JOHN LEE BEATTY, PORTRAIT OF THE DESIGNER AS A YOUNG MAN: A LOST INