where his wife, Julie Andrews, was starring in CAMELOT. He invited me to fly over to talk to Hal Prince, a Broadway producer already famous, with WEST SIDE STORY, DAMN YANKEES, and THE PAJAMA GAME to his credit. Tony was to design a new Broadway musical comedy: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. Would I be the projection consultant? And, incidentally, I would be working with Broadway's legendary lighting designer Jean Rosenthal. Oh, my God!
Pan Am flew me to New York—my first trans-Atlantic trip; I was still in shock. I read the script over the Atlantic, roaring with laughter—it was bloody funny!
I stayed with Tony and Julie in their East Side apartment on York Avenue. Tony and I picked Julie up at the Majestic Theatre after the performance of CAMELOT. This was my first sight of the inside of a Broadway theatre, an amazingly vibrant and intimate space. And never had I seen a stage full of so many beautifully colored lights—lighting designed by the American pioneer designer Abe Feder. With me in a rosy haze, Tony, Julie, and I went to dinner. As Julie entered the restaurant, everybody stood up and applauded.
Next morning, we went to Hal's office. He was pretty dynamic (British understatement) and welcomed me warmly. Then I was introduced to Jean Rosenthal. This, for me, was like meeting Mrs. God. She was a tiny, beautiful lady, who reminded me of my beloved Gaga—my mother's mother. Together we went to meet Ed Kook at Century Lighting. A stocky, amazingly archetypal New Yorker, business tycoon, a powerhouse of a man, he grabbed my arm and hustled me down a corridor into a workshop. He pointed to the ceiling where a Fresnel spotlight was hanging. "Go!" he shouted to someone named Chuck. The Fresnel started to move—by remote control! "That, Dick, is the future."
Back in London, the ‘60s were swinging by in a blur, while I was lighting shows in a frenzy. The most important development at TP was the emergence of the lighting design team. I began with the conviction that if I was contracted to light a show, I personally had to light it—not an assistant. If I was not able to commit 100%, I would do a joint design with one of my assistants, sharing the credit. In this way, they learned the ropes while becoming known, eventually graduating to become full designers.
The excitement among us was infectious. We lived, ate, and drank stage lighting. Sometimes there was too much of the drinking. Amazingly, there was little or no jealousy. I remember Broadway lighting designer Jules Fisher, who had become a good friend, once remarking to me that such a team would be impossible in New York. The profession there was simply too competitive.
We all shared opportunities and problems: How to achieve such-and-such an effect? What was the impact of that color? What could you do to cope with that situation? Wow, this director is hopeless. What do I do next? It seemed a Renaissance-like excitement, and the successes of the group's later careers is something of which I am very proud.
OLIVIER CALLS BACK
The following January after my Chichester debacle the telephone rang again. This time it was clearly “Sir”:"Dickie, dear boy, it’s January. We open Chichester again in June. Does that give you enough fucking time?"
He invited me to lunch at the Dorchester. We talked, and I was hired to be lighting director for the New National Theatre Company, starting in Chichester in June and then transferring to the Old Vic in September. Wow!
Thanks to my amazing visit to Broadway and the proposal from Hal Prince, I was also going to be a West End producer. But A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM did not start rehearsals until August. What else could I get up to? Run the growing company? Maybe design some lighting?
Into Show Business
My first day in the Strand Theatre was auditioning beautiful girls to play the courtesans—to be scantily clad by Tony Walton. This was hard work, sitting there as a series of beautiful girls presented themselves. Amongst them we had to find a pair of twins, if possible blonde and lovely.
Two gorgeous girls appeared. They sang and danced a few steps very competently. With long blonde hair, they wore identical fluffy angora sweaters. Deirdre turned to Viki and me: "What do you think?" I wasn't sure how to respond, so I said, "Deirdre they're lovely, but I can't actually see . . . how are their figures?"
Immediately Deirdre calls out: "Girls, we can't see your figures." Without a second's delay, they simultaneously whipped off their tops and were quite bare. I was impressed. "Oh, my God . . . I'm a producer!"
With incredible cheek, I had said to Hal, "London is the home of Olivier, Gielgud, and Shakespeare. Musicals have never been taken really seriously. We don't want the American stage manager just reproducing a Broadway hit; we want George Abbott, the original director, to recreate it as it was—if possible, even better!" He did not take offense, but sent me to talk to Mr. Abbott, one of the most revered and legendary Broadway directors of all time. And he agreed to come—the real Mr. Abbott.
