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RICHARD BRETT (1939-2014): A TRIBUTE BY RICHARD PILBROW [THEATREPLAN]

15/01/2014 13:01 HRS

Richard Brett passed away on January 9, peacefully at home at age 74, after a brave struggle with cancer. Richard was chairman and senior partner of Theatreplan LLP.

Richard was an innovator and a brilliant engineer skilled in many disciplines. He created the role in Great Britain of the modern professional theatre consultant, and while his personal speciality was stage engineering, he was widely knowledgeable of every aspect of theatre. His influence on theatre architecture and engineering has been profound and will continue for many generations. I regarded Richard as one of the greatest theatre engineers of our time, whose unique contribution was perhaps unequaled since the work of engineer/architect Edwin O. Sachs, author of the epic volumes “Modern Opera Houses and Theatres” written over one hundred years ago.

Richard was my oldest friend. We met when I was seventeen years old. I was a new member of the Beckenham Theatre Centre and was co-opted into helping fit out the control room of the little theatre we were converting from a local church hall. A very, very young Richard seemed to have lots of opinions even then! But our lives diverged, I returned to boarding school and Richard went on to school at Dulwych College.

In 1957 I began Theatre Projects. Richard, still at school, became TP Lighting’s first amateur theatre rental customer. My partner Bryan (Kipper) Kendall and I personally delivered four pattern 23, some cable and stands.

Years passed . . . Richard, who had graduated with honours in electrical engineering at University College London, had joined the British Broadcasting Corporation as one of their last Graduate Apprentices in radio, television, electronic and mechanical engineering. He rose rapidly through the ranks of their installations department, to become a Senior Planning and Installation Engineer.

In his spare time Richard loved making films. He began his own company Integral Films, with a group of friends. He travelled the world making a student documentary. In London, seeking a meeting room with projection facilities, he joined forces with sound designer, David Collison, and with his gang of film buffs, helped construct the Theatre Projects sound studio in our newly acquired banana warehouse in Neal’s Yard.  Thus we rediscovered each other.

In the early sixties, Theatre Projects began consulting on new theatres . . . The Birmingham Rep and the University of Hull being two examples. Initially we, as theatre people, leant over the architects’ shoulder at the drawing board and tried to give theatrical advice. The demand for our services expanded. I began to realize we needed to become far more professional. I tried to tempt Richard to leave the BBC and join me. “What! Can TP offer me a pension to match that which I have from the Beeb?” I, and my fledgling company, could not.

Having been Sir Laurence Olivier’s lighting designer since the birth of the National Theatre Company in 1963, I’d become a member of the Building Committee advising on the new Denys Lasdun building. After months of deliberation, Lasdun asked Sir Laurence to appoint me theatre consultant. I replied that I needed 24 hours to consider. I ran to the call box in the NT Acquinas Street offices: “Dick, I’ve been offered the National Theatre. Now I can offer you a decent pension!”

The rest actually is history. Richard turned theatre consulting into a profession. As the founding managing director of Theatre Projects Consultants, he built a team of theatre technicians, architects and engineers. Early projects included the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Barbican Theatre, and the master plan for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, which we completed, urging the retention of Floral Hall and expanding the stage to the limits of the Covent Garden site. Later we would work around the world.

The National presented unique challenges. It was to be the first British theatre to run multiple productions on each stage, with constant changeovers in repertory, yet with staging standards to match, or surpass, the highest in the West End. The unusual design of the Olivier stage demanded new thinking. Working in close harmony with the NT technical staff, but always guided by Richard Brett’s brilliant analytical mind and practical experience, we devised new solutions: the now famous drum revolve, power flying with an unprecedented level of sophistication, new flexible stage and scenic handling in the Lyttelton, new approaches to lighting in rep, new lighting control systems, new communications methodology and, with David Collison, entirely new standards of sound.

The run up to the opening of the NT in 1976 was a disaster. Britain was consumed by industrial strife, and working a three-day week. The South Bank construction site was a chaotic mess. Delay followed delay. Peter Hall had replaced my idol, Sir Laurence, and grew increasingly frustrated with the hold-ups for his new company. Finally, he decided to move into the new building, ready or not. And almost nothing was ready. We had devised theatrical equipment of unprecedented sophistication. The South Bank board had let contracts to the cheapest (always English) bidder. The building was a raw shell, technical installations had only just begun, and we simply had to open.

Richard was the unsung hero. He and I determined that we would achieve, at least: stages to stand on, and lights to see by! Richard set up his desk in the Lyttleton (the first theatre to open) and made it happen! He took charge of the building site. He ordered pairs of electricians to the next crisis point, carpenters to another. With computers moving into rooms still being plastered, Richard made stages for the actors to inhabit. The National opened. Her Majesty, The Queen spoke to me on the opening night. “Is the building ready, Mr. Pilbrow?” “No Ma’am” I replied, with a slight bow demonstrating suitable deference.

