JOHN LEE BEATTY, PORTRAIT OF THE DESIGNER AS A YOUNG MAN: A LOST INTERVIEW
Part 12: “Think, Think, Think”
As told to Samuel L. Leiter
This is the twelfth installment in my previously unpublished 1980 interview with designer John Lee Beatty, which is being serialized in Theater Pizzazz.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.
My method of preparing for a new show is to think, think, think. I talk to the director, get a general idea, and then I ponder. And I read the script, of course. Once through. I don’t plan windows and doors at first. I try not to on the first read. Then I do a second read for the scenic concerns. You know, you think about it while you’re doing another show or you’re riding the crosstown bus or you’re sitting in a bus station or you’re doing something else entirely.
I’m sorry to say I don’t read the script that many times. I don’t go to every rehearsal either. I don’t think you have to rub your nose in it. A lot of times a designer is the person for whom the essence, the core, is the most important. I don’t have to know every little corner of everything. The details will evolve. Except when it’s a very technical, theatrically complicated show. Then I have to go through the script over and over to figure out where the phone gets picked up or the ashtray gets moved to. While maintaining the central idea.
In doing an old classic or period play, my first task is to talk to the director. If he or she wants a period approach, I’ll go look at books. There are a number of books that designers use that don’t have set designs in them, like History of Interiors, which I will look through just to get an angle on the style. Sometimes, I’ll look for a painter to use as my source. I’m doing a Cyrano right now and I thought I’d like a different approach, so I went and looked, oddly enough, at Rembrandt, which isn’t quite on target on date but does give me a slightly fresh perspective.
I also look through a lot of period books on just interiors and exteriors of the period, do a little research into the style of theatre of that time, and also a little research into what it looked like when they produced it in 1893. It’s a period play about an even earlier period. My design reflects the period about which it is written. It also reflects the period in which it was written. And it also reflects today.
I keep up with a lot of today’s designs. Even when I’m doing a period play like Cyrano or a classic like Way of the World. I sometimes look at Vogue to look at the clothes or at the Architectural Digest to see what we’re looking at now.
There are oftentimes things that a designer can pick from an older period that would appeal to us today, whereas certain other things wouldn’t appeal to us. Interesting things. For instance, today when we do the thirties, we can’t help but pick out things from the period that are in style today. We don’t pick out every element from the thirties. There are some things from those years nobody likes. And they may become distracting. The more I do period shows, the more I’ve come to dislike the literal interpretation of period. I’ve come to think it’s silly.
(To be continued.)