Book Marks: Making "A Sense of Theatre"

I’ve suggested for a while, but have been reminded forcibly over the last year, that perhaps the reason we like doing lighting is because, until the show is over, it need never be finished. We can just keep changing our minds: adding bits, taking bits away, tinkering. We can fix mistakes, make improvements, just keep trying new ideas. It has an impermanence – which of course also means that when the show ends, it’s gone, other than in photographs and the memories of those who got to see it.

The forcible reminder: working on something where quite the opposite is true. Where there comes a day when the fiddling and improving and pursuit of perfection has to end. When there comes a moment when someone presses what I like to think of as the big giant print button, the presses roll, and the thing you’ve been working on so hard for so long gets transferred onto paper, bound together, wrapped in a cover, and becomes very, very permanent indeed. Permanent and long-lasting.

Yes, I’ve been working on a book, where you eventually hit a point where there is no more changing your mind…

A Sense Of Theatre cover


The book is called "A Sense of Theatre." It’s not really my book; it’s really Richard Pilbrow’s book. It’s a history of Britain’s National Theatre, both the company and the building. This is a story Richard is uniquely placed to tell: in 1963, aged just 31, he was invited by the brand-new company’s artistic director, Laurence Olivier, to light the opening show. From there, perhaps inevitably, he became closely involved in the design and construction of the building the National now calls home, on the south bank of the River Thames in London. At first, he just listened and offered advice. Then he was invited to sit on the Building Committee, the panel of the great and good of British theatre of the day assembled to help work out exactly what the theatre should be, to choose an architect, and then help that architect design the building.

Remember: this was an interesting time to build a new theatre. The line of succession of the great builders of traditional theatres across London and the rest of Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Matcham, Phipps, Sprague, Crewe – had been broken by two World Wars. Plus this was a new era: there was a sense that people wanted buildings that felt different, felt ‘modern’; did they really want a traditional theatre auditorium of plaster and drapery. The seeds of new theatre building that was beginning as planning for the National started – at Chichester, Nottingham, Leatherhead and a few other places – suggested not. The National actually evolved out of the company Olivier had created to play on the thrust stage at Chichester; it was a stage he didn’t enjoy. He was determined to do better for the National, but didn’t quite seem to know how – or perhaps didn’t place enough trust in his instincts. Hence the Committee.

Richard Pilbrow with National Theatre light board, 1976 Philip Sayer

But it turns out, as Richard would recount from memory and, for this book, demonstrate by delving into the minutes of their many meetings – that it often didn’t seem as if the committee really knew either. They had opinions. They would carry out tests, such standing on the stage of favourite theatres and measuring the distance to the furthest seat, ultimately declaring that the key factor in a good theatre was that no seat was further than 65 feet from the front of the stage – something that became a guiding principle in the design of the National’s theatres. But they would also disagree, and argue, and change their minds from meeting to meeting. They’d chosen an architect, Denys Lasdun, specifically because he’d said to them he didn’t know anything about designing a theatre but would work with their guidance. Without clear guidance he had a hard time designing. The Olivier – the National’s big, open stage – became the focus of almost all of the discussion; it went through five dramatically different versions before arriving at its final form. The Lyttelton – the pros arch theatre – received almost no discussion, everyone just assuming that designing a pros arch theatre was easy: surely just seats facing a picture frame. The smallest of the three, the Cottesloe (now Dorfman) studio theatre wasn’t even designed by Lasdun: cut early on, added back in quite late, it was designed by the team at Richard’s company Theatre Projects, led by Iain Mackintosh.

Richard and TP ultimately became the building’s theatre consultants, designing some remarkable technical innovations for the place but also expanding their role from the traditional ‘technical stuff’ to encompass more of the actual planning of the building: the distinctive shape of the Olivier flytower, which dominates the building, came out of a sketch by Richard showing the shape the it would need to be to service the stage proposed below it. Lasdun, by all accounts, was furious – but ultimately accepted the design.

