BuhnenTechnische Rundschau

"It’s All About Artists and Audiences“

Richard Pilbrow about his career as a Lighting Designer and Theatre Design Consultant


In his new book, Richard Pilbrow relates his personal and professional career which started more than fifty years ago. Within the past decades, lighting design has become a profession, and the construction of opera houses and theatres has exploded in the United States, the Middle East and Asia. As much as he could take his influence, Richard always has tried to realise in the buildings what is his central conviction: The essence of theatre is the contact between artists and audience, and this is best assured with the traditional, multi-level, semi-circle form. A talk about lighting design and the ideal theatre. 

BTR: Richard, you have gained an international reputation as a stage lighting designer, but also as the founder of the consulting firm “Theatre Projects” You started your career as a lighting designer, published several books in that field. The way from designing light to designing venues was logical, but it was a long and curved way. You have published manuals on lighting design, and now your latest work has been presented: “A Theatre Project”. It is a combination of a personal and professional autobiography, also dealing with the principles of theatre design that you have developed over the decades. 

The “Richard Pilbrow Almanac” is an excellent opportunity to have a closer look at the development of the profession of lighting design and how this brought you from producing shows to designing theatres. 

How did it all start? 

I began as a stage manager. I had the very good fortune, because I went straight from drama school into a show in the West End. I was around 22. However, I found stage managing very disappointing. I had grown up reading Edward Gordon Craig and his description of stage managers as: “The masters of the art and science of the theatre.” I worked on two shows, and, and all I did was to stand in the prompt corner and press a button to give a cue. This had nothing to do with what I expected from theatre! I was so disappointed, desperate. My hobby at school had been lighting, but in those days, in 1956/57, there was no such profession of lighting designer in England. The electrician would do it. Then I read a book about American theatre where they described the profession of a lighting designer. I thought that this was what I could do. But then I thought: Who’s gonna pay me? This is how I started a company, Theatre Projects (TP). I would buy second hand lighting equipment, and then rent it,and do my design work for nothing. Strand had a big monopoly at that time, I set up my firm against them. 

Career as a Lighting Designer 

That was ambitious! 

Indeed, VERY ambitious… But then I was lucky. A producer stepped in and asked me, if we were doing lighting. This is how I started. 

Some years later, I met Reiche + Vogel in Berlin. TP became their agent in London. I imported 5 kw projectors and 24v beam projectors. In order to persuade people that I could light a show, I did what I had done in my youth. I built a model theatre and showed directors in miniature what their lighting would be like on the stage. 

But how did you install the lighting in the models?

A friend of mine built little spotlights. They gave a good presentation of the beam of a light. This was quite successful. Everything I knew I learnt from books. I once found a book (Stage Lighting by Ridge And Aldred) which had one page in it showing projections in Germany. It showed large pre-distorted slides using huge projectors. Although common in opera houses, this had never been done in English theatre at that time. I thought that if you did this in a small theatre, the images would be very large and very bright. Simultaneously I met a person called David Collison He did in sound what I did in lighting, and he became the first sound designer. We became a team, David and I then did a spectacular musical called “Blitz!”. It was about the war in London with air raids on stage etc. It was very successful. Later, I built a team of lighting designers, and gradually we became established. We always worked together, like a lighting designers’ workshop. Since then many have become very successful. (for example, Robert Ornbo, David Hersey, Andy Bridge, etc.)

A show that I did with scene designer Tony Walton was “One Over the Eight”. We did it with massive projections on a tiny stage with only 20 ft depth. It was so successful that Tony took me to America for the first time. That was in 1962. I did big projections there, and I became Broadway’s projection expert. About the same time, I met Laurence Olivier and became the lighting designer of the National Theatre in London. It was the beginning of the National Theatre company, and I had the chance to work with wonderful people like Josef Svoboda. That was really a great experience! Then we had the production “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” by Tom Stoppard that was also presented in New York. So I was lighting shows on both sides of the Atlantic. That’s how I met the director and producer Harold Prince. He asked me to light the musical “Zorba the Greek”. I was the first English person to light a big musical in America. In London he had previously produced shows such as “West Side Story” but was unhappy about how they were presented. He invited Tony Walton and me to become his partners. From 1964 to 1986, I was a producer in the West End of London. I produced many musicals and plays.

I see, at the beginning Theatre Projects had nothing to do with consultancy. 

Right. It was producing and providing the stage technology. I also produced movies, I produced a children’s film and TV series about popular music. Consulting came later 

From Lighting to Consulting

What brought you to do consulting for buildings? 

Initially I was only concerned with the technical aspects of theatre. But I gradually came to realise that none of the technical stuff in theatre was truly that important. What really mattered was the play, the actor and the relationship with their audience.. Theatre was all about people experiencing the dramatic event together. So combining our backstage experience with our production experience, we became consultants. 

