JOHN LEE BEATTY, PORTRAIT OF THE DESIGNER AS A YOUNG MAN: A LOST INTERVIEW
Part 11 “Most People Don’t Know What Design is Really About”
As told to Samuel L. Leiter
This is the eleventh installment in my previously unpublished 1980 interview with designer John Lee Beatty, which is being serialized in Theater Pizzazz. Please see Part 1 for an introduction to the interview, which I’ve adapted as a narrative, and why it’s first being published 40 years after it occurred.
You might think that, as a designer, designs which are obviously “beautiful” would excite me, but that’s not necessarily all there is to it. I remember I saw Jean Kerr’s Finishing Touches on Broadway [1973, sets and lighting by Ben Edwards, costumes by Jane Greenwood]. Very commercial, modern dress, takes place in a professor’s house at some college in New England or somewhere.
Around the same time, I saw Follies, which, of course, was wonderful. Yet I saw this production and it excites me just as much, right? And this was a play that turned me on as a designer. The design was very exciting to me. The choice of sports jackets on the teenage kids was really well observed and the strength and legitimacy of the period house interior and the schlocky modern stuff combined with whatever . . . I got turned on by designing itself from a production like that. And it isn’t always something that’s obviously designed. Oftentimes, the “noticeably” designed type of show gives me a sort of icky feeling. Like going to see Dracula. I kind of get itchy, you know.
I wonder, sometimes, when I see a show like Sweeney Todd, what went on between the designer [Eugene Lee] and the director [Hal Prince]. There’s something disconnected there. It’s wonderful but there’s something slightly or maybe seriously off. And, of course, it was the biggest set and the most expensive set of the season all of us other designers said to each other, “Yeah, that’s going to win a Tony Award.” Sure enough.
Same thing with Dracula . It got all that attention. And yet [designer Edward] Gorey himself said he thinks it’s inappropriate for the show. But we all turned to each other and said, “Tony Award.” There was lightning in Crucifer of Blood [1978, set by John Wulp, lighting by Robin Morgan], right? As soon as we read that in the reviews, we said, “That boy’s getting his Tony, isn’t he?”
And it’s not the designer’s fault, per se. They’re all good designers doing valid work but certain elements end up being cheap shots. A lot of we designers think that Robin Wagner should have gotten the Tony for A Chorus Line  because, in many ways, of all the shows I’ve mentioned, that’s the most innovative. In terms of a musical. For the very lack of enormous amounts of scenery. And for the mastery of it. But that’s not what you’re rewarded for, is it?
It hurts a bit, too. Because we designers know these tricks. You can put in twinkle lights, you can put in this, and you can put in that. You can spend such and such amount of money. Even Robin Wagner says that when he got a Tony for On the Twentieth Century , it confirmed his worst suspicions about what people cared about.
If you do a musical with some form of transportation in it, it’s a pretty good bet you’re gonna get rewarded for it. A trolley car, a train, a car, airplane, a lot of things like that. Stars, fog, blue lights. I think that’s because most people don’t know what design is really about. Some directors included. And that’s something we designers bear. It comes with the job.
A very popular form of theatre nowadays is what some call “theatre of images” or “conceptual theatre. It’s a theatre of directors rather than designers. It’s where the director is painting the scenery. Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, Andrei Serban, and others fit this description. If you think Serban is not a designer, talk to someone who worked with him.
Look at The Cherry Orchard , which Santo Loquasto designed. I don’t want to speak for Santo but I doubt if he’d want to work with Serban again. And I know Santo’s way of celebrating opening night was to destroy the nine, ten, or twelve models they’d made that had been rejected of designs that Santo liked. And Santo was given many ultimatums about his own designs. “You can either put a pipe here on your design or we won’t use it at all!”
I remember on the ballroom unit, especially, he was told he had to put a division between one arch and another or they would turn the ballroom around and look at it that way. Well, the director is now the one making the decision as to how they are going to look at that ballroom unit. The director made the decisions about what had to be changed on the set when Santo had done something that he thought was good.
So that particular kind of conceptual realization of the director’s isn’t always a picnic for the designer. I myself have turned down the opportunity of working with Serban. Because it’s not my strong suit, THAT PROCESS. I don’t like waste and I don’t like playing around. It’s really not playing around, for he got a good result. But it would be hard for me to work on. I personally just don’t like to work that way. The personal side of me doesn’t like it; John doesn’t like it; John Lee might put up with it but John would just as soon not work on that kind of show that way. My life is too short. I’m not made that way as a designer.
I started to work on a show with Richard Foreman and it’s the only show I’ve ever been fired from, quite frankly. Once I thought about it, I was just as glad. I really didn’t understand working that way. My fault. But he brought in his own models of the sets, rough ones, and he had me make finished versions of his designs. And, filtered through me, they didn’t come out the way he or I liked so I was let go. I love his work. I love it so much that I shouldn’t work on it. He should do it himself. But he’s directing a show. It’s his instincts. He doesn’t have time to design it, too.
I don’t fault those artists. If I were a director, I might want to design my own scenery, too. In fact, when I have directed, I did design my own scenery. But when you work for a designer-director you may not want to put your name on something you don’t design, something you don’t have any input on.
(To be continued.)