L&S America Online   Subscribe
Home Lighting Sound AmericaIndustry News Contacts

-Today's News

-Last 7 Days

-Theatre in Review

-Business News + Industry Support

-People News

-Product News

-Subscribe to News

-Subscribe to LSA Mag

-News Archive

-Media Kit

In Memoriam: Richard Pilbrow

Richard Pilbrow

Richard Pilbrow, a giant in the fields of lighting and theatre design, died on December 6. He was 90.

Born in 1933 to Marjorie, a music teacher, and Gordon, an Olympic fencer, Pilbrow grew up in London, living through the Nazi Blitz. He attended Cranbrook School in Kent and, from an early age, displayed a deep fascination with theatre. He served as a corporal in the Royal Air Force, then attended Central School of Speech and Drama. After graduating in 1955, he found work in the West End as a stage manager on the hit American comedy The Teahouse of the August Moon. His attention soon turned toward lighting design, which was only beginning to emerge as a separate design discipline. Borrowing 150 pounds from his father, he purchased a tranche of lighting gear, stored under the stage at the Drury Lane Theatre, thus founding the firm Theatre Projects.

In its early days, Theatre Projects functioned as a rental house, supplementing Pilbrow's growing design career. His early design credits include a Royal Shakespeare Company staging of As You Like It, starring Vanessa Redgrave; the musical spectacle Blitz!; and the hit revue One Over the Eight. During this period, he also became lighting director for the nascent National Theatre Company, which was then performing at the Old Vic, under the direction of Sir Laurence Olivier. He designed most of the National's early productions.

During the 1960s and '70s, Theatre Projects also became a design firm with a team that, at different times, included Robert Ornbo, Robert Bryan, John B. Read, David Hersey, Andrew Bridge, Graham Large, Benny Ball, Steve Kemp, Molly Friedel, Nick Chelton, Durham Marenghi, and Nigel Levings, many of whom began as Pilbrow's assistants. It is not too much to say that he mentored an entire generation of British lighting designers. He also co-founded the Association of Lighting Designers, remaining member number one throughout his life, and was instrumental in the founding of the Society of British Theatre Designers, Society of Theatre Consultants, and the Theatre Projects Trust -- LAMDA Stage Management and Technical Theatre Course. He was honorary chairman of the UK industry charity Light Relief, more recently known as Backup.

Pilbrow's association with Sir Laurence led to him joining the advisory committee for the new National Theatre, designed by the architect Denys Lasdun. Although Pilbrow had already consulted on a handful of theatre projects, his involvement with the most high-profile theatre architecture project of the day pointed his career in a new direction -- ironically so, because he wasn't satisfied with the final product. (His enormous contribution to the National included specifying what became the Lightboard, a revolutionary approach to lighting control.) Although he fully admitted that the National successfully created hundreds of memorable productions, his experience led him to develop a theory of theatre design based on the classic West End theatres and European opera houses, many of which stacked audiences on several levels in courtyard configurations to create a sense of intimacy. (The Cottesloe Theatre at the National, designed by Iain Mackintosh for Theatre Projects, became the model for many Theatre Projects buildings.) The courtyard concept had fallen out of favor, having been replaced by the "cinema" arrangement, which placed everyone in the audience in "democratic" seating on one or two levels; Pilbrow saw that the time had come for a classic revival, an insight that reshaped the design of new theatre buildings in the second half of the 20th century and beyond.

It was a recipe for success, as seen in such key UK projects as the Royal Exchange, Manchester; London's Tricycle Theatre; Derngate Centre in Northampton; Christ's Hospital, Horsham; London's Barbican; and Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham.

For many years, Theatre Projects produced many West End shows, often in collaboration with the American producer/director Harold S. Prince and production designer and director (and Pilbrow's great friend) Tony Walton. These included A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, A Little Night Music, Catch My Soul, and I'm Not Rappaport. On Broadway, Pilbrow's design credits included the musical Golden Boy (for which he designed projections), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (a National Theatre transfer), Zorba, The Rothschilds, the hit 1994 revival of Show Boat, and The Life. His final Broadway production, in 2008, was A Tale of Two Cities. (Along with Robert Ornbo, he was one of the first British designers invited to join United Scenic Artists.) As recently as 2016, he recreated Abe Feder's lighting design for a 60th-anniversary production of My Fair Lady; the production, directed by Julie Andrews, which played in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne, Australia.

