Every so often, the entertainment technology industry reverberates with earth-shattering business news: a major player moves to the competition, massive layoffs are announced, one company is acquired by a larger entity. Such developments generate much discussion in our little corner of the world but barely make a dent beyond it. Not so the announcement back in March that Joseph Volpe, the larger-than-life former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera for 16 years until his retirement in 2006, was joining Theatre Projects Consultants (TPC) as director of strategic development at its American headquarters in South Norwalk, CT. Now this was news, big enough to warrant major coverage in outlets like The New York Times.
It's an interesting development to be sure. In one corner, we have Theatre Projects, the venerable theatre design firm founded by legendary industry icon Richard Pilbrow over 50 years ago, a company behind many of the major new theatres and concert halls in recent memory, ranging from Walt Disney Concert Hall to the Kodak Theatre to the Steppenwolf. And in the other, we have Volpe, whose tenure at the Met was noted both for dismissing famed diva Kathleen Battle in 1994 for disruptive behavior, as well as for conceiving and developing “Met Titles,” a unique system providing individual seat-back translations of the opera for members of the audience. He was known as something of a taskmaster but also as a sound fiscal manager, and there were no major contract disputes during his rein. His late close friend Luciano Pavarotti dubbed him “grande capo.”
All of this may make the addition of Volpe to the TPC staff something of a curious choice, but factor in Volpe's background (he got his start as a theatrical carpenter and joined the Met in 1964 as an apprentice carpenter, working his way up from backstage to the front office), as well as TPC's penchant for thinking outside the box (this is, after all, a firm that already sports an eclectic mix of staffers, including working theatre lighting designers, architects, even an Equity card-holding actor, not to mention “principal dogs” Thatch and Gidleigh Pilbrow).
We at Live Design found it a fascinating partnership, so much so that we asked Volpe, Pilbrow, and TPC principal Gene Leiterman out to lunch to discuss not only this new development but also the state of theatre consultancy in general. LD editorial director David Johnson met with the three gentlemen at Strada 18 in South Norwalk, just steps from their offices, and chatted over pizza, pasta, and a little red wine.
David Johnson: Richard, how well did you know Joe before this?
Richard Pilbrow: We met on the Lincoln Center study [earlier this decade]; we were the theatre consultant part of the master plan. I mainly noticed Joe because he kept saying what a terrible job everyone was doing.
Joseph Volpe: I don't think I said it in those words…
RP: He put it a little stronger than that! But I thought he was more right than we were. Essentially, my problem with it was that the theatres at Lincoln Center were 35 to 40 years old, and some of them were falling apart, and we seemed to be only dealing with cosmetic appearances at Lincoln Center. I thought he was doing a rather good job of expressing that, but I wasn't allowed to say so.
JV: There were certain things each theatre needed; the New York State Theatre was in horrible shape, Avery Fisher had its own built-in problems, and the Met needed certain things — more restrooms, etc. — but the board felt they wouldn't be able to raise more money for such things, so they came up with this idea of the reinvention of Lincoln Center. When you go through that process, you bring in outsiders, and they start criticizing the original design. And I still believe that the way that Lincoln Center was laid out originally was really quite wonderful. Now, with all of the changes, I don't feel it will be quite as good for the performers and the public. But that's what volunteers do sometimes…
RP: Eloquently put!
Gene Leiterman: It's a pretty typical thing to happen, with what the people in charge want to do and what needs to be done. We walk into that all the time.
JV: So we knew of each other because of that, but that was about it.
DJ: So then what happened?
RP: Do you know Herman Krawitz?
JV: He was the assistant manager to Rudolph Bing.
RP: I met Herman socially through Russell Johnson; they were very close friends. Herman rang me up one day and said, “Joe Volpe would like to have dinner with you.” I said, “Good heavens!” So we had dinner, and Joe said, “Richard, I'm leaving Giuliani Partners, and I want to do something with the rest of my life that contributes to the theatre. I've looked around, and you're the best in your field, and I'd like to join you and Theatre Projects.” So I picked myself up off the floor, and in five minutes, I said yes.
DJ: What led you to choose Theatre Projects, Joe?
JV: I knew of Theatre Projects — how could you not? — given my background and being aware of projects throughout the world, and the fact that TPC was involved in all of the major new buildings and renovations. It was the premier theatre consulting firm.
DJ: But why a theatre consultancy?
JV: I was with Giuliani Partners for 18 months; it is a consulting firm that deals with securities and management issues, and quite frankly, it was boring. It was not for me. I was not working with people that I was fully comfortable with. My first meeting with everyone at Theatre Projects, it was clear that we all spoke the same language. It's about the theatre, and that's where I come from, a life in the theatre. So that's why I felt like that's where I should be.
DJ: You come from a theatre background?
JV: I had my own business in high school. My father was a businessman, and he said to me one day, “You don't have what I have; you're going to have to go to college and be like your Uncle Joe, who's an attorney in Washington, because I don't think you have the stomach for business.” That's all he had to say. (Laughter at the table.)