Early in my career, when I worked there as a light designer, I became a consultant for the National Theatre in London. The institution consists of two theatres; the Lyttleton theatre, which is a proscenium theatre, and the Olivier, which is an open stage theatre. I worked with my partner, Richard Brett, who developed a lot of amazing new technologies for that time; power flying, a drum revolving stage, new lighting and sound controls, etc. The National was so famous that we received enquiries from overseas; from the Middle East, Hong Kong and later from around the world. I think that within 50 years we have done about 1,200 projects all over the world..

When we look at some of your projects, they look, to my view, traditional in the sense that they have a rather traditional shape. What was your idea behind that? 

Lets get back to the beginning. We were NOT consultants of the Opera House in Sydney. But some months before the opening, they had a major problem and asked me to help. There was very little or no FOH lighting. They had no lighting bridges in the auditorium. We hung huge trusses and bridges in the brand new opera house! This made me think: This is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It’s an icon that put the arts on the map of Australia. How can such a beautiful building enclose such a bad opera house, a poor concert hall and a terrible little drama theatre? What went wrong?? 

I looked at the history of theatre architecture, and I came to realise that the essence is about artists and audience. When there is no theatre to congregate, people would not stand in straight rows, they would gather around the artists. The first theatres were in a semi-circle. Shakespeare, the first great English dramatist, got the Globe Theatre built for his company. The audience was standing around, with balconies enwrapping the actors. This was the same with Molière and all the courtyard theatres in Germany. Some of the greatest dramatic writing in the world comes from this form. In China and Japan it’s the same; the actors are embraced by their audience. In England the weather is so bad, we went indoors, but the form remained the same. It was all about people, not about architecture. Wagner broke the mode. He didn’t want the audience to sit with people in boxes on the side, he wanted total concentration on his stage. He invented the frontal theatre, as later exemplified with cinemas. There you have to look straight at the screen. But in my view, you shouldn’t do that in a theatre. But the end result was that lots of “Wagner-style” theatres were built, they spread across the whole planet. A pivotal moment for me was that we did the restoration of a Victorian theatre in Nottingham, England, originally built in 1865 with balconies and side boxes. On the opening night, a comedian was on stage, and the audience all around the room was in hysterics of laughter. As a lighting designer and producer, I had worked in theatres like this all the time – in London, New York and around England. But at that time, in 1976, you never would have thought of building a theatre like this. Then I thought, why not? Why do we do not build theatres in this tradition anymore? We ought to build theatres that foster this sense of community, but with modern architecture.

I remember that Iain Mackintosh,, who began as a producer, and then also worked with TPC, defended this principle idea of the horseshoe theatre in numerous lectures – and he did not have only friends.. 

Yes, I met Iain when I presented one of his productions in London, and asked him to join our company. He was a great leader within our group for this philosophy. One of my first projects was a new drama theatre in Birmingham (1971) It had 900 seats and was built according to the rules of the sixties. Everybody was seated on one level, all with the same ‘perfect’ frontal view. As soon as it opened, I knew it would be a failure. 20 year later, I produced an American comedy “I’m not Rappaport” there, we had Paul Scofield, one of Britain’s greatest actors. It opened in Birmingham, and was a disaster; nobody laughed. It was so bad that Paul wanted to resign from the show. I finally persuaded him to stay. The following week we moved to a different theatre—a “classic” West End theatre with balconies and side boxes—that seats 90 people more but that was a third smaller in size. We opened there, with the same play, the same cast, the same everything. The audience went mad with excitement. The players got standing ovations. The play ran for a whole year. The only thing that changed was the theatre. This showed me that there was some truth in my thinking. 

The Ideal Theatre

You applied this thinking also to the other venues that Theatre Projects designed; opera houses, concert halls, multi purpose halls. 

Yes. Starting with opera houses, Glyndeborne is, to my view, one of the most exquisite opera houses. It is an excellent example of a very intimate and successful building. Iain designed it. In Dallas, we designed the Winspear Opera House with Foster Architects of London. It was inspired by one of my favorate theatres, the Munich Nationaltheater. Essentially, the traditional opera form creates both great acoustics, fine sightlines and adds superb atmosphere. Oslo is a recent example of our opera projects, also here you see this specific shape, although all these buildings are really extremely different from each other! The European houses are equipped with multiple stages and the ultimate in advance technology, while the Dallas house, with the far less lavish subsidies of the United States, is adequately, but simply equipped.

