When I tell John Lee Beatty that I want to move right into many of the wonderful sets he has designed over the years, he chuckles. “People are always telling me that, but I don't think they're so realistic myself,” he says of his designs. “I think people's imaginations tend to make them so. I call them fiction rather than reality.”
Yet, like all good literature, Beatty's fiction is based on a solid foundation. He grew up in Claremont, CA, in an academic family, with a father who was dean of students and taught the novel. “In first grade I would say I wanted to be a set designer, while other kids might say they wanted to be a fireman,” Beatty recalls. “I would say that, but I didn't know it was a realistic thing to do.” After studying English Literature at Brown University, Beatty enrolled at the Yale School of Drama and received his MFA in 1973.
“When I got to Yale and saw Ming Cho Lee standing in front of me, a light bulb went on,” says Beatty, who realized that set design was indeed a viable profession. Thirty years later, Beatty is unquestionably one of the leading designers of his generation, having worked everywhere from regional theatres to Broadway, where he won a Tony Award for Talley's Folly in 1980.
Beatty has also enjoyed long-term relationships with such companies as Circle Rep, Lincoln Center Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, and the Encores! series at City Center. “I enjoy being part of a larger organization, and working in places where I feel comfortable,” he says.
These kinds of institutions offer Beatty the opportunity to work on new plays as well as revivals. “Theatre history is also an interest of mine. I like going back and finding out what made something a success the first time, then finding a modern way to get into it.” An example of this is the recent Broadway revival of The Heiress. “It felt like ‘then’ but it was really a modern take on an older period,” he explains.
Yet in designing the recent revival of Talley's Folly, 20 years after the original production, Beatty didn't even look at his own previous designs for inspiration. “Our attitude is different today,” he points out. “I wanted to get rid of the 1970s and 80s mannerisms.” However, Beatty considers the original production a benchmark in his career. “That was one time I really got out something that was inside of me,” says the 54-year-old designer, who still puts a T square to paper and only occasionally turns to a computer for support.
In recent years, productions such as Proof, Morning's at Seven, A Delicate Balance, and the interlocking House and Garden reinforce Beatty's realistic nature. “Yet I edit out so much. There is nothing arbitrary,” he concedes. “My sets are architecturally engineered and there is always a structure underneath. Everything touches on the set. The pieces connect,” he says. “One of the biggest compliments I ever got was when set designer Andy Jackness said, ‘It's all of a piece.' Maybe that’s what people mean by realism.”
But Beatty cannot be pigeonholed as just a realistic designer for new American plays. He also likes to design musicals and has two smash hits to his credit: Ain't Misbehavin' and the current revival of Chicago which evolved from the Encores! series. “You wouldn't match those with the guy who designed Talley's Folly,” laughs Beatty, who reveals yet a third facet of his design portfolio when he talks about his minimalist, abstract streak as seen in Ashes and In Real Life (Charlene Woodard's one-woman show). “I grew up in California and was exposed to Asian art very early,” he says. “I responded to the simplicity of that style, yet it's a hard style to design in. You are really out there and there's no place to hide.”
“He's the master,” says frequent collaborator lighting designer Brian MacDevitt when asked about working with Beatty. “He is a complete theatre artist who has a profound understanding of what is theatrical and how to enhance and support the playwright's vision in the most inconspicuous way. He's like a humble genius who never does anything in the entire process, from page to stage, to upstage any part of the production. He supports the project without letting the design get in the way.”
“I'm a mainstream American designer, from a long tradition of American designers from Robert Edmond Jones to Donald Oenslager, Jo Melziner, and Oliver Smith,” says Beatty, who took his American design sense to Ireland recently where he designed All My Sons for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. “I think there is a certain finish we put on things, and a real respect for the architecture.” This respect brings a certain truth to the fiction of his design sense, and makes his sets look like the places people want to live. Really. All he has to do is hand over the keys.