So by the time I was a senior in high school, I had my own auto repair shop. I'd go down at lunch, and I had people working for me. But later, I had the opportunity to go down to the Morosco Theatre and bring in a show, and that just felt right to me. So I started working in the theatre as a stagehand. I went to Radio City for a couple of years and then, from there, went to Feller Scenic Studios in the Bronx. I determined that what I wanted to do next was open a studio that built scenery for Broadway, so I had to learn how to build scenery. I went to Feller, and then I had the opportunity to go to the Met shop, where I would learn how to build scenery and then go open my own business. And I never left.
DJ: Joe's title is director of strategic development. What will that mean?
RP: It means two things. One is our strategic development, because we are involved around the world; lots of people are building opera houses, and Joe's particular expertise in that part of the theatre is going to be particularly valuable to us. And the other thing is strategic development for our clients. We are involved in building, and rebuilding, and for many years, I've been very concerned as to whether our clients were always ready to move into these new buildings. Most of us are sort of techy, design background people. A theatre only begins when it opens, and all of our work is only up to that point. How much help are we able to give after that point? I thought we should be able to give much more than we have been.
GL: On the other end of the schedule, we've always done project development work, helping clients organize projects, but not ever to the level that Joe could. So at the front end of a project, if there are governance issues that need to be addressed, or staffing issues, or fundraising issues, Joe can extend the services to that end. We do planning very well; it's the things before and after that we're hoping to do better with Joe.
JV: If you look at all of the performing arts centers that are being built today, the question is can we help early on. They do these feasibility studies, and then they decide on the program to build this theatre — what do you need, what kind of structure you need to make it all work — and I think there is where we can be of great help. In cases where there are existing facilities and structures, we can help there also, because given my background and expertise, I think that just the management side of the operations of the theatre warrants some help many times from the outside. We are in the position to do that.
GL: We ride a line all the time about how complicated the building time is and how much time and coordination need to go into the design of a building. Take the case of BA Terminal 5 at Heathrow; if there is one type of building that is harder to open than a theatre, it's an airport. It's a difficult building to move into and get started, because there are all the building issues and all the productions issues. Theatres are much the same way.
DJ: Do you think that having Joe on board will help raise the profile of what it is a theatre consultant does?
RP: We very, very, very, very much hope so. At the moment, not a lot of people really do know. Everyone knows what an architect does, and quite a lot know what an acoustician does. Nobody has a clue what a theatre consultant does. They think we come in and put the plugs in the lights or do the technical wallpaper, and it's not really true. We actually often write the brief for the building, and we usually create the form of the stage and auditorium.
I think the best quote I ever heard was that consultants act as the conscience of the project. We feel ourselves responsible for its success, in the widest sense of the word, for the artists, the performers, the technicians, the management, and most importantly, the audience. We are interested in the lights, but we are more interested in how far it is from that seat to the ladies' washroom. So, yes, I hope Joe is going to help in that regard.
JV: David, if you were given the charge to write an article about what theatre consultants do, would you be in a position to do that today?
DJ: Probably, but I would no doubt get things wrong.
JV: There's something you have to see when you come back to the office. For every project, TPC creates this massive document, this book, this bible. And to see the amount of work and the amount of detail that is put in to developing a theatre, I don't think anybody understands. I don't understand it. I mean quite frankly, I look at all the work they put into it, and I think it's mad! (Everyone laughs.) But it's something you have to see, because it's mind-boggling: every detail, every room in the theatre.
Richard and Gene, you tell me if this is not correct, but from what I see, the first thing that is worked out is the basic geometry of the auditorium, the public side, and the stage. You have these two different worlds that have to be melded together, and that's what a consultant does, long before there's an architect working on the project. The public space and the backstage space: how do you bring those two worlds together? One is supposed to be completely relaxed, and the other is hectic, second-by-second timing and pressure. Everything develops from that. Am I saying that right?
GL: That's pretty good!
RP: There's been an enormous change in how theatres are designed in the last 30 years. It really only started in the ‘70s. Before then, we had auditoria. There's been a huge revolution, and it basically comes from the realization that the essence of theatre is actor meeting audience, and audience clustering together to share the experience generated by the actor or musician on the stage. The intimacy of the room is absolutely key to it working, and if you don't get that right, you might as well not have bothered to build a building at all, whether it's Frank Gehry or Joe Blow. That is the essence of it, and I think we have done original work in trying to define how you bring theatres to life. Theatre is an accelerator of emotions, not just a place of looking and listening. The clustering of the audience, much like around a dinner table, is what even the largest theatre has to capture.
GL: What's really interesting in the last few years is taking the knowledge of those historic forums, what makes them work, and working with people like Gehry, or OMA in Dallas, and pushing our understanding to make their architecture work.
RP: Architects usually don't understand it. They all want to do a theatre or a performing arts center, because it gets them on the cover of Architectural Record and all that. But few, if any, who haven't done it before understand how ridiculously complicated they are.
DJ: Why do you think that, after all this time, it's still an education for the architect?
RP: Oh, because we're still learning, as well. There's no book about how to do it. Every one is a process of evolution. It's a…what's the word? Interactive? I'll think of it. It's when you draw something, and the architect takes it, and changes it…
GL: Iterative process?