Consulting Grows in Britain
It was thus we began consulting. In the '60s, people in the UK had started to build theatres. Few people in Britain had done such a thing for over 30 years. They seemed to forget the dressing rooms, or the box office, or some other detail. So TP's phone began to ring.
Theatre Projects began to be hired to act as a bridge between theatre and the world of architecture. We were to translate for the construction industry the often arcane language of theatre. My background was technical production and lighting; David Collison added sound and communication skills. We were both beginners in terms of building, but it was our theatrical experience that was wanted. At first, we met with client and architects to discuss the needs of the theatre; we advised on what spaces were required backstage, and we sat with the design team to negotiate the optimum solution to any problem. Later, it became clearer to us that illustrating our advice was more effective, so we provided drawings of theatrically critical spaces.
A National Theatre Emerges
Michael Elliot and I felt a growing concern about the stage’s limitations. The concrete balcony around it seemed to contradict Olivier’s hope that the new stage should not shackle the rich traditions of stagecraft, but unleash a new potential. Late one night (September 28, 1966), after Sir Laurence got back from the theatre, Michael and I met with him at his flat in Roebuck House, near Victoria Station. What were we to do about this proposed concrete balcony around the stage? Michael argued passionately against it. Olivier himself was uncertain. He wanted a stage that was "within the audience room," but "wanted to enter from space beyond that room." For example, he could imagine himself in KING LEAR, entering through the storm from the farthest distance and then coming into the heart of the audience. I suggested that if a production wanted a balcony it could always be specified by the scene designer and built for the production. Why inhibit the theatre for all time with a mass of concrete center stage?
Olivier asked me to go away and sketch a suggestion for a new stage shape. I did this the next day, Tony Corbett drew it up, and I sent it to Olivier for his reaction. I was a little daunted, when he enthusiastically passed it on to Lasdun. Lasdun was not amused at all. I was commanded to appear at his office forthwith: "I am the architect, how dare you! Why, your 'ears' on my fly tower will change the silhouette of my building and the skyline of London for all time!" He was right. They did. They still do and, presumably, will—for many ages.
Back to the American Musical: COMPANY
Hal and I quickly decided that for the London production, this quintessentially New York musical had to be the genuine article. After months of negotiation with British Actors' Equity, we got permission to bring the entire Broadway cast to London.
Our star, Elaine Stritch, flew into Heathrow separately. For several weeks, we'd corresponded about her need to bring her little long-haired dachshund, Bridget, to England. I'd explained (often) that this was absolutely out of the question. British law forbade a dog's importation into the UK without six months' quarantine.
Theo Cowan and I went to Heathrow Airport to meet Elaine. We were accompanied by Molly, who'd arrived in London only a few months before. Elaine burst through the doors of the customs hall, wearing a long fur coat and carrying a bulky handbag. I stepped forward. "Get me out of here!" she screeched, marching past our reception line. We rushed out after her to point the way to our waiting car. "Elaine, where's your luggage?" I asked. "Get me out of here!" she demanded again. "I've left all my damn luggage!"
"But Elaine, you can't leave your luggage. Customs will only let it through if the owner is there in person."
"Get me out of here!" With that she opened her purse, and—like a jack-in-a-box—out popped a long-haired dachshund!
"No!" I said pushing Bridget down into the bag—a police constable was standing about ten yards in front of us. "Elaine, dear, this is really serious. I told you. You cannot bring a dog into the country. It's against the law. You'll be arrested. You'll go to jail. The show won't be able to open!" My mind was racing.
I turned to Molly, to whom this was all a very new world. "Molly, you'll have to drive. Take Elaine to the Connaught Hotel, it's in Mayfair. London."
"Richard, which way is London?"
Molly had hardly ever driven a right-hand-drive vehicle before, and never in London. Her only previous trip to London had been when I had picked her up on her arrival.
Theo and I jumped out of the car. "Sorry, darling . . . it's that way!"
Molly, the car, Elaine, and Bridget sped off.
SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS (1973)
On Monday morning we were ready. Our first shot was to be of the Walkers' arrival in the Lakes, in an old steam train. Denis Lewiston and the camera crew were in a pit to the side of the railway tracks; the train puffed away around the corner. Neville Thompson said quietly to me, "Richard, we're ready." (On the first day of filming it is the producer's role to kick off.) I declared, "Turnover!" The camera turned. "Action." The train whistle pierced the morning sky, the huge locomotive lurched into sight around the bend and thundered down toward us. My God, this was the life.
