In Memoriam: Richard Pilbrow (1933-2023)
Friday, 8 December 2023
richard-on-thames-by-nt-1Pilbrow on the Thames in 2012, with the National in the background (photo: Robert Bell)
UK - LSi is sad to report that Richard Pilbrow, the pioneering lighting designer and theatre consultant, passed away on 6 December, peacefully, at home, surrounded by family after a short battle with cancer, writes Rob Halliday.
Richard’s remarkable 90-year life was truly a life well lived. He took a passion for theatre developed at an early age and turned it into a career through the formation of his company, Theatre Projects, as a way of subsidising and supporting his lighting design work. In doing that, he played a large part in creating the profession of lighting designer in the UK from 1957 onwards.
The timing of this meant that Richard was perfectly placed to be selected by Laurence Olivier as the lighting designer for the opening of the National Theatre company in 1963, which put him in the right place to become the theatre consultant for the new National Theatre building then being planned.
Through the National, he helped establish a second profession, theatre consultant, in the UK; he and Theatre Projects Consultants would go on to be part of many other landmark projects in the UK, including the Barbican and, particularly close to his heart since he was one of the project’s instigators with his regular collaborators, director Michael Elliott and designer Richard Negri, the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. His consultancy work ultimately led him to relocate to the US to expand TPC’s operation across the US and then worldwide, completing over 1,800 projects in 80 countries.
Alongside this work, he continued to light shows, pioneering many new technologies from large-format projection to pre-visualisation along the way. He received Tony Award nominations for Four Baboons Adoring The Sun and The Life; his countless other shows included the Hal Prince revival of Show Boat, the musical version of A Tale of Two Cities and many others designed by his friend Tony Walton, and the 2017 revival of My Fair Lady, directed by his friend Julie Andrews.
Richard was also, it often appeared, tireless. As well as those two full careers, he had others. He was a producer of stage shows (including the original production of Cabaret in London, starring Judi Dench) and films (including the movie version of Swallows and Amazons). He was an instigator, helping create the ABTT, the ALPD, the SBTD and the Institute of British Theatre Consultants. He was a supporter of others, in particular creating a team of lighting designers at Theatre Projects who would all go on to remarkable careers of their own, and supporting new generations of theatre practitioners through the technical theatre course he helped create at LAMDA.
And he was an irrepressible author, his book Stage Lighting appearing in 1970, remaining in print for more than 25 years until succeeded by Stage Lighting Design: The Art, the Craft, the Life, which is still available. More recently, the autobiographical A Theatre Project provided a fascinating and often searingly honest and open record of his life, not just in but actually helping shape the world of entertainment. His final book, A Sense of Theatre, about the creation and history of the National Theatre, will be published next year.
Richard’s passing marks not just the end of a unique and remarkable life, but perhaps also the end of a unique and remarkable era of theatre history, of which he was an inseparable part.
There will be more to come in an upcoming issue of LSi . . .

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