Of course we had a National scandal on our hands: “The National Theatre equipment is a disaster! Nothing works!” The myth continues even to today. It was like trying to drive a Ferrari without wheels. Machinery installations were incomplete, un-commissioned, and obviously untested. But lighting and sound were soon finished. The Lyttelton stage floor machinery operated well, while the intended power pipe flying was scrapped for counterweights. In the Olivier, the contractors continued to work night after night on the power flying and drum under Richard’s vigilant supervision. The power flying was eventually completed two years later.  John Bury announced that it fulfilled all his wildest expectations. It became one of the most sophisticated, accurate, safe and silent flying systems in the world and operated reliably for over twenty years. The drum was operational in 1982. It was in daily use as a freight elevator, but it was not until 1986 that Bill Dudley suggested it should be tried in a show. And what a triumph “The Shaughran” proved to be. The drum proved to be an amazing device to enable the Olivier theatre to live up to the dreams of its creators.

Out of the nightmare we all learned a great deal. We set new standards in the design of stage equipment, stage lighting and stage sound that reverberate even today. Richard Brett took British theatre into a new place in terms of stage technology. He created the “professional” theatre consultant. A profession that now operates around the planet.

Innovation followed innovation. Derngate in Northampton became one of the most successful and certainly the most active arts centers in Britain, thanks to Richard’s first use of air bearings to radically change the auditorium format. This was followed by the larger multi-form venue in Cerritos, California.

Changes at Theatre Projects led to Richard Brett and I parting professional company in 1985. Happily our friendship continued, and I’ve watched with pride and delight his success with Technical Planning Ltd, which developed into Theatre Planning and Technology Ltd in 1999 and ultimately Theatreplan LLP in 2004.

His major projects have included the stage planning and engineering of the Olavshallen in Trondheim and the Kulturhus in Harstad, Norway; the Kwai Tsing Theatre in Hong Kong, special rigging installations for Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, and the Symphony Hall in Birmingham. After a major fire at the Gran Teatre Del Liceu in Barcelona, Richard led the stage engineering team on the enormously complex reconstruction that included rack-and-pinion elevators with 18 meter travel to a full scenic basement; he was then part of the in-house consultancy team on the Royal Opera House development; and led the theatre planning and engineering consultants team on the new Copenhagen Opera House which opened in 2004, that surely remains one of the most innovative and brilliant opera house installations of our time.
Other award-winning theatre consulting completed by Theatreplan include the Lyric Theatre, Belfast; Genexis, Fusionopolis, Singapore; Alleyn’s School, Dulwich; Grand Theatre, Leeds; Grove Theatre, Dunstable; Hampstead Theatre, London; The Royal Ballet School, London; Palace Theatre, Watford; and renovation of the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

Richard Brett was a true original. He possessed enormous experience and knowledge of theatre but also unbounded enthusiasm. He was always looking beyond today’s practice to tomorrow’s unexplored opportunities. While a true ‘expert’ and a fantastically dedicated ‘workaholic,’ Richard was also a richly humorous human being, who could be brilliantly amusing company, particularly over an Indian meal at his favorite Punjab Restaurant on Monmouth Street.

Richard’s close association with and unwavering support for the ABTT was rewarded with a Fellowship in 1986. He is a past chairman of ABTT, chairman of the Society of Theatre Consultants (1979-1985), and UK representative on the Executive and Technical Committee member of the International Organization of Scenographers, Technicians and Theatre Architects.

Perhaps Richard’s most lasting contribution will have been the creation of the quadrennial conferences “Theatre Engineering and Architecture” presented in 2002, 2006, and 2010 in London, and 2008 and 2012 in New York, attended by architects, engineers, and theatre professionals from around the world. Richard created these highly successful series of events because of his frustration at seeing so many poorly designed, or wrongly equipped performance spaces still being completed. He personally ensured the publication of the proceedings with a series of illustrated volumes that are encyclopedic source books on advanced theatre technology and architecture. A parallel to his forebear Edwin O. Sachs.

His workload and his passionate enthusiasm continued unabated until shortly before his death.  His current activities including the new engineering design study for the renovation of the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House-of which he was especially proud; and the organization of the next Theatre Engineering and Architecture Conference, which is to be held in London in June 2014.

Richard is survived by his loving wife Jenny, and two children, Chris and Jacquie from his first marriage, and his younger brother Michael. The date for the private family funeral will be announced shortly, and a celebration of Richard’s enormously fruitful life will be held later in the Spring.

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