The Journal of the Association of Lighting Designers. August 2011


"Richard Pilbrow, ALD Member #1 and our President, has always been an innovator and an inspirational communicator. In this book he takes his free thinking to the not-so-gentle art of auto biography. He has lived through and guided the growth of our industry, so this is our story as well as his.

After an illustrious career of some 55 years, 54 of which have been taken up with running Theatre Projects, his brainchild, you would expect a march-past of the triumphs and you gets lots of these. You would hope for the shoulder-rubbing with the famous; these are certainly on tap. Perhaps the most memorable encounter is with Elaine Stritch and her dog.

But there is a hint of much more below the sub-title: A Backstage Adventure. We are promised Triumph, Disaster and Renewal that Changed Stage Lighting and the Shape of Theatre. What's this? Disaster? The tradition in reporting lives well lived is to sweep the messy bits under a very accommodating stage carpet, the sort with a trapdoor for the debris beneath. This is not the Pilbrow method.

Effectively, this is the warts and all story of Richard Pilbrow's irresistible drive to create, to protect and to re-invent Theatre Projects (TP). Whether the going is easy, or it gets unfeasibly tough, he invites his colleagues to give their side of the story and they certainly do, with, I would guess, the absolute minimum of editing and the maximum of candor. These contributions don't appear contrived or intrusive, it's as if all the people concerned are in the same room.

Life was genuinely tough for TP as it diversified and became international. Paradoxically, just at the time that TP was exporting the British way of theatre consulting, whilst earning world-wide theatre industry respect, it was fighting for its survival at home. The reader gets a ring-side seat. As a classic case of Creatives being turned over by Big Business, it is gripping, salutary, instructive but difficult reading.

However, this is at least as much the story of the author and his families as the saga of the empire that was built, crumpled and remodelled. The human story that runs in parallel is not sensationalized or laboured.  Given the crushing events, there is absolutely no need for emphasis. But the wear and tear on the man and his dream make a distressing narrative, before the emergence of the consulting firm that still runs today brings a degree of calm.

There never was a time, from his schooldays onwards, when Richard Pilbrow wasn't working towards a vision of backstage creativity. He says that my greatest attribute and my good fortune was my innocence . . . I never knew what could not be done. The things that could be done, all industry firsts, include scaled lantern stencils for neat lighting plots, jumpers for ease of plugging up, use of fibre optics in 1979 and such small matters as creating the profession of Theatre Consultant. He brought together the people to start the ABTT, the SBTLD (Society of British Theatre Lighting Designers, whose golden anniversary we celebrate this year), the SBTD and, from out of these two organizations, the ALD. So this book shows our roots.

I could elaborate or add to this very incomplete list but it would be far better if you read the whole of the fascinating story for yourself. In the pages of A THEATRE PROJECT. There is a complete and most readable record of our industry from cumbersome post-war start up to its present sophistication and global expectations. Throughout all this Richard Pilbrow has been a forward thinker as well as a leader, a designer and an achiever on an epic scale.

This is his third book and it won't be his last: Theatre Architecture and Design is in the making. All Richard's books are as well and accurately illustrated as you would expect from a visual artist. A THEATRE PROJECT has been laid out in the Pilbrow manner, to accommodate many of the portraits down the wide outer margins, leaving the landscapes and set pictures to edge neatly into the text.

David Collison, an early TP colleague, is credited as  a major contributor to this book. He held the company together at a desperate time and he was the first sound designer in a British musical.

On the theatre consulting side, there is input from colleagues past and present, which means the cream of the UK consulting world and a number of project leaders from the US and beyond. Most of the UK projects are covered. Sometimes the simplest schemes have resonated far into the future. A case in point is Christ's Hospital School Theatre, Horsham, a very early courtyard design where intimacy between audience and stage established a theatre form that has influenced three theatres at Stratford, amongst others.

It is easy to forget that Theatre Projects had a division for producing theatre and films. Their initial impact on the West End was with A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. They were riding high with FIDDLER ON THE ROOF at Her Majesty's; they went into films with SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS and into television with the epic series ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE. Then came the years when the finance evaporated and the group went through a painful catharsis, from which only consulting survived.

You must discover the private side of Richard Pilbrow for yourself; his world unfolds before you as you read. But I will comment that an island in the Hebrides must be the perfect place for a man, a family and the dog to unwind when the rest of the world is so full-on.

There are 460 imperial octavo pages in A THEATRE PROJECT; they all (including the Hebridean excursions) have their reasons for being there and most have lovely or at least appropriate illustrations.

The visual records appear complete. The first hand-cut stencils? Page 25. Richard Negri's initial concept for the Manchester Royal Exchange? Page 235. The sumptuous index and the timeline by year bring it home. This is the record of the most complete non-acting theatre life I know.

Richard would be content with some words from Judi Dench, as his epitaph. They appeared in the Radio Times when she was starring as Sally Bowles in the TP production of CABARET:

'The prime thing about Richard is that he's a marvelous encourager—I have rarely seen him with a low expression or a very depressed look—he's a giver, and he's marvelous at making one feel that things are all right, even perhaps when they're not.'

This is a book from a giver. His particular gift to us is the ALD and right now A THEATRE PROJECT is a gift at £32.99—and I don't say that lightly."

James Laws.

FocusAugustSeptember2011 RP

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