From the time the National opened (three years late, in 1976 – with soaring inflation, the oil crisis, and strikes leading to the infamous three-day week building anything in Britain in the early 1970s was hard), Richard found himself dis-satisfied with those two bigger theatres. But he couldn’t quite figure out why until he became involved with the refurbishment of the Theatre Royal in Nottingham, a very traditional pros-arch theatre designed by CJ Phipps then later revised by Frank Matcham. He described the opening night show, an audience completely in thrall to a comedian, as a revelation, a realization of many things but particularly that it wasn’t the distance to the furthest seat that mattered, but how much of the audience you could get as close to the stage as possible. The Olivier, seating just under 1200, had twice the volume of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, then seating almost 2100. The short version of the rest of his working life: taking the lessons from Nottingham, and from the Royal Exchange in Manchester, and the Sheffield Crucible, and from his time producing shows in different theatres, and using it to build better theatres. Theatres where, at its simplest telling, the audience hugged the stage.

Lyttelton Original Sound Desk 1976, David Collison, Theatre Projects

But he never quite let go of the National. And nine years ago – I remember the lunch where he first talked about it – he set out to document and analyse what he saw as the challenges of the National. Very quickly I think he came to realise that this was also an organisation, and these were also theatres, that people genuinely loved, and of course were also theatres that had seen the creation of some remarkable shows over the years. So the book shifted slightly, to not just be a criticism of the theatres, but also to chart how they came to be built like that, including quoting at length from the minutes of those committee meetings. To talk to people who’ve worked on their stage, directing, or designing, or performing in shows. To chart the history of the National Theatre company from its creation to now, including showing the range of wonderful productions it has enabled. And through all of that, to examine why some theatres ‘work’, and others don’t – something we all intrinsically know when we sit in one, but few take the time to actually analyse.

It sounded like a fantastic read to me.

The trouble is, or at least, the trouble was: most book publishers now have ‘lists’, each list concentrating on a specific subject. Architecture, say. Or performance. Or lighting. They don’t really seem to like books that span those lists, assuming content on one subject will chase away readers interested in another, whereas I think Richard – and I – both revel in books like this. Add in the fact that this was going to be quite big, and with a lot of illustrations, and they all passed. We explored other smaller publishers, but the relationships never quite seemed to click.

Then in early 2023, frustrated that this wasn’t going anywhere, Richard said the words that I realise in retrospect are the words he’s used at key times of his life when he just wants to see something done: “Right, then. We’ll just do it ourselves.”

So that’s what we – Richard, his son Fred, and I – set out to do.

We were joined by two others on this journey, the designer Flora Cox who’s day job is at Fred’s architectural firm Pilbrow&Partners, and the researcher Acatia Finbow who’d been working with Richard sourcing pictures and other information. And off we went.

It’s been quite a learning curve. Books, it turns out, are expensive, fiddly things to make, particularly when it’s a book with a lot of illustrations and you license them all properly (-I don’t begrudge any of the brilliant photographers we worked with, but I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: lighting designers, remember to take photographs of your work so you can show it later without having to pay to license images!). We were lucky enough to find brilliant images and wonderful support from some key photographers who’ve been in and around the National for years (particularly Chris Arthur, Philip Carter, Catherine Ashmore, Philip Vile plus the wonderful Biddy Hayward of the performing arts photo library ArenaPAL, and the team at the National Theatre’s wonderful Archive, all of whom went above and beyond the call of duty in pursuit of the perfect image), plus made some lucky finds on the internet from photographers who were thrilled to see their work become part of a book. And sometimes we found time to look in to photographs that people have just looked at for years, spotting new things as a result: there’s famous photos of the architects discarded models for the National’s theatres, but hidden in the middle of it is a model for a quite different theatre, probably the opera house originally intended to be built alongside the National. I’ve never seen a picture of that theatre before.




And did I mention books are heavy? It was the day that I realised that if we ordered a thousand books and I filled in the wrong address on a form somewhere, I could end up with 2.5 tonnes of book on my door step (did I mention that there’s a lot of book in this book?) that we decided to find a publisher to work with. Unicorn, who became our partner in this, won us over by telling us so many things we didn’t know about book publishing in one conversation that it seemed crazy ever to have considered doing it without them, and sealed the deal by offering all of their services – printing, marketing, distribution and more – for less than the price we as individuals had been quoted for printing alone.

But did I mention books were expensive? So we set out to raise money. I’d long been proposing that Kickstarter might be a way to do this, inspired in particular by a book called Shift Happens by a gentleman called Marcin Wichary, which is about the unlikeliest single subject of all – keyboards – but for which Kickstarter had just raised $753,000… Look it up; it is magnificent (and yes, I am the proud owner of a copy).

