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Richard Pilbrow may be the only creative mind that has worked on both the Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theatre since the beginning — before the AT&T Performing Arts Center was the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, before even the Meyerson Symphony Center had opened. He was initially brought to Dallas in 1984 to advise on the development of the then-still-mostly-imaginary Arts District.
When plans for a new opera house and theater began to form, e helped choose the architects and then assisted Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus in designing the Wyly [correction to the TV interview: Koolhaas has designed theaters before this, although nothing like the Wyly. Prince-Ramus had not designed a theater]. He also assisted Norman Foster in designing the Winspear. Although Foster + Partners has worked on several cultural centers, the Winspear is the first full-fledged opera house the company has ever done.
Pilbrow was brought in because he is the founder and chairman emeritus of Theatre Projects, the leading theater consulting firm in the country. Theatre Projects has worked on more than 1,000 opera houses, performing art centers, music halls and theaters in some 60 countries around the world — including the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (designed by Frank Gehry), Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, London’s National Theatre and the revolutionary Oslo Opera House (below).
Pilbrow established Theatre Projects in 1957 in London when he was primarily a lighting designer. As a lighting designer, he has been nominated for Tony Awards and has won both the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Circle Critics Award. He’s worked backstage with such artists as Hal Prince, Paul Newman and Tommy Tune. He is the author of two classic textbooks on stage lighting and is currently writing both a history of theater design and a memoir of his life in the theater.
In the theater world, Pilbrow is perhaps best known (and celebrated) for his advocacy of intimacy in theater layouts, even in big halls. He “re-discovered” the “courtyard theater” — basically, a three-sided thrust stage with close-in balconies. It puts the maximum number of theatergoers in close proximity to the actors. Before independent free-standing theaters were developed in the Elizabethan age, itinerant theater companies often performed at inns or country estates, and the courtyards in these buildings proved highly effective as stages (and clearly influenced the design of such early theaters as the Globe and the Rose).
In 1976, Pilbrow’s design of the National Theatre’s smallest space, the 300-seat Cottesloe Theater in London (right) was the proof of his thinking. It became a decisive alternative to the barn-like, fan-shaped theaters (like Fair Park’s Music Hall) that were derived from movie theaters and Wagner’s Bayreuth Festspielhaus. These had themselves turned away from the classic, horseshoe-shaped and balconied opera houses and Broadway theaters of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Since the Cottesloe, Pilbrow has adapted, refined and expanded his ideas on intimacy and flexibility — without really straying from his commitment to the need for the audience to have a direct, social, collective, even participatory experience in a theater. In fact, you should notice a definite similarity between the Cottesloe and the performance space inside the Wyly, built some 33 years apart.
The Wyly, in effect, is an automated, mechanized, updated version of the Cottesloe — thanks, in part, to Koolhaas’ and Prince-Ramus’ innovative ideas on applying the quick-change technology of sports-and-concert arenas to a much smaller space.
It is Pilbrow’s emphasis on intimacy that leads him to see the Wyly and the Winspear as variations on the same ideas when it comes to a performance hall — despite the two buildings’ striking differences in style and effect that observers and architecture critics have pointed out at length.