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 (PLASA Media, Inc., New York City, 2011, 468 pp., $49.99 paper).
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.
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.
It might seem churlish to complain about a big, handsome book chock full of interesting pictures that one would have little chance of seeing otherwise, never mind adding to one’s library. But when those images are offered under the title World Scenography: 1975–1990 (OISTAT, Taiwan, 2012, 432 pp., $55 paper), an expectation of design excellence and originality is set up that this book too often fails to meet. Instead, editors Eric Fielding and Peter McKinnon, assisted by a United Nations of associates and researchers, have gone for diversity, for “a plurality of perspectives,” at the same time adopting the very broadest definition of that disputed term “scenography.”
Plurality there certainly is. The book—a sort of international design mall, with something for everyone—is organized by year, not by country or type of venue. So the reader will find brochure snapshots of Samoan fire-knife dancers rubbing shoulders with production photos of Boris Aronson’s seminal design for A Little Night Music. All very well, even admirable—except that the editors claim to have “sought designs that have proven to be influential in the world of stage design…designs that made a difference.” Indeed, many such designs and designers are to be found among the 300-plus designers cited—such as England’s John Bury and Ralph Koltai, or Russia’s David Borovsky, Sergei Barkhin and Valery Levental. There is exciting work from Japanese designers, and a stunning Electra from France’s Yannis Kokkos. But so much and so many are ignored.
Of course, no single volume can be all-inclusive, as the editors protest in their introduction. But in the interest of adding yet another country to their global roster (as well as expressing a clear Eastern European bias), precious space has been given to weaker designs while (for instance) the entire American regional theatre and opera movements, so lively and fresh during this period, are sadly neglected.
The book also suffers from a confusion of definitions: “stage design” and “scenography” are used interchangeably. In his upcoming book, The Disappearing Stage, theatre scholar Arnold Aronson writes that while Webster’s defines scenography as “the design of theatrical scenery,” a more inclusive view has gained wider acceptance: “the creation and total effect of all visual, aural and spatial elements of a production,” including “the space in which the performance occurs.”
This second definition supports World Scenography’s embrace of many worthy director/designers as well as what one might call entertainment design. But if this totality of effect is what its editors intend to celebrate, why not list each show’s entire creative team alongside its photographs, rather than exiling them to an appendix?
Meanwhile, how to judge the success of an ephemeral totality without having witnessed it? The editors promise a focus on contextual placement—political, social, economic. Political commentary, when given, is useful, as with Gottfried Pilz’s handsome and dramatic but quite traditional costume design for The Huguenots, or with the anti-designs of director Luis Valdez. But too often, the accompanying texts read like program bios: lists of superlatives and awards. They are most enlightening when quoting an artist involved in the production, or a contemporary review. Only rarely are we told why such-and-such work should be considered aesthetically significant or influential.
Instead, we are asked to take the editors’ word that the whole was greater than the sum of the few parts offered for view, frequently in the form of set and costume sketches. Thus, with so much of the book showcasing the individual work of individual designers, setting aside John Conklin, Willa Kim or Desmond Heeley (to name just a few) for the sake of a rock band seems parochial and eccentric.
But despite its shortcomings, World Scenography provides a rich and invaluable visual record, and the good news is that further volumes are planned in the series. For future editions, one might offer some whispered advice: Resist grandiose claims. Be honest about your bias. Just show the work and let it speak for itself.
—Marjorie Bradley Kellogg
Oscar Wilde famously observed that “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” Elizabeth Lewandowski has kept pace, and even more impressively, done so on a global scale. Looking for the meanings of chopines, passementerie and cheongsams? Lewandowski’s The Complete Costume Dictionary (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md., 2011, 622 pp., $125 cloth) is a definitive international reference book for us all.
You can now discover the meanings of “Orso: Italy. Bear fur,” or “Scheenplaten: Holland. Greaves.” (Of course, you already know that greaves are a “Roman….Accessory that covered leg from ankle to knee.” Oh, you don’t?) Lewandowski has given costume lovers a lexical gift as she has collected words that have been assigned to all things costume. She expands our knowledge to include terms from Abyssinia to Zaire, from Bolivia to Slovakia, from Denmark to Tibet.
This valuable dictionary may be hefty, but it’s worth lugging to Madagascar the next time you are there and find yourself trying to discern the difference between a malabary (man’s long robe) and bafota malandy (new white cotton cloth). You will come away from this new volume a smarter person, able to distinguish the nuances between such similar words from different countries and periods as tasile, tasse, tasseau, tassel, tasses, tassettes and tasso (you’re just going to have to buy the book to get the inside scoop on these good words).
I wish this dictionary had existed when I was designing The Joy Luck Club in China— I might have avoided some embarrassing, if hilarious, gaffes. Scandinavian colleague of mine would have benefited from the book, too, as she once declared her need for “foot mittens” while searching for the right term for socks.
Other excellent dictionaries by R. Turner Wilcox, Mary Brooks Picken and Doreen Yarwood are full of good illustrations but are more focused on common European terms. A British tome written in 1876 by James Robinson Planche has encyclopedic components on armor.
In case you’re worried that traditional Romance-language terms will be obfuscated by the sheer number of international references, the Lewandowski dictionary has useful and convenient appendices such as Garment Types, Garments by Country and Garment Types by Era.
There are also various illustrations in both black-and-white and color. I found these to be sadly uneven in quality, but the rest of the dictionary is so handy that this sore point should not keep you from adding The Complete Dictionary to your library.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!