A Theatre Project: An Autobiographical Story

By Richard Pilbrow, with David Collison. Reviewed by Martin Moore

Published in TD&T, Vol. 47 No. 4 (fall 2011)

Theatre Design & Technology, the journal for design and production professionals in the performing arts and entertainment industry, is published four times a year by United States Institute for Theatre Technology. 

Copyright 2011 United States Institute for Theatre Technology, Inc.

A Theatre Project

An Autobiographical Story

By Richard Pilbrow, with David Collison; New York, PLASA Media, 2011. 467 pp. Paper, $49.99.

Reviewed by Martin Moore

In 2003, when Richard Pilbrow was completing his third book Walt Disney Concert Hall: The Backstage Story, he told coauthor Patricia MacKay that his next project would be his mem- oir. Throughout his entire career he had been keeping meeting notes, sketches, and thoughts in a series of bound black sketchbooks. He then sent out a series of questionnaires to a wide range of industry types and gathered in their comments and recollections as well. The re- sult is Pilbrow’s fourth book A Theatre Project, called on the cover, “A Backstage Adventure—Triumph, Disaster and Renewal that Changed Stage Lighting and the Shape of the Theatre.” It’s a massive, fully illustrated, full color 8-1/2 ̋ by 11 ̋ paperback, as befits one of the pioneering giants of the lighting, sound, and theatre consultancy industry. I hope a subsequent edition will have cheaper price so it gets more widely read, especially by the generation coming up.

I first came across Richard’s lighting as a Cambridge undergraduate. In 1959 we were bringing a student production of Dr Faustus into the Lyric Hammersmith in London for a week’s run. I was the advance party for Faustus and became a second operator for the then current professional show, Ibsen’s Brand, lit by Richard. The boards were the English equivalent of piano boards up on the stage right perch. Brand, directed by Michael Elliot and designed by Richard Negri, was a critical early show for Richard: he met David Collison, his longtime associate, who was an assistant stage manager on the show.

David Collison, who became a founding father of the sound design profession, contributes parts of the book in his own words, and there are contributions from some of Richard’s other former colleagues and even his wives. The book, as the cover subtitle suggests, deals with the downsides as well as the successes of Richard’s life and of Theatre Projects, the international company that grew from the lighting design and rental company he founded in 1957 in London. Richard even bravely talks about his mental breakdown triggered by the meltdown of Theatre Projects. Others who’ve had run-ins with mental illness rarely have the courage to talk about them.

One of the results of the success of Brand was that the same team was invited by the Royal Shakespeare Company to do an As You Like It at Stratford which was the debut of Vanessa Redgrave as a leading lady. Richard includes an anecdote about transferring the show to London, where the authorities didn’t allow naked flames on stage. He, rather than the director, rethought the final scene where Redgrave finally appears as a woman, from being at night using flaming torches to being at dawn using German low voltage beamlights for the rising sun. It’s creative thinking like this that has endeared Richard to clients—whether lighting, production, or construction—over the years.

Another consequence of the success of Brand was that Richard was hired as the theatre consultant for the building of Michael Elliot’s and Richard Negri’s Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, England. He consulted twice, the second time courtesy of an IRA bomb!

Collection of backstories

One of the great pluses of the book is the collection of backstories concerning projects on which Richard has consulted. These exemplify the many various power set-ups on building projects. Sometimes the owner is in charge, sometimes the dictator’s wife, sometimes the architect, sometimes the theatre consultant – hardly ever the end users. The only other book I know with as many backstories is William Goldman’s 1961 The Season–A Candid Look at Broadway which is still in print. Richard’s book also has many backstories for shows he lit and for shows, film, and TV he produced. All fascinating stuff.

Richard was entirely self-taught. In addition to reading all the books about lighting, both English and American, he had a model theatre with functioning lights. Today, instead of model theatres, there’s visualization software which is getting cheap and good enough for aspiring lighting designers to learn upon as Richard did with his model theatre.

From the book it’s evident that Richard has been a consistently enthusiastic adopter, from American stage lighting methodology and stencils at the beginning of his career, through German and American lights, various consoles, etc., and latterly Virtual Magic Sheet. Mitch Dana said about the start of Theatre Projects, “It seems he [Richard] also picked up on the American concept that just because a big company seems to have a lock on something doesn’t mean a leaner, faster, less secure one can’t steal a march.” So there’s hope for the next generation of Pilbrows.

At the time Richard did his lighting master work for Lionel Bart’s 1962 musical Blitz!, he’d not seen anybody else light; the role of assistant didn’t exist back then. I took over the board operation of Blitz! three months in. The lighting control was in the front of house, as most big lighting controls had been in England from the end of WWII. The written description in the book cannot beat the thrill of watching the transformation scene sequence at the end of Act I every night.

