With over 80 Broadway shows to his credit, John Lee Beatty won his second Best Scenic Design Tony Award this year for The Nance (he won his first Tony in 1980 for Talley’s Folly). Currently onstage at The Lyceum Theatre, The Nance was written by Douglas Carter Beane, and stars Nathan Lane as Chauncey Miles, a stereotypical homosexual character popular (and controversial) in burlesque (costume designer Ann Roth and sound designer Leon Rothenberg also won Tony Awards for their work on this Lincoln Center Theater production, directed by Jack O’Brien, that has been extended through August 11, 2013).
Set in the late 1930’s, The Nance moves quickly from scene to scene, from onstage to backstage at the former Irving Place Theatre, to a basement apartment and an automat. “With an author like Douglas Carter Beane, one can't quite keep up with the research,” notes Beatty, about researching the period and the Irving Place Theatre. “It was a real theater, located where the Vineyard Theater is now. I briefly looked at the research, but had to manufacture something more like a mash-up of the Lyceum Theater (where the play is presented today) and those old Rita Hayworth movies that happen backstage with a view towards the stage.”
To keep the action moving smoothly, Beatty notes: “I came up with the plan almost completely realized on a turntable after a long discussion with Jack O'Brien. I had reacted to the author's desire for a drop banging in as the end of one scene and the beginning of another—WITHOUT stopping—so that translated in this designer's mind to the rigged stage being self contained on a turntable, so the drops could come in and out without the scene change stopping. That then I gave the director various choices about how much of the stage or backstage we would see for a particular scene, or whether we would travel like a camera from offstage to on, etc.”
The automat was where the gay men of the time went to discretely meet other men, yet under the watchful eye of the police. “I think the script mentioned a Hopperesque automat, but I couldn't find a Hopper painting that matched, so made it up myself, but it quickly changed into being inspired by Reginald Marsh as well,” Beatty explains. “I brought Marsh to everyone, and our author dove for it, and found Marsh had even made paintings of the Irving Place Theater back in the thirties, with the iconic strippers and dirty old men.”
Beatty adds that “it is important to know that burlesque not only didn’t have written scripts, it also had no designed scenery, per se, as it was assembled by what had been left behind or could be recycled from another production, thus the mismatched props, the interiors performed in front of an exterior street drop, the border with mismatched drapes, and the stripper fantasy drop with its mismatched pink tin foil stairs.” Thus the wonderful humorous props for The Nance, including spiky cartoon cactus and tumbleweed pulled across the stage, as well as an inflatable street lamp, which of course deflates on stage.
“Most of the scenery that looks most like traditional painted scenery, like the drops, is actually computer painted from my own hand-painted elevations, often on varying kinds of fabric. Paint and texture was sometimes added,” Beatty explains.
“I made up the basement apartment because the author made some confusing reference to the fire escape as an entrance, so I just went with it, thinking of a sort of "My Sister Eileen" basement, and the first apartment I had in New York, and a former assistant’s apartment in Hell's Kitchen,” the designer adds. “Douglas Carter Beane insisted on the "Anna Mae Wong wet dream" reference, which suggested some Chinese red, Nathan Lane wanted a photo of his character's mother and famous Nances and burlesque performers, and I added legit theater posters and my own family’s David and Jonathan needlepoint from the 1880's. The bathtub in the kitchen was in the script from the beginning.”
For Beatty, “the real luxury was that Lincoln Center Theater allowed Jack O' Brien and myself to choose the theater...The Lyceum. We wanted the ambience of what the actual theater might have, and since the theater has height and a second balcony, I made a tall and open set so that all sightlines would be welcoming.”