The Leading Stage Engineer of Our Time

Friday, January 24, 2014

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

Richard was an innovator and a brilliant engineer skilled in many disciplines. He effectively 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.

Richard was educated at Dulwych College. He graduated with honours in electrical engineering from University College London, joined the British Broadcasting Corporation as a Graduate Apprentice in radio, television, electronic and mechanical engineering. He rose through the ranks of their installations department, to become a Senior Planning and Installations Engineer.

In 1965 lighting designer, Richard Pilbrow was asked by Sir Laurence Olivier to become the theatre consultant to the new National Theatre. He immediately asked Richard Brett to join him in a newly expanded Theatre Projects Consultants.

As the first managing director, he built a team of theatre technicians, architects and engineers. Their early consulting projects included the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare’s Barbican Theatre, and the master plan for the Royal Opera House redevelopment. 

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 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, new solutions were devised: 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 repertory, new lighting control systems, new communications methodology and new standards of sound.

The run up to the opening of the NT in 1976 was a disaster. Britain was consumed by industrial strife. The South Bank construction site was a chaotic mess. Delay followed delay. Peter Hall decided to move into the new building, ready or not. Richard was the unsung hero. He 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. 

The press pronounced a scandal: "The National Theatre equipment is a disaster! Nothing works!" The myth continues even to today. Machinery installations were incomplete, and untested. In the Olivier Theatre, the contractors continued to work night after night on the power flying and drum under Dick's supervision. The power flying was eventually completed in 1978. 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, but it was not until 1986 that Bill Dudley suggested it should be tried for "The Shaughran". It proved to be an amazing device enabling the Olivier theatre to live up to the dreams of its creators.

After twenty years at Theatre Projects, organizational changes led to Richard Brett leaving and starting his own company 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 projects in Norway, Italy, Athens, Greece and Hong Kong. Richard led the stage engineering team at the Gran Teatre Del Liceu in Barcelona, on the complex reconstruction after a major fire; he was then part of the in- house consultancy team on the Royal Opera House redevelopment; and led the theatre planning and engineering team on the new Copenhagen Operaen which opened in 2004, and remains one of the most innovative opera house installations of our time.

Other award-winning theatre consulting completed by TheatrePlan include the Lyric Theatre, Belfast; Alleyn’s School, Dulwich; Grand Theatre, Leeds; Grove Theatre, Dunstable; Hampstead Theatre, London; The Royal Ballet School, London; Palace Theatre, Watford; and the renovation of the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

Richard’s unwavering support for the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT) was rewarded with a Fellowship in 1986. He is a past chairman of ABTT, and past chairman of the Society of Theatre Consultants.

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. 

Richard Brett was a true original. He possessed enormous experience and knowledge of theatre but also unbounded enthusiasm. Yet while a true 'expert' and a fantastically dedicated 'workaholic,' Dick was also a richly humorous human being, who could be brilliantly amusing company.

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 from 13-15th June 2014.

Richard is survived by his loving wife Jenny, and two children, Christopher and Jackie from his first marriage, and his younger brother Michael. The private family funeral will be on January 28, and a celebration of Richard’s enormously fruitful life will be held later in June.