Lighting the show was wonderful. The human body lit from unlimited angles can be very beautiful. Margo Sappington was the lead dancer and choreographer—a sweet and very beautiful person. We spent a lot of one Sunday lighting the pas de deux that opened Act Two. Margot demonstrated a dance section, I lit it, then she ran entirely naked into the stalls up to the production desk to watch her understudy repeat the choreography. Delighted with our work, she enthusiastically draped herself over my shoulder, squeezing me in excitement. It was lovely. Sitting next to me, David Hersey tried to look professional. So did I!
IS THE NATIONAL READY, MR. PILBROW?
At long, long last, after waiting over 100 years, Britain finally opened its National Theatre. I stood in the receiving line next to architect Denys Lasdun. All of us were dressed in our finest black-tie outfits. The Queen put forward her hand: "Is the National Theatre ready, Mr. Pilbrow?" I gave a slight, but necessary, bow: "Not quite, Your Majesty, but thank you."
Boxes and Balconies
The restoration of the Theatre Royal Nottingham in 1976 was a landmark of enormous importance for me. It transformed a desperately dilapidated Victorian auditorium into a wonderfully theatrical space.
This was my eureka moment! Those sometimes tired, tatty old theatres that I had often scorned, in which I both had lit and produced theatre for years, were the key to rediscovering how to build theatres in the future. Theatre design had deep and rich traditions that dated back to the days of Shakespeare. This tradition was to be my inspiration.
But, with the passage of 12 months, I was getting desperate about finalizing the contract.
On what might have been my final visit to Iran, Mr. Adabi asked, was I busy that day? I was not. We set out in a chauffeur-driven limousine, with motorcycle outrider escort, to drive out into the country northwest of Tehran. After crossing the desert for several hours, we stopped outside a half-completed building. Good heavens, it appeared to be a theatre.
We walked into a 500-seat theatre that lacked seats or a roof. It had one balcony with a royal box in the center.
"You'll observe, Mr. Pilbrow, that we Iranians can build theatres too!" declared Mr. Adabi with pride.
The inference was clear: another round of negotiations to further reduce our fees. I looked around and called for a chair. Hastily, a wooden box was found and rushed into the royal box. I sat and looked toward the stage.
The balcony rail was so high that his royal-ness would only see the very top of the proscenium—the stage was out of sight! I stood and invited Mr. Adabi to take my place. As he lowered himself onto the "throne," his face became ashen. He stood, seized my arm, and rushed me out to the car. As we drove back to Tehran, he said, "Mr. Pilbrow, I believe we can sign the contract this afternoon."
THE LITTLE FOXES (1982)
Elizabeth Taylor was to star in this production at the Victoria Palace. Expectation was high, and so was my tension level. I was under strict instructions from Zeff Buffman, the producer, that Miss Taylor had to be treated with the softest of all kid gloves. She had to look ravishingly beautiful and young. I was warned that she could be a demon . . . and my head was on the block.
I lit, and the American company arrived, and moved onstage. Miss Taylor proved to be an absolute delight. Not a word of complaint passed her beautiful lips. Indeed, at the end of our first afternoon rehearsal, I was clearing up my papers prior to dinner break, and she wandered down into the stalls and up to my desk. "Richard, what do you do for dinner in this town?" "Well," I replied, "I and the crew are going to the pub." "Oh, how great, may I join you?"
We trouped across the road to the pub, and all sat round a beer-laden table . . . every night, all through the tech rehearsals.
She was an absolute blast! Naturally the crew and I fell in love with this amazingly friendly, free-and-easy, and totally gorgeous woman . . . a great pub-companion too.
Brian did indeed take me to Genesis. Watching 20,000 kids jumping up and down with the music, I looked up to see all our lighting trusses literally bouncing too. I asked Brian: "Does our insurance cover this?" I have to admit to personally preferring Mozart, but I was blown away by the excitement of a live concert. We filmed Led Zeppelin at Earls Court. The audience of many thousands was standing for most of the evening, leaping up and down with the music. At the end a colossal cheer filled the arena while the still-standing audience yelled their appreciation for 15 minutes in total darkness. Only then did they get an encore. This seemed a level of passion to be envied by us in "legit" theatre.
