USITT Mourns the Passing of Richard Pilbrow
December 8, 2023
With heavy hearts, USITT mourns the passing of Richard Pilbrow (1933-2023), a luminary whose mark on the world of entertainment will endure through the ages. Richard was a visionary theatre consultant and a beacon in both the US and the UK. His influence touched every facet of the industry—from lighting design to production and beyond.
Born on April 29, 1933, in London, England, Richard attended Cranbrook School in Kent and the Central School of Speech and Drama from 1953 to 1955. His journey led to the founding of Theatre Projects, a lighting design and rental company, alongside Bryan Kendall in London. Under Richard's guidance, Theatre Projects blossomed into a global theatre consulting powerhouse, undertaking projects that resonated across continents.
Theatre Projects spoke on the passing of Richard, their friend and founder.
"Richard was a vital force in the theatre—a celebrated Broadway and West End lighting designer, a pathfinder in the theatrical consulting profession, and an innovator in countless other corners of the industry. He lived a life committed to expansive thinking and supporting others, co-founding multiple professional membership organizations and serving as mentor to consultants and designers across the globe. And his books on lighting and on his career in consultancy have become standard reads for fledgling creatives and industry professionals alike."
"We join many in mourning Richard at this time. His influence across our industry, within our company, and at an individual level was deeply felt, and his energy and compassion will be missed. Richard created and embodied the spirit of Theatre Projects—demonstrating values like inclusion, innovation, community-centric thinking, kindness—and directed the company’s course, time and again, as our industry and our scope of services changed. Even after Richard’s retirement, he stayed close with team members and remained a committed advocate for the arts; our work will forever benefit from his passion."
In 1982, Richard received the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) award for "his many years contribution to the art of lighting, as designer, entrepreneur and consultant in both England and America," and a Distinguished Life Time Achievement Award from the USITT in 1999. He served as Director-at-Large on the USITT Board from 2000-2003 and again from 2003-2006, and was elected a Fellow of the Institute in 2001 for “His truly astounding contribution to the theatre and the work of the Institute." The Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT) also recognized his excellence in 2000 with the Technician of the Year award. Pilbrow has also lectured and written articles extensively, giving master classes on Stage Lighting and Theatre Design at the VII Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogata 2000 in Columbia and in Prague for PQ2007.
As a theatrical producer, Richard collaborated with Hal Prince on iconic Broadway hits playing on the West End, including A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Fiddler on the Roof (introducing Topol), Cabaret (featuring Judi Dench), Company, and A Little Night Music (with Jean Simmons). He was a pioneering force in bringing British regional theatre to London's West End, with such productions as Ian McKellen’s first starring roles in London of Edward II and Richard II from Prospect Productions, and John Napier’s first West End design for A Ruling Class.
Richard was a co-founder of the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT), the Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD), the Society of Theatre Consultants (STC), the Association of Lighting Designers (ALD), and the Theatre Projects Trust — LAMDA Stage Management and Technical Theatre Course. He is the Honorary Chairman of Light Relief the UK Registered Charity to support those in need in the entertainment lighting profession
A prolific author, Richard's published works include Stage Lighting, featuring a forward by Lord Olivier. This text became essential reading for aspiring creatives globally. His enduring legacy extends to co-authoring The Walt Disney Concert Hall — The Backstage Story with Patricia MacKay, and contributing to Hugh Hardy's book Performing Arts Facilities.
A new book, Stage Lighting Design, The Art, The Craft, The Life, with forward by Hal Prince, was published in 1997 revised in soft-cover in 2000, and reprinted 2002 and 2008. The book received a Theatre Crafts International "Lighting Product of the Year" Award for 1998.
His newest book, A Sense of Theatre, a Kickstarter project, is about the creation and history of the National Theatre in London.
He had several achievements offstage and on the silver screen as well, acting as producer of the 1974 feature film Swallows and Amazons, and the TV series: All You Need is Love—the Story of Popular Music, and with the BBC for TV, Swallows and Amazons Forever.
