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Remembering Richard Pilbrow

by Michael Ferguson, ASTC

Black and white photograph of the founder of the theatre consulting industry and renowned lighting designer, Richard Pilbrow, posing next to a lighting console in a theatre.
Richard Pilbrow in the 1970s. Photo: Philip Sayer

This year we lost a titan, although you'd never think of him like that if you met him with his humble demeanor. He was an icon in theatre lighting and projection design--first British designer to work on Broadway-- and one of the originators of the entire theatre consulting industry. During his life, he directly and indirectly through his legacy touched thousands of theatres and influenced generations of artists.

I am privileged and proud to say that Richard Pilbrow was my mentor and friend. He had an immense impact on my life, guiding me during my formative years as a young theatre consultant. And, even though Richard was best known as a prolific lighting and projection designer worldwide, it was mostly his theatre consulting experience that he shared. Always up for conversing with an annoying, energetic, and curious me, he was a consummate teacher who was generous with his time, experience, and insights. Richard would routinely offer thought-provoking questions that helped develop my way of thinking, a skill that is invaluable to me today.

Richard was nice enough to hire me in 1997 to be a theatre consultant. On my first day at Theatre Projects, I showed up at 8:00 a.m. to make a good impression. By 7:00 p.m. I felt like I’d done enough work to be able to leave. As I walked past the front office doors I heard Richard say, “Leaving early?” I stopped walking. My heart sank, and I tried to figure out how to respond. Before I could say anything, he said, (with the wry smile we all know and love) “Well done.”


Lesson #133: The guy in charge usually stays longer than the employees. A good reminder of an important lesson.

A black and white photograph of a young Richard Pilbrow in a suit working over a drafting desk in the dark with a lone desk lamp on.
Photo: Theatre Projects

Another moment I remember from the early days was a time when I had worked very hard to get a report out. It was one of the first I had been tasked to do on my own, and Richard was reviewing it--as he did many things. He walked back into our part of the office and said, “Who’s responsible for this?” We couldn’t quite tell if he was pleased or not, but as a good camper, I said, “I did the report….I’m responsible for it.” To which he replied, “Good job!”

Whew again.

And lesson #433: Review everything you can. Give feedback. Give praise.

My interactions with Richard taught me about generosity. Generosity of spirit and ideas. Both are like seeds that can grow into something amazing. Watering and fertilizing those ideas is a whole other discussion for another time.

In an alignment of the stars, Richard and my other mentor, Peter Sargent who was the former dean of Sargent Conservatory at Webster University, were both able to be in Kansas City in 2011 for the opening of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which I had consulted on. I was able to merge my education and professional worlds at the opening festivities and say thank you to both for the influence they had on me. I could never have thanked Richard enough for giving this young guy a shot. I was grateful for the opportunity to have worked on a world-class venue and very much appreciated sharing that moment with him.

Michael Ferguson (left) and Richard Pilbrow (right) are dressed in tuxedos and talking on a lobby balcony railing at the newly opened Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and talking.

Lesson #544: Say thank you when you can and often.

When I think of Richard, I will always remember him in a tuxedo traveling on the Concord to New York City....that look always suited him and his British accent. And it personifies the way he always conducted himself, with class and charm.

A quote from a recently published memorial sums up his life perfectly.... "He lived a life committed to expansive thinking and supporting others." Sounds like Richard.

I will try to do the same, every day....

Thank you, Mr. Pilbrow, for everything.


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