But I was even more fascinated by the lighting—the rigging technology and, from 1981, that miracle the moving light. Automated remote-control fixtures had been pioneered by what was originally a sound company, Vari-Lite of Dallas, Texas. These fixtures with computer-controlled pan and tilt, a variable iris or gobos, and rapidly changing color, were clearly going to change lighting forever. The world of rock-and-roll had a great deal to offer the world of theatre. I liked Brian Croft enormously, and enthusiastically supported TP's acquisition of TFA.
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Then to work with Maria Björnson on PHANTOM at her studio. We discussed the pivotal sequence where the Phantom leads our heroine from her dressing room down into the bowels of the theatre. Wouldn't it be amazing if the underworld could rise through the stage from below.
I had a thought: "Maria, I began my career at HM's. My first office was under the stage; all the old Victorian stage machinery is still down there. Plateau bridges, float traps, trapdoors, the lot. I've never seen it move, but I wonder if it could still work?" I rang the theatre; we jumped into a cab and went over . . . through the familiar stage door and down to the basement. Yes, it was still all there . . . could it be made to operate? Why not?
One day in late March, Hal rang me to say that, because of his ongoing concern about the quality of the book, the show was to be postponed until later in the year. No problem.
On April 13, he rang again, excited. "Richard, we have new dates. We will open early October. Technical in the theatre all through September." "No, Hal, please, not September; I have a real problem in September-October." Hal, sounding somewhat cooler, demanded, "What on earth do you mean, Richard? This is when we're going to do it."
"Hal, I'm overwhelmed. I'm so sorry, but these dates are simply not possible for me. I'm committed to direct, design, and light a huge industrial show, the Faraday Lecture, this year for ICL Computers. It's a huge, more-than-a-million-pound project for TP. I'm so sorry."
Hal—and I truly understood him—was not impressed. His brilliance had always stemmed from his absolute commitment—and if you were not totally with him . . . I thought feverishly. I knew I couldn't get out of the ICL job. "Hal, I have a brilliant young colleague, Andy Bridge. I know he could do a wonderful job . . . "
"Well, if you really insist . . . I'll meet him."
I talked with Cameron on May 9 and passed PHANTOM over to Andy.
Immigration - Arrival
We landed at Kennedy Airport, went through Customs and into the baggage arrival hall, to be greeted by a cacophony of barking. There was my dog Piggles, who, espying us, decided that being in a crate was undignified. He wanted out. Surrounded by an amused crowd of onlookers, I tried to shush him. No use. He barked. And barked. And barked. Desperately, Molly seized our diminutive Daisy and pushed her into Piggy’s crate—large enough for two! That worked. Instant silence, except the happy sound of licking . . . Piggy had found his sister in this strange new world. From the crowd came a round of applause.
Ms. Shakespeare in Chicago
A whirlwind arrived on our doorstep: Barbara Gaines, artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre—a singularly dynamic lady! “Richard, I want a new theatre for Shakespeare in Chicago. I love the RSC’s Swan Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon. I want something like it. It’s going to be built on Navy Pier on Lake Michigan. We open in 18 months!” What more was there to be said?
The Swan was one of my favorite theatres, even though TPC had had nothing to do with it. Well, not much. In fact, Trevor Nunn, head of the RSC at the time, had taken his company to our Christ’s Hospital, which he had simply loved. It had become his inspiration for The Swan. The combination of extreme intimacy, timber, and old brick creates a magically intimate and exciting space. This is what Barbara hoped to emulate . . . but for a larger audience.
The Shakespeare Theatre project was a fascinating and rewarding venture. A force of nature, Barbara drove us all forward.
SHOW BOAT (1992-1995)
In 1992, Hal Prince kindly asked me to light a revival of SHOW BOAT. He said that Garth Drabinsky, the Canadian producer, wanted to meet me. Some weeks later, Garth invited me to a fancy dinner in New York. Since no producer had ever asked me to dinner before hiring me, I accepted with alacrity.
We had a delightful meal. As we sat down he said to me, "Richard, Hal tells me you were going to light PHANTOM." "That's correct," I replied. "And you were on .75% of the gross? By my reckoning, as of last Saturday, you would have earned $13.5 million." He was right—and that was in 1992! It's still running around the world 17 years later. PHANTOM went on to become the highest-earning theatrical production in history.
Never mind. I have always said I never went into the theatre to make money—and I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams!
At the end of dinner, after Garth had paid the astronomical bill, I began to rise. Garth, who had been eyeing my white hair through dinner, said hesitantly, "Oh, Richard, one more thing . . . you are aware, aren't you, that lighting these days is all done by computers?"