With his old theatre producer hat on, I think Richard was genuinely fascinated by this idea – a way of  letting people who liked an idea directly support it. But then he got sick, ultimately being diagnosed with quite a serious cancer. And suddenly time was of the essence, so we did what people do in times of need, and turned to our friends. Who were magnificent in their support: the Association of British Theatre Technicians, Robe, Autograph, ETC, Steeldeck, Ambersphere, Howard Eaton Lighting Limited, 3LR, Martin, Pathway, Push The Button, TAIT, Unusual, White Light and, of course, Theatre Projects, as well as the UK’s Society for Theatre Research which committed to buying copies as their book of the year for all of their members, and a number of individuals who offered support immediately. We thank you all, and salute you all. We could not have done this without you.

But we still wanted a wider range of people – those many people who’d met Richard, or just grown up reading his books, to be able to be part of this, so we tried Kickstarter as well, offering people the chance to buy the book, to buy the book plus Richard’s previous book,  "A Theatre Project "(which actually makes a perfect companion to this new book), or to buy their book with a name or their name and a short message inside. We set a relatively low target; we ultimately achieved double that, and we thank everyone there for being part of this as well. We weren’t quite in Marcin’s league, but we did OK, and it was a fascinating experience.

In this fundraising, I’d started talking about how, given Richard’s long involvement with the National, this book was really “a lifetime in the making”. Sadly that became all too true when tragedy struck: on December 6th last year, Richard passed away.

In his honour, we decided to carry on. But if his work in researching and writing the book was largely done, and he’d seen and held a printed layout proof that looked very like the book as it is now, our next learning curve was just how much work there is between a writer finishing a book, and a book actually becoming a book. Pictures. And editing. And proof-reading. And indexing – an amazing process which reveals the book’s contents in a whole new way. And photo credits. And a bibliography. And rights clearances. And a bit more editing. And filling in some gaps. And trying to pin down the source of some quotes that had been held entirely in Richard’s head. And a crash course in colour management for printed images (which, interestingly, is not too dissimilar for the colour management we’re all having to learn about for LED lighting, just with better tools for dealing with it across multiple devices). And page counts – did you know that bound books are almost always in multiples of 16 pages? And more proofreading, in pursuit of perfection for the final, printed page. Special mention here to Christine Shuttleworth, our indexer, and Imogen Palmer, our proofreader, Ryan Gearing of Unicorn, plus Robert Bell, friend of Richard’s and mine, who has become our informal website creator. Flora and I adopted a very rapid system of working quite different from the traditional publishing model I was working with at the same time on another book (more on that soon…), where I could just access our shared InDesign files to make corrections directly onto the page. But towards the end it all got quite nerve-wracking: with the index complete, you knew that if you had to make a fix, you had to be really sure it then didn’t nudge lines onto the next page. I am now quite expert in kerning, which I think of as just squeezing that last word onto the page, though Flora would always take back my worst kerning excesses…

wet proofs

On December 11, 2023, I wrote one last bit of text for the book: an epilogue noting Richard’s passing and explaining how the book had then been finished, and we added next to it a picture of Richard’s name projected onto the side of the National two days after his passing, and wonderful picture of a very jaunty Pilbrow in a remarkable suit from about the same viewpoint forty years earlier with the building under construction. Then we just kept working through Christmas.

A next milestone moment came on January 21, when a book showed up on my door – the exact size, weight and thickness of our book, with the exact paper and cover material – only completely blank! A dummy, to check sizing for the cover. It’s a rather beautiful object in itself!

Then finally, on February 14, about the latest we could go given a May deadline for delivering books to STR members, we made a proof file with all of the paraphernalia of printing – the crop marks, the colour bars - and sent sixteen carefully chosen pages to the printer (in Turkey, apparently the new hot-bed for printing) so they could make some wet proofs for us – actual pages from the actual press. We felt this was important just to make sure everything looked right, particularly given the wide range of ages and sources of the images in the book. Then we waited (though of course we didn’t stop; proof-reading never ends.)

On March 1, real, actual, printed pages from the book arrived – and generally looked wonderful, a real thrill to see after looking at it on-screen for so long. However that did identify an issue with one image that had clearly been scanned from a printed version and so showed up a horrible moire dot effect that had just never been visible on screen. To me any kind of ‘retouching’ of images opens a bit of a moral maze, but in this case a combination of AI image editing and a remarkable technique called fast fourier transformation managed to rescue this historic image, showing the Olivier Theatre’s drum revolve out in the open air before it was installed in the building, for which we had no other known source.