Richard recounts in the book spats he had with two famous technical theatre people of the previous generation, Fred Bentham in England and George Izenour in America. Fred wrote in a letter to The Stage, the English equivalent of Variety, that the British had nothing to learn from foreign lighting manufacturers. Richard was importing German lighting and projection equipment. But Fred himself had been cloning German equipment when he worked at GEC (General Electric Company) before joining Strand where he cloned his GEC stuff.

George Izenour claimed in a long telegram(!) to the city of Portland, Oregon, that Theatre Projects proved on the National Theatre that they knew nothing about theatre consultancy and therefore, by implication, shouldn’t have been engaged for Portland’s new performing arts center. The National Theatre was Richard and Richard (Dick) Brett’s first theatre consultancy job, so it’s great it turned out as well as it did. Izenour pointed out the drum didn’t work at opening, but neither did the stage lifts at the opening of the Met in New York, a project George Izenour was associated with.

But Richard and Dick’s introduction of a deep drum at the National did cause problems still with us today. Because of the drum, the Olivier open stage is three stories higher than the proscenium Littleton stage, screwing up forever front-of-house and backstage circulations.

Along with lighting, Richard’s early great success, with help from colleague Bob Ornbo, were projections. Projections were key to Richard’s employment by London producers such as Michael Codron, who produced straight plays and revues. In Codron’s memoir Putting It On, which has just been published in the U.K., the producer says he “was in the vanguard of the lighting revolution, fascinated by the work of Tony Walton and the lighting genius Richard Pilbrow (of Theatre Projects fame) with projections.” Projections took Richard to America to implement Tony Walton’s design for Hal Prince’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. After that show Prince, Tony Walton, and Richard set up a joint venture to produce Prince’s shows in London. This was because of Prince’s bad experience with the clique who then ran the West End when one of them closed West Side Story early. Even so, one of their transfers, Cabaret, suffered the same fate and was closed early. All of which is recounted in the book, along with other fascinating theatrical anecdotes about shows that Richard produced. But you’ll have to buy the book to read them.

Other ventures

The success of Richard’s theatrical productions led him eventually into directing a West End show himself (a lifelong ambition), making feature films, and making a television series. These ventures weren’t as successful as his other work and caused much stress along the way, all faithfully chronicled in the book. During this period, because he was breaking into films and TV, Richard got a capital injection from Polygram, a joint promotional venture between German Siemens and Dutch Philips–unlikely bedfellows. They owned a third of Theatre Projects stock at one point. During this time at Theatre Projects, Richard was producing and lighting, Dick was involved in the National build, and David Collison’s sound department was taking off, as was Tony Corbett’s architectural lighting department. (You can still see Tony’s lighting in the foyer of the National with the special PAR36's he developed for the job.) With Richard out of the office most of the time, he delegated some of his managerial and financial functions as group managing director to outside professionals he brought into the company, notably John Ball, former managing director of Rank Strand Electric, who among other things built up Theatre Project’s rental department.

When Richard decided he didn’t want to continue with TV production, Polygram lost interest, and Richard got venture capitalists VentureLink to replace their investment. They ended up with around fifty percent of the company. But this capital injection led Theatre Projects into what proved to be an unsound acquisition spree, particularly of a rock-and-roll lighting company, getting into audio manufacturing without thinking it through, and engaging in a lot of speculative consultancy work in Iran, America, and the Far East.

This overextension without immediate returns led to a final major cash flow crisis. VentureLink wouldn’t up their investment. I think Richard reckoned VentureLink to be long-term players, but they proved to be typical of their clan and were only interested in short-term gain. So Theatre Projects was wound up, although Theatre Projects Consul- tants LLP emerged from the ashes as a man- agement buyout.

Apparently managerial and financial types were a rarity in Richard’s kitchen cabinet. He seemed to rather distrust them; many came and went. One financial director told me he told Richard his fiduciary duty was not just to him but also to other major shareholders and as a result was let go. John Ball feels he fell out of favor as a result of some off-the-record remarks that got incorporated into a Lighting and Sound International article on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Theatre Projects and quoted in the book.

The book’s final chapters chronicle both the success of Theatre Projects Consultants over the last decade and also Richard’s retirement. Richard can add to his many achievements the fact that his consultancy is surviving. Most consultancies do not outlast their founders’ retirements.

The book is a great read from many points of view. It has some flaws—a binding that, on my copy, fell apart after just a few reads, an incomplete and spotty index, and a few fact-checking misses—but it’s extremely informative about Richard Pilbrow’s many and various theatrical careers, and it’s also inspirational.

Martin Moore started in London theatre as a board operator. As chief engineer for Strand Electric, he worked on the world’s first computer boards. In the United States, he has worked for Kliegl Bros, Artec, Fisher- Dachs, and Empac (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. He is currently active in standards writing.

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