Living for Design: Design Is about More Than Pretty Pictures, as Reviews of Three New Books on Costuming, Scenography and Lighting Prove

American Theatre, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Living for Design: Design Is about More Than Pretty Pictures, as Reviews of Three New Books on Costuming, Scenography and Lighting Prove


A THEATRE PROJECT

By Richard Pilbrow (with David Collison). PLASA Media, Inc., New York City, 2011. 468 pp., $49.99 paper.

Reviewed by Richard Stein

IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE WHAT THE WORLD OF theatre would be like today if Peter O'Toole had gotten his way. Shortly after Richard Pilbrow was hired as lighting director for the fledgling National Theatre of Great Britain, he overheard O'Toole imploring its founder, Laurence Olivier, to sack him. Fortunately for the future of theatre technology and design, Olivier didn't take the advice.

One can't overstate the enormous contributions made to our field by this innovative and indefatigable man, whose memoir, A Theatre Project, was recently published with the help of his longtime Theatre Projects business partner and sound designer David Collison.

Some important people saw promise in him early, such as scenic designer Tony Walton, who helped get him hired to light his Broadway productions. Hal Prince is another, and it was as a result of their association that Pilbrow expanded beyond the lighting design and rental shop he founded in 1957 in London to become a formidable West End producer.

His accomplishments in the field of theatre technology have been far-reaching--he was heavily involved in designing the National Theatre's home on the Southbank and the Royal Shakespeare Company's former London home in the Barbican Centre. He authored the lighting designer's bible, Stage Lighting (1970), a.k.a. the Old Testament, and Stage Lighting Design (1997), the New Testament. Yet one of his earliest and most useful innovations was also his simplest: stencil templates to draw various lighting instruments on schematics, now an essential tool for every lighting designer.

Pilbrow's book is as sprawling and messy as the company he readily admits he almost ran aground, and he shares hair-raising stories of its careening growth, chronic lack of cash and organizational disarray. Indeed, the oversized volume exhibits a surprisingly uninspired design and sloppy editing that allowed some errors to slip through.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

For instance, in a section about Sarasota, Fla.'s Asolo Repertory Theatre, he identifies Richard Fallon as artistic director--John Ulmer held that post and Fallon was executive director. Also, the historic Asolo Theater wasn't secured and brought over from Italy by the Ringling Brothers, as he states, but by A. Everett Austin Jr., the first director of the Ringling Museum of Art, which had been bequeathed to the State of Florida by John Ringling in 1936.

Nevertheless, for a book that focuses so much on theatre business and technology, it's a real page-turner. That's because Pilbrow transformed his childhood passion for the theatre into a career that placed him, Zelig-like, in the midst of nearly every theatrical milestone of the past 50 years.

It also contains juicy behind-the-scenes stories--as when Portland, Ore.'s mayor received a telegram lambasting that city for hiring Theatre Projects, a purveyor of "technological hokum," to design its new performing arts center, and one of the signatories was theatre technology legend and Yale School of Drama professor George Izenour!

Pilbrow, now 79, has been driven by the belief that theatre design desperately needed to restore the intimate playgoing experience for audiences and performers alike that had been lost over the years. He became the go-to guy for everything related to theatrical design and production, first in London, then everywhere else, and Theatre Projects became a household brand to every theatre practitioner. When his company grew unmanageable, Richard Pilbrow returned to his roots as a designer and, through his fierce determination, proved himself again to be a true Renaissance man.

WORLD SCENOGRAPHY: 1975-1990

Edited by Peter Mckinnon and Eric Fielding. OISTAT, Taiwan, 2012. 432 PP. …

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