Richard Pilbrow, a famously tireless British stage lighting designer, author, theatre design consultant, and theatrical producer, died on Dec. 6, 2023. He was 90.
Richard had an ongoing, heightened sensibility for seeing new possibilities and breaking boundaries. As a friend, associate designer, and co-designer with Richard, I saw this play out in many ways.
There was always a twinkle in Richard’s eye, a sparkling and excitement in his energy as he struck upon the core of a new insight, question, or challenge. You could almost see him scanning the horizon regularly, fueled by his endless energy and curiosity, looking for what was possible beyond the existing state of affairs.
This was always an animating force on his projects, be it a lighting design, a theatre design, a book, a presentation (with lots of elucidating images), or his excitement at discovering a new piece of entertainment hardware or software.
On Hal Prince’s production of Show Boat, set designer Eugene Lee bemoaned the use of “little cones of light” from individual theatrical lights as a poor emulation of the parallel beams of sunlight or moonlight. Richard hit upon the idea of upgrading David Hersey Associates (DHA) Light Curtains. This fixture used very narrow beams of light to literally create a visible curtain of light, two meters in length. The light could pan upstage and downstage, and included a 20-color scroller to change the colors along full length of the unit. Richard also wanted to add a “tilt” feature so that units could be focused stage left or right. Used in combination with its existing upstage/downstage movement, it could now focus to any point onstage.
When 11 of these innovative new fixtures arrived at the theatre (one was a spare) right before tech, they were immediately installed on two linesets, each spanning the full width of the stage. When they were flown out to trim, turned on, and put through their paces, everything else onstage spontaneously stopped.
We all stared in awe. We had never seen such a broad stroke of lighting that encompassed the full stage in a single swath. Pointing straight down, they then all silently tilted—floated, really—to the right, and gradually shifted from the colors of high noon through afternoon, sunset, moonlight, and evening. Just as Richard had conceived and planned. Then they reversed direction, floating to the left and going through colors from night into bright day. Then they all floated to focus centerstage for the imagined star turn at the end of the big musical number—now rolling to lavender, deep rose, and bright pink colors.
We were so struck, we asked the lighting programmer to run the routine again.
We were still in awe, trying to grasp the impact of a quality of light and definition of space we had never seen before.
Richard delighted in finding ways to create this type of excitement, insight, and possibility at every turn. He and a longtime friend, designer/director Tony Walton, once worked on a new musical called Busker Alley, starring Tommy Tune. The production started out of town in Louisville.
Over long dinners during load-in and tech, Richard and Tony spontaneously began to recount some of their many adventures from over the years. Their collaborations included co-producing many musicals in the West End for Hal Prince, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, She Loves Me, Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, Company, and A Little Night Music.
I had heard some of these stories from each of them individually over the years. But they took on a whole new life as each of them filled in details the other had overlooked. This would continually spark more impromptu recollections that made these stories richer in every way. The two were clearly having a grand time sharing these stories with each other and the others at the table.
This went on for three glorious weeks while they got to hang out together out of town. We heard the uproarious story about smuggling Elaine Stritch’s dog into the U.K. while she was in the London production of Company; about the trials, tribulations, and ultimate success of Richard’s Broadway debut creating projections for Tony’s design of Golden Boy; and about the two of them hearing about an exciting new musical—as in stop-everything-you’re-doing exciting—that Hal was working on, which would become Fiddler on the Roof. It was an absolute delight to be a fly on the wall to stories from such a rich and wonderful life.
Richard has written four books: Stage Lighting, an influential introduction to lighting for many now in the industry; Stage Lighting Design: The Art, the Craft, the Life, which includes interviews with a number of leading lighting designers across many arts and entertainment sectors; Walt Disney Concert Hall—The Backstage Story, written with Patricia MacKay; and his memoir, A Theatre Project.
His forthcoming book, A Sense of Theatre: The Untold Story of the National Theatre, is in the final stages of pre-production. Richard was the lighting designer for the opening of the National Theatre company for Laurance Olivier in 1960s. When Olivier was charged with leading the creation of the National Theatre building, Richard was asked to join the planning committee. In recent years, Richard became fascinated with the National’s track record of creating indelible productions over the years, often overcoming some of the inherent challenges of the Olivier and Lyttleton theatres. He was intrigued by how creative teams made this happen and how the National has thrived artistically as a theatre center.
As one his collaborators, Rob Halliday writes, “It will be a fascinating read for anyone who loves the National Theatre. Or, really, loves any kind of theatre at all. Anyone who has ever wondered why some theatres feel great, others less so. Anyone who’s ever watched a show, or been part of a show.”
Richard enthusiastically, steadily championed the potential and possibilities in others. Many have cited Richard as a key mentor and influence in their careers—whether in entertainment technology, theatre consulting, lighting design, or publishing. Graduating lighting design students remember when he spent thoughtful time with them at portfolio reviews.
He was always looking for that spark of creativity, in himself and others, and supporting and encouraging that impulse at every turn. Whether a person hadn’t yet seen that possibility for themselves or was just starting to find their way, Richard was enthusiastic in his support.
As I finished drafting a light plot for some of the co-designs that we did, I added some new and different elements that Richard invited me to include, sight unseen. When it came to cueing in some of these new ideas while in tech, as I was about to switch on the microphone on my headset, Richard reminded me:
These words of Richard live with me each and every day.
Dawn Chiang is a lighting designer with extensive credits on Broadway and in regional theatres, opera, and museums.
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