Turning to other media, Pilbrow served as executive producer on All You Need is Love, a 17-part television documentary tracing the history of 20th-century popular music, and the feature film Swallows and Amazons, based on the young adult novel by Arthur Ransome. Such projects were possible because, during the 1960s and '70s, Theatre Projects grew exponentially, developing multiple divisions addressing many aspects of live entertainment. Following a reorganization in the 1980s that refocused the firm on theatre design, Pilbrow moved to the US. His landmark projects since then have included Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; New Amsterdam Theatre in New York; Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago; Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando; Dallas Arts District (including the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Winspear Opera House and Wyly Theatre); New World Center in Miami Beach; Kimmel Center Philadelphia; Glyndebourne Opera in Lewes, UK; and Hong Kong Arts Centre.

An avid author, Pilbrow's books included Stage Lighting; Walt Disney Concert Hall -- The Backstage Story, written with Patricia MacKay; Stage Lighting Design: The Art, the Craft, the Life; the memoir A Theatre Project; and the forthcoming A Sense of Theatre: The Untold Story of the National Theatre. A prolific lecturer, he appeared at innumerable seminars and trade shows worldwide. He received awards from USITT and the Association of British Theatre Technicians, Theatre Crafts and Lighting Dimensions magazines, and the Wally Russell Foundation. He was nominated for two Tony Awards; his design for Show Boat earned awards from the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, and the NAACP.

Many members of the industry have been moved to comment on Pilbrow's death. David H. Rosenburg, principal at Theatre Projects, said, "I met Richard in the winter of 1997; we were introduced by a mutual friend. I had his Stage Lighting book, so I knew who he was, but I had never met him in person. I came up to the office (in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in those days) to chat, get the tour, and meet the staff. At the end of almost three hours, he said that he didn't have any positions to offer me but would keep in touch. About four months later, I got a call offering me a position. In hindsight, I cannot imagine working for (and with) anyone else in this industry. He opened my eyes to what is important in what we do and gave me a whole second career that I never could have imagined. I will be forever grateful for his guidance, patience, sense of humor, and insight into not only why live theatre is vital, but how to best present it so that audience and performer alike are elevated."

Michael Nishball, also a principal at Theatre Projects, said, "In his communal spirit and generosity, Richard always acknowledged the people that he worked with. Richard was an earnest collaborator his entire life and at the highest level."

Lighting designer Dawn Chiang, with whom he co-designed Sleeping Beauty for American Ballet Theatre, said, "Richard was always about possibilities, breaking boundaries, innovation, and creating community. He would kick into high gear when he sensed there was more possible -- that there was so much more than the status quo. In his life and his work, he nurtured a community of friends, colleagues, and cohorts. He inspired us all at every turn."

The UK-based lighting designer and programmer Rob Halliday said, "Richard's passing marks not just the end of a unique and remarkable life, but perhaps also the end of a unique and remarkable era of theatre history, of which he was an inseparable part."

Jackie Tien, director of Lighting&Sound America, said. "I am so saddened and devastated to hear of Richard's passing. I've known him for over 30 years and was fortunate to have been able to work with him for several of those years on his memoir A Theatre Project. Richard was a brilliant artist who loved his family very much. My heart goes out to [his wife] Molly and his children." Patricia MacKay, former publisher of Theatre Crafts and Lighting Dimensions, added, "A giant has left his many buildings in our care."

Charlotte Moore, artistic director, and CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly, producing director at New York's Irish Repertory Theatre, where Pilbrow frequently worked as a designer, said, "We are bereft to hear of the death of the great Richard Pilbrow. We were honored to have had him within our walls where he enhanced everything he touched with beauty and grace. He was generous in spirit and in sharing his vast theatrical knowledge and we will forever be his grateful recipients. No doubt he and Tony Walton are in heaven now, figuring out a prettier setting for the throne. May perpetual light shine upon him."

David Barbour, editor-in-chief of Lighting&Sound America, said, "Richard was an unstoppable life force whether he was creating brilliant lighting designs, working on world-famous venues, or making us rethink the underlying fundamentals of theatre design. Also globetrotting, convulsing audiences with his unmatchable stories, and holding forth in pubs with the likes of Elaine Stritch and Elizabeth Taylor! He was the official greeter for new technologies, avidly seeking out the next great lighting unit or piece of software. I once commented that it seemed as if he had never said 'No' to any challenge or opportunity. He thought about it for a moment and replied, 'I think that's quite literally true'."

Pilbrow was previously married to Viki Brinton, a partner in the early days of Theatre Projects. He is survived by his second wife, Molly (Friedel); a daughter, Abigail (grandchildren Ez, Diggory, and Louie), and son, Fred (grandchildren Solomon and Otto), from his first marriage; and a daughter, Daisy, from his second marriage (grandchildren Jake and Benji). Remembrances can be shared through an online form available at bit.ly/RememberingRichard.

Donations in Pilbrow's memory can be made at wp.behindthescenescharity.org/pilbrow.

(8 December 2023)

E-mail this story to a friendE-mail this story to a friend

LSA Goes Digital - Check It Out!

  Follow us on Twitter  Follow us on Facebook