RP: Yes, iterative process! Thank you, Gene. Some of what the architect has done is fabulous; some of it is an architectural thing that doesn't quite work, so you change it; then you discuss it, then you argue, then you have a row, then it comes back even better than what you thought of. It's constantly changing, and difficult, and expensive, and takes a long time to develop.
GL: And it's always new. We're not, say, the post office; we're not replicating these buildings. The architect has a certain set of goals, the owner has a problem that he needs the building to solve, so you're working with these issues on every project, because it's new every time, which is what makes it fun.
JV: I went back to the Met with a couple of my colleagues the other day. The Met was built 50 years ago, and it is in many ways an exceptional theatre. But this time, I noticed the draft from the HVAC, which they don't do today, or the noise of fans, which you don't hear today, and I was struck by the way technology has changed. In a way, I felt sorry that the Met wasn't built today. That's what a theatre consultant has to do.
GL: Joe, you said something absolutely perfect, and I think it was when you came back from the Met that day. You said, “I'm looking at everything different now.”
JV: Richard had made a point to me a while ago about balconies and boxes that slope toward the stage, and the relationship it creates. So I'm at the Met, and I'm sitting at the box, and I find myself looking around and saying, “That balcony is sloping, and that one is sloping.” I went not to see the performance but to see the theatre, but I didn't realize it at the time.
Next thing I know, I'm looking at the orchestra. I go backstage, and ask my son, who is in the sound department at the Met, for a tape measure. My daughter-in-law, who plays second violin in the orchestra, comes running around and says, “I hear my father-in-law is down here measuring the orchestra pit!” And I say, “Yes I am!” I had been thinking of the theatres we're involved in and wanted to compare them to the Met.
So my whole view is somewhat different, because I'm looking at the theatre now, rather than who's doing what on stage. There's a transition that's happened.
DJ: You bring both sides of the table together in a way.
RP: Absolutely, and that's the amazing thing. He's a carpenter in a suit and a tie.
JV: But this is different, because it's more than what's produced on stage. I look at it with a different set of eyes today.
RP: We all do. Theatre Projects started theatre consulting in 1960, but it was only about the mid-‘70s when I began to seriously think that we were doing something really wrong. I can remember being on this building committee for the Royal National Theatre in London, with Laurence Olivier; we went around the West End and measured theatres. Olivier would stand on stage, and he'd do “to be or not to be,” and we'd get out the tape measure, and say, “no that's too far away,” or, “that's just right.” We basically decided that Olivier could not act to anyone more than 65' away. That dimension drove the design of the Olivier and the Lytteltton. The only other thought we had about the West End was how old-fashioned those horrible old theatres were.
But as the National was being built, I began to get really uncomfortable with the thought that something was missing. One day in the Hebrides, [UK sound designer/consultant] David Collison and I actually ended up drawing the Olivier full scale on the beach, of all things. We went up the hill on the other side of the beach, and looked down and said, “Oh, shit! It's too bloody big!” What nobody ever realized, myself included, was that the dimension of the actor to the last seat was interesting but not terribly important. What is important is how close all the people are to the actors. How do you get everyone else closer? All of those great theatres of the West End and Broadway are miracles of compression. It was only in the mid-70s that we discovered that.
DJ: Richard, what does this move mean for you then? You're supposedly already “retired.”
RP: I am retired.
JV: That's why you get home at 2am from California.
RP: And 2am yesterday from Orlando, but I am “mentally” retired.
DJ: Gene, with Richard “mentally” retired, how does Joe coming aboard affect your world?
GL: Well, we weren't sure, but we thought Joe might know something about running large creative organizations. We weren't positive, but we thought he might.
JV: The jury is still out!
GL: We're trying to improve every day, in efficiencies and qualities, and he's generously offered to look at that with us and let us know how we can do it better, which is great. He's not too interested in getting tied down to anything.
JV: I believe in what the company does, which is important. Here's a group of dedicated people enjoying what they're doing and providing a great service to the world. Culture is such an important part of everyone's life, so I'm committed to finding a way to help. I have my health, I have my enthusiasm, and I want to do things. Long-term commitment concerns me because you get to a certain point in life where you say, “When am I going to have my time to do other things?”
RP: I did that last year, Joe.
JV: Yes, you had your year, but there will be some traveling involved, so if the schedule works out that I have to go to Italy for something, maybe I can take some time off and combine it. I'm thinking what I can do in the short term. If I can do things as long as a Met subscriber, I'm okay: the average age of a Met subscriber years ago was 66, and the average age today is 76. People live longer, and they work longer, so it's a question of how long I can be active and make a contribution. I do not want to be in a position where they say, “Oh, Volpe, we've had enough of him.” I will be long gone before that happens!
THEATRE PROJECTS' PROJECTS
TPC handles performance equipment design and specification, programming, concept design, and theatre planning. Here are just a few of their latest projects.
The Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House at Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, estimated to open next year.
Tempe Center for the Arts in Tempe, AZ, opened last year.
Auditorio Telmex at University of Guadalajara in Mexico also opened last year.