On March 8, Flora finally consented to put the word ‘final’ in the file title, and we told everyone to press that big giant print button. Now, it was to become permanent. No going back

And on April 5, a real, actual copy of Richard Pilbrow’s "A Sense of Theatre" arrived at my door. Just one, rushed ahead of the rest. Same size as the last one, but with all the blank pages filled in! And it looked, and felt amazing. I’d like to think I knew it would. But at the same time: what a relief!

As I write this, three weeks on from that, the books are shipping to our Kickstarter supporters, the Society for Theatre Research members, and our industry supporters. It is now out of our control and out in the world. A single email arrived one day, from someone in the UK who clearly has a super-efficient postman, saying it had arrived. There were a couple more the next day, then suddenly a flurry the day after that from all over the UK. A few days later, the first from the US, from lighting designer Ken Billington. I hope more will follow. People seem genuinely delighted with what they have helped to make.

I don’t quite know when a book publisher’s work is done, but it’s not yet. There’s still dealing with the books the postman can’t deliver. And websites. And publicity, telling the world about it. Because by the time you read this, it will be on general sale, directly from the publisher, from (hopefully!) all good bookshops, and of course from Amazon, though being on this side of publishing for once makes me appreciate just how frustrating Amazon is for those who make books, however convenient it is for those who buy them. But: tell your friends. I’m biased of course, but I think it’s a fascinating read. And it also has a lot of remarkable pictures, some of which I don’t think have ever been seen in public before. I don’t think you need to be a ‘technical theatre’ person to enjoy it. I think it will fascinate anyone who’s ever been to the National or, indeed, really, any theatre and wondered about how it came to be made.

Of course inevitably, while waiting for the printed books to arrive, I had to look something up in our master PDF. Turns out, you do so very nervously once the presses are rolling. Inevitably, I found a mistake that will now be there for all time (or at least until the next printed edition, or the e-edition which we are planning, but not immediately – this is a book that deserves to be handled, not just read on a small screen). That one’s in the reference section at the back; I’ll leave you to find it. But then I found another one, this one more crushing: one of our Kickstarter supporters had asked for their message to be accompanied by two names, not just one, but Kickstarter had buried that somewhere odd and I’d missed it. I’ve written and apologised, but I would just like to say here, for the record, that the message to Richard saying “thank you for your generosity of time and spirit, you are missed…” on the supporters page comes from both Michael Ferguson and Benton Delinger, regardless of what it says on that permanent printed page.

It’s been quite an adventure. I am grateful to have been part of it.

I am saddened that Richard never got to hold the finished version. I am sure he would have been thrilled and delighted with it… though at the same time probably already planning his next book. It would have been quite a present for his 91st birthday, which would have been on 28th April – almost the same day as the book’s release to the general public.

Very near the end, we found two perfect quotes to open "A Sense of Theatre." The first, from Norman Marshall who was joint chair of that NT Building Committee with Olivier, seems to perfectly encapsulate why Richard felt he needed to write this book. “One of the weaknesses of the theatrical profession in this country,” he wrote in 1962, “is that producers and designers and theatre architects are apt to be extraordinarily ignorant of what was going on in the theatre just before their own time”. That bad theatres are still being built is proof of that; this book should perhaps be required reading for anyone about to start on that process.

The other, by Geoffrey Whitworth in his book "The Making of a National Theatre" from 1951, long before these efforts had succeeded, happens to be a perfect description of what Richard has created here. “One day, no doubt, the compete annals of the National Theatre will be written, based on the archives of the theatre itself, and prolonged from age to age. While memories are still fresh, it is possible to recall the steps whereby the National Theatre idea was first imposed on a more or less unwilling public; and then, as eyewitness, to tell the story of the outstanding events which led to the actual foundation of the theatre.”

Richard was if not the last then certainly amongst the last of those eye witnesses with kind of direct connection back, to the creation of both this remarkable company and remarkable building. It has been a privilege to help capture that unique knowledge for the future. We hope you enjoy it.

Now, can I go back to lighting, where I can keep changing my mind?!

There will be a celebration of Richard’s life at the National Theatre in London on May 17, 2024. You’d be more than welcome to come along. We are just keeping an eye on numbers to make sure we don’t run out of space in the theatre, so if you are coming please do RSVP on:

"A Sense Of Theatre" launches to the general public in bookshops and on Amazon on May 1, 2024.

More about the book at

Take a peek: