It all began in 1957 in London, England. A young stage manager by the name of Richard Pilbrow borrowed £60 from his father and bought some used lighting equipment left over from the London tour of Oklahoma! and Theatre Projects was born. Last year, the firm celebrated its 45th anniversary as international theatre consultants rather than a rental shop, with the distinguished Mr. Pilbrow still running the show.
“I had always wanted to be a stage manager,” Pilbrow recalls, and he actually was for a brief time following his studies at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. “I hated it,” he says. “I found out it was terribly boring.” Not one to be bored for long, Pilbrow decided to be a lighting designer. “I had read the Lee Watson — Joel Rubin book and knew there was the profession of lighting designer in New York.” In London this wasn't so easy, so Pilbrow figured if he could rent lighting equipment he'd offer his services as a bonus.
Once Theatre Projects was established, Pilbrow's career as a lighting designer took off. Soon, Theatre Projects Sound, under the wing of David Collison, operated alongside Theatre Projects Lighting, and Pilbrow was instrumental in launching the ABTT (Association of British Theatre Technicians) in 1961.
In the meantime, Pilbrow met set designer Tony Walton, and they worked not only as co-designers but also as producers, serving as the London office for Hal Prince. “He asked Tony and I if we wanted to be producers in London,” recalls Pilbrow. “TP Associates became Hal's London office.” Pilbrow continued lighting, but often passed the jobs on to younger designers, and at one point had a stable of 15 in-house designers at Theatre Projects, including Robert Ornbo, David Hersey, and Andrew Bridge. “The 1970s were the heyday of Theatre Projects,” Pilbrow notes. “We had lighting and sound rental companies, we were lighting designers and producers.”
Yet the business was to take another turn rather rapidly. Pilbrow met Sir Laurence Olivier and became the lighting designer for Olivier's National Theatre Company, located at the time in Chichester, England, then at the Old Vic in London. “I was asked to be a technical advisor for the new National Theatre complex on the South Bank of London,” says Pilbrow, who served on a building committee with Olivier, Tyrone Guthrie, Peter Hall, Peter Brook, Tanya Moiseiwitsch, and other top directors. “I was the voice of practicality,” says Pilbrow. “This went on for many months, and I got close to Dennis Lasdun, the architect, and eventually became the theatre consultant.”
In 1968, Theatre Projects Consultants was formed as a separate company, with Pilbrow and Richard Brett as partners. They began to consult on theatre throughout the UK, including the Royal Opera House master plan in Covent Garden, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at the Barbican. “These were the first new theatres being built since before the Second World War,” says Pilbrow. “They needed technical advice for the architects.”
Today, Theatre Projects Consultants is a champion of the horseshoe-shaped theatre with balconies designed to bring the audience as close to the stage as possible. “I realized we needed to go back to the theatres of our grandfathers,” he says.
By the late '70s the firm had expanded into the United States with an office in Connecticut, with Wally Russell, Louis K. Fleming, and Robert Long working with Pilbrow. In 1988, Theatre Projects Consultants became independent of the rental companies, with a board consisting of Pilbrow, David Staples, Iain Mackintosh, Alan Russell, Jerry Gooden, Fleming, and Anthony Field in London. Today that group also includes Andy Hales, Mark Stroomer, and Marion Daehms. The US board now includes Brian Hall, David I. Taylor, Gene Leitermann, and Joe Favano. The entire staff numbers 20 in London, 20 in Connecticut, and one-man offices in Toronto and Singapore.
Theatre Projects Consultants now works worldwide, with the US office handling North and South America, while the UK office handles the rest of the world. Recent projects include the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, the Esplanade in Singapore, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, with a wide range of projects on the drawing board, including the Dallas Opera House with architect Sir Norman Foster and the Dallas Theatre Center with architect Rem Koolhaas.
“The whole of consulting is teamwork, from economics through architecture to technology,” insists Pilbrow. “We try to ensure that the theatre is a place where artists and audiences have great experiences. We represent the artists, the technicians, and the audience. We can't forget the important role the audience plays. A good theatre accelerates the energy so the excitement is conveyed, turning a group of people into one audience, who in turn inspire the performer.”