BOOK OF THE MONTH Copyright Lighting&Sound America September 2016 Richard Pilbrow’s memoir comes in an expanded second edition and an app offering an enhanced reading experience
Back in 2011, I anticipated the publication of Richard Pilbrow’s newest book, A Theatre Project. I was not disappointed when I got my copy. It’s wonderfully well written; packed with great stories, photos, light plots, and an incredible depth of theatre history covering the past 60 years. This well-received book, which has recently come out in a second edi- tion, is a combination autobiography and history of a life in the theatre as a designer, producer, and theatre consultant. One of the joys of Pilbrow’s writing style has always been that he is able to translate the great storyteller he is in person to the page. One-on-one, he is witty and easily weaves anecdotes into conversation. His wealth of professional experiences are matched only by the wonderful personal stories he seamlessly tells to illustrate his keynote speeches and lectures. His comfortable style and conversational approach of connecting are effortlessly carried over into his writing, especially if you read A Theatre Project via the e-book app. Here, Pilbrow’s enthusiasm for the rich theatre history that informs his stories make for a truly immersive experience.
A Theatre Project affords the reader the opportunity to go back with Pilbrow and explore a life in the theatre that has been creative, col- laborative, and extremely influential.
The subtitle quickly clues you in on what the book is about: A Backstage Adventure: Triumph, Disaster, and Renewal that Changed Stage Lighting and the Shape of Theatre.
Pilbrow helped shape lighting in the UK and US and was instrumental in making the craft of lighting design into the profession it is today. He is also an educator; his books, especially Stage Lighting, were the texts for a generation of theatre lighting students, myself included. In addi- tion to being a personal story, it is also a story of Theatre Projects, the company he started, which has grown to be a preeminent global theatre consulting firm. Pilbrow and Theatre Projects are credited by many with defining and expanding the role of theatre consultant in the industry.
Pilbrow is very self-deprecating and wonderfully honest in his reflections; he covers the highs and some- times lows that life (certainly a life in the theatre) can throw at a person. The book takes us with him as he grows from a young assistant stage manager to renowned lighting designer; business owner; projection designer (before there was even a designation for that role on the cre- ative team); theatrical, television, and film producer; theatre consultant; and author. The book is so rich in history because Pilbrow forged such a widely varied career, which let him see our industry from so many vantage points. He treats missed opportunities—for example, turning down the job of lighting Phantom of the Opera—with the same wink as he does his successes.
Pilbrow is also a generous memoirist, easily giving credit to his collaborators, partners, and even competitors. He offers a big-picture view, often including the thoughts of his colleagues. Especially effective is his Theatre Projects colleague David Collison’s account of the creation of sound design in Britain in parallel to the emergence of lighting design as an art form—perhaps a worthy excerpt to be sent to the Tony Awards committee.
This second edition adds an illuminating end chapter that makes blatantly obvious that, for all Pilbrow’s many talents, he is absolutely horrible at actually retiring! There’s a saying: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” It’s certainly true of Pilbrow’s career but it would appear that since it doesn’t feel like work, there is no work to retire from. Covering the last four years, the chapter catches the reader up on the multiple shows that he has lit—many with his longtime friend and collaborator, scenic designer, and director Tony Walton, as well as the new theatre spaces that have opened, including Theatre For A New Audience’s new Brooklyn venue (the first true courtyard theatre in New York City) and the Dr. Philips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, Florida.
As wonderful as it is reconnecting with the book, this second time was the real revelation when I accessed the e-book version of A Theatre Project. I cannot recommend this version highly enough. It is here that you fall down the theatre history rab- bit hole with Pilbrow. Not merely a companion app, it is a true digital version of the book that takes serious the idea of being digital. I must confess that I like reading paper- based books; yes, I am old-fashioned that way. I have read a few books on an Apple iPad but didn’t really feel the trade-off brought anything new to the experience until the e-book of A Theatre Project. This delivers so much more than I had expected and truly enriches the experience of this book’s story. The process itself was fun; the PageSuite program lays out the book in either the traditional format of a two-page spread or, if you prefer, a single- page view. You can easily use the technology to “turn” pages and zoom text in and out,—and to say that Pilbrow has packed the e-book version with a lot of links is an understatement.
The e-book version of A Theatre Project is feature-rich with hundreds of links. If the reader follows a text link, he or she can go to an associated website—biographical or background on a performer, designer, or architect or links to a website focused on that topic. Music links can be followed to iTunes or Spotify to hear the music of a show or get more information on a musical score. Video links go to clips of productions, a backstage tour of a theatre, or a trailer about that topic or production. All the links to outside source information helps underscore and enrich the reader’s enjoyment of the book. It is simply a wonderful use of digital technology and it makes the reading all that much more informative for the added context brought to the narrative.
For example, when Pilbrow talks about a show, there are links to a YouTube video clip of a performance from that production; there’s also a link to the cast album of Fiddler On the Roof, one of several shows he produced in the West End. You can take a number of wonderful video tours behind the scenes of the National Theatre—one of my favorites explains how the five-story drum revolve works in the Olivier Theatre. Follow a link to a theatre company’s website and you discover more about its work; you can also follow a link on a particular piece of equipment, like the Strand Lightboard, which was designed from inspiration that Pilbrow gave the company. Any of these links take you down paths that lead to deeper content on a particular show, person, subject, product, etc.
Another wonderful feature is the e-book’s excellent search function. Want to know about a particular show or person? Type in the name and you’ve got a list of all mentions in the book, with links directly to those appearances. It makes the ability to use A Theatre Project as a textbook or research work all the more rewarding. Links are added and updated for free, periodically, so the e-book is an evolving read. Like the best experiences of a great website, the e-book version allows one to follow tangents to one’s heart’s desire. No two readers will have the same experience.
I highly recommend A Theatre Project if you want to learn more about the career of Richard Pilbrow, the history of British and American theatre over the last few decades, and how lighting, projection, and theatre consulting all came to become the professions that they have become. You won’t go wrong with this book, either in print or as an e-book—though I suggest both as they are two different and wonderful reading experiences.
Also, back to that inability to actually retire, Pilbrow concludes this second edition of A Theatre Project with hints to his next book—a look at modern theatre architecture, with a detailed case study of London’s National Theatre. As it was the National Theatre upon which Pilbrow built Theatre Projects into an award-winning global theatre consulting practice, it should dovetail nicely with the history from this book. Yet again, it seems Pilbrow will be adding to his job descriptions, this time as historian, and we will all be the richer for it.
The digital version e-book of A Theatre Project is available for iOS 4 or later iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. It can also be accessed on Android, Blackberry, other smartphones, or tablet devices that use HTML5 as well as on desktops using MS Windows XP or later; and Mac OS X version 10 and above.
For further information, you can go to www.atheatreproject.com.
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