We also have designed lots of concert halls. A fine example is the Jack Singer Hall in Calgary Alberta We designed it with Russell Johnson, the acoustician. It is his first shoebox-style concert hall. I wanted people on ledges around the hall, Russ wanted these same ledges, but to optimize the acoustics. We adopted the same principle as for theatres, people gathering around the music. Concert halls also need highly flexible acoustics, lighting and staging capability. So we have also pioneered making concert halls more flexible. All concert halls do host other types of performance. Let’s take the Kimmel Centre in Philadelphia. It has elaborate flying facilities and lighting. It’s a symphony hall, and yet they can do Rock shows or industrial shows 

And then we have the famous Frank Gehry project, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which I worked on for 20 years. It has great acoustic quality but also flexibility allowing film projection and other events. This idea of flexibility has developed further with new technologies being developed. This you can see in the New World Music Centre in Miami Beach, that we also did with Frank Gehry (see BTR 2/2011).

Regarding multi purpose halls, many have been built in America since the fifties. When we started in this field, we found the reason why so many don’t work is not that they have to fulfil different functions but that they are normally very bad theatres. The first multi purpose hall we did was Charlotte in North Carolina. It is a beautiful opera house, but it has also a capability to be used as a fine symphony hall. We have completed many of these spaces. They are very big. With little or no state subsidy everything in America has to have too many seats.. But we always tried to adopt the two principles of intimacy and flexibility.

Then I’m passionate about the theatres of Broadway. They are different from the usual English theatre. English theatres of the late 19th, early 20th century are narrow and quite deep. American theatres of the same period, are wider and much shallower and therefore the audience is nearer to the stage. We’ve adopted this principle with new American theatres. The Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago followed this. I would describe it as a “Classic American playhouse.” We’ve also transformed theatres from that period of poor theatre architecture in the 1950’s-1970’s into new and exciting ones. In Toronto, we renovated a theatre built in the 1970’s, a boring place. After the restoration, adding a balcony and boxes, it became more intimate and at the same time, smaller. The old auditorium filled the entire site, they now have a lobby much bigger than the old one. They have a bookshop and a restaurant, providing a whole new stream of income. So going back to the old fashioned, compact principles of theatre building, you have more possibilities. 

But, as you once said, the Cottesloe theatre, the studio theatre at the National, has become something of a trademark.

Yes, originally, the National Theatre could not afford to build a studio theatre. But during construction, Peter Hall as the new director asked me to design a studio theatre, because the architect was too busy. I asked Iain Mackintosh, and he produced the scheme of about 400 seats for a “Courtyard Theatre”. This theatre was really astonishing. In the middle of the auditorium, which is surrounded by three galleries, you can take out all the seats, and produce astonishing new actor-audience relationships. We have now designed many such theatres probably all over the world. They are all compact and intimate but also extremely flexible. The National is changed around for artistic reasons, but there are other examples where the changes are for social/financial reasons. For example, in the auditorium, you can have a flat floor with dancing classes in the morning, at lunch time you set up tables, and your audience can lunch or play cards , then perhaps have a boy-scout meeting, and in the evening return to opera. 

One thing I find interesting: Internationally seen, you can recognize the “Theatre Projects” venues by this, even if you are not the architect. This means that as a consultant, you play a much more comprehensive role than do the consultants for stage machinery in Germany, for example. 

Yes, that’s right, we are in most cases consultant for the whole project. We may be selected by a city or community to advise them on the type of theatres they should build. Then we advise the architect in regard to the shape and form of the auditorium and the planning of all the functional spaces. Of course, we’re responsible for all the stage technology as well. But our responsibility is to represent the total theatre: artists, technicians, managers and audiences, long after the building is completed. We do adopt our principles of auditorium design—intimacy and flexibility—to many projects. 

Past and Future 

You have observed and promoted many changes in technology. Are you still interested in the recent developments? 

Oh yes, I am very interested in new software and new technologies. There are so many things I wanted to do as a lighting designer that were not possible. Now almost everything is possible, the technologies are there. I find that absolutely fascinating! 

We have met just after you come back from a lighting rehearsal for a small play. You have always continued to work in that profession and apparently still do.. 

Yes, I found that always important. When you are only a consultant, you can forget the practical realities of the working life onstage. Every time I am lighting a show, I am asking myself more regularly if I am doing the right thing.

Your book, different from the other ones that are more manuals about lighting design, is about your working biography, but it also an homage to family and friends, in fact a comprehensive autobiography. What was your intention with this book? 

Theatre Projects has operated for over 50 years. It has seen success, and undergone business difficulties, only to emerge as an international consulting practice. All of this is only due to the teams of people that I’ve been able to create. No one person can design a new theatre, it takes a team. And by now several generations of highly talented, deeply motivated and dedicated people, who love theatre, have all made that success happen. I wanted to pay tribute to them.

Does the book mean that you will retire now; is it a “farewell” book? 

I suspect I’m never going to really give up. I’m beginning to write a new book on Theatre Architecture and Design. 

© Richard Pilbrow   e: rplight@atheatreproject.com      E: lsi@PLASA.ORG       WWW.lightiing&soundamerica.com