I sat. "Yes, Garth, I am . . . in fact, I invented them."
Well, a slight exaggeration. But the following day, I mailed him a copy of my book.
The 3,500-seat Kodak Theatre was to be the new home of the Academy Awards. Designed specifically for live broadcasts, using the most sophisticated media and theatre technology, it is also a wonderful house for touring musicals. Theatre Projects created the theatre concept design.
I think that one of the best things TP has done in the US is leading the rediscovery of the Broadway theatre. Beginning with Steppenwolf, we've brought back the intimacy that was pioneered in the early 20th century by such architects as Rapp and Rapp. For the Kodak, Brian Hall developed an auditorium inspired by the richest traditions of Broadway theatre. It would be astonishingly intimate for its very large seat count, with wrap-around balconies and boxes stepping down toward the stage at either side. David Rockwell is a flamboyant architect who is also a highly successful stage designer. Together, we devised a giant petal-like ceiling to crown the room, combining stunning visual effect with multiple opportunities for lighting and technical provision. The visually powerful columns supporting the side boxes serve double duty. They provide cable raceways for the thousands of lines required for the lighting, sound, and video equipment, for what becomes once a year, one of the largest TV studios in the world.
The Kodak Theatre on Oscar night is seen by over one billion people. Perhaps that single night’s viewership outnumbers all of the theatergoers in history!
BUSKER ALLEY (1995)
One evening we were in the Music Hall at Fair Park, in Dallas. That afternoon, we had relit a new scene starting at Cue 95—toward the end of Act I. During the performance, as the stage manager called "Cue 95," there came an enormous flash, a loud explosion, all the Vari-Lites started to spin wildly then . . . blackout! The entire stage and auditorium were plunged into darkness. When the emergency lights came on, the stage manager announced to the audience that we had a "technical problem." "Oh, my God," Dawn Chiang and I worried. "What the hell did we do?"
Some moments later, the house manager stepped before the lowered curtain. He appeared to be soaking wet! "Ladies and gentlemen, the theatre has been hit by lightning. There is a dangerous storm, and severe flooding around the building . . . the police have advised that nobody is to leave until an all-clear is announced." Dawn and I looked at each other with relief . . . this was not our fault!
What else could happen to BUSKER ALLEY? Well, quite a lot actually.
THE LIFE (1997) - A New Lighting Control?
I had become obsessed about speeding up the process of focusing and manipulating moving lights.
By a quirk of scheduling, we finished focusing all the fixed non-moving lamps. The crew had the next day off. I obtained permission from the union to come into the theatre on that dark day with only two crew members, the house head electrician, and my board programmer. Provided we didn't actually switch on any lights, we were allowed to prefocus the moving lights in the complete darkness, using WYSIWYG’s autofocus. I had calculated that this process done visually with the lights on—manipulating each lamp one at a time from the control desk—to set 40 lamps to 20 pre-focuses, would take about eight hours.
Michael Gottlieb, my assistant, and I entered the empty theatre at 2:00 p.m. It was dark except for a ghost light (a working light on a stand) centerstage. The stage was bare of scenery. We turned on the control board and readied the WYSIWYG software. No lamps were turned on. About 2:20, we began. My programmer selected every Vari-Lite in the rig; he touched a designated point down left on the computer screen, "Area A." Every unit on the computer moved to the position. I said, "Record." He pressed a button. "Done," he replied. "Next, I said, "Area B" [down left center]. "Done."
We finished every prefocus in eight minutes. Then Michael and I broke the two-person crew and left for the day—a big smile spreading across our faces . . .
Dallas has opened after 25 years. I'm laboring on finishing this book and the end is in sight. What to do next? Well, I'm halfway through another book Theatre Architecture and Design. If you want to build your own theatre . . . reserve your copy now.
In March 2010, I lit an exquisite production, directed and designed by Tony Walton, of Shaw's CANDIDA at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Beautiful cast. My first Off-Broadway adventure, with a lighting grid at 12'6" (3.81 meters) high and 70 dimmer channels. I guess the smallest theatre I've lit in for 60 years.
Time, friends, and events pass. Hope endures. So too does the spirit of Theatre Projects.
Life continues a journey. For me, a dream morphed into reality. There were dark shadows along the way. But amazing colleagues, with dear friends and family, always kept alive a bright light at the end of every tunnel.
I’m left the luckiest man alive.