Tony Walton first brought Pilbrow to the USA to be the projection consultant for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (lighting by Jean Rosenthal), followed by Golden Boy (lighting by Tharon Musser). They continued to work together often. Other professional Director and designer colleagues include: Peter Coe, Harold Prince, Boris Aronson, Derek Goldby, Desmond Healey, Michael Blakemore, Robin Wagner, Sir Peter Hall, Gerald Scarfe, Stan Wojewodski, Chris Barracca, Tommy Tune, Eugene Lee, James Naughton, Julie Andrews, Kevin Mackenzie, Warren Carlisle, and Charlotte Moore.
Beyond his professional achievements, Richard was a loving husband to Molly and a devoted father and grandfather. Richard’s parents were Marjorie and Gordon Pilbrow. Viki Brinton, his first wife, was a partner in the early days of Theatre Projects. Their children are Abigail, a potter (grandchildren Ez, Diggory, and Louie) and Fred, an architect in London (grandchildren Solomon and Otto). In 1974 he married lighting designer Molly née Friedel. They have a daughter, Daisy, in Stockholm, Sweden. His infectious enthusiasm and compassionate spirit left an indelible mark on family, friends, and colleagues alike.
He passed away in his home in Connecticut on December 6th, surrounded by family. His legacy lives on in the hearts of those he inspired, and the theatre world mourns the loss of a true giant.
“Richard Pilbrow was a courageous innovator, a fearless pioneer who shaped, in so many ways, the several industries we all work in today, and a dear friend. And so often he signed emails “Love, Richard” — and he meant it.” Jules Lauve, theatre consultant.
We would like to end with an excerpt from Richard's acceptance speech for the USITT Joel E. Rubin Founder's Award at USITT in 2018. You can watch his full speech here.
"...To be given this founders award is an extraordinary honor, particularly because its named after Joel E. Rubin, and I wouldn't be where I am today without Joel. We first met in Berlin in 1960, before any of you were thought of. He and I attended a national theatre conference and we met a lot of other people we'd never met before from Broadway, America and on the West End in England. And over a lot of beer at Hard Kids restaurant in Berlin we said "this is crazy, we don't have a forum to meet our fellows in the industry!" So we decided to go out and do something.
I was only 24 or so and I went home and formed the ABTT, and Joel went back to New York and formed USITT. And frankly, the world is different ever since those two things happened. Before organizations like this existed, you never really met anyone unless you were working with them in the theatre. Secondly, he to me to a German stage lighting manufacturer... and I saw for the first time this amazing very high powered projection apparatus. I went home to England and I convinced a producer to do a show with major scenic projections. And a year later I found myself for the first time crossing the Atlantic for a show called A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, designed by the legendary granny of lighting Jean Rosenthal. And that was a big hit, and I went on to do many projection designs for shows....
But most important, three years before that in Berlin, I was an ASM in the west of London. I went straight form drama school into a West End show as an ASM. All my life I'd wanted to be a stage manager, and I found myself on a long run oh my god, it was boring! The actor said a line and I pressed a button. So I was having a nervous breakdown. My whole life was in ruins at the age of 24. I walked into a bookshop and picked, totally by random, a book called Theatrical Lighting Practice by Joel E. Rubin and Lee Watson. And I opened it and there was a plan of lights drawn to scale. I'd never seen such a thing. And I turned the page and it said that in America, there was a profession called the lighting designer and I thought "Shit...I could do that." I'd lit all the school plays, I had to be qualified!
So I go back to the theatre I had been working in and I went up to the office and I talked to my mentor, the production stage manager, and he said "before you say anything, I've got great news! We have a new job. We've been hired to stage manage the London production of My Fair Lady with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It has to run for five years!"
So I said "Bob, uh, thank you. But no. I'm going to do something else."
He said "What?"
I said, "I'm going to be a lighting designer."
He said "You're stark raving bloody mad," Because there was no such thing in England in those days.
Anyway, uh, I did. and I've been real real lucky ever since.
USITT is a fantastic bunch of folks. Friendship and collaboration is what it is all about. I think we're the luckiest people in the world to work in this industry, this art. And take advantage of your time here at USITT, because you'll meet some of the greatest men and women in our profession. Thank you, once again. Theatre is the loveliest thing you could possibly have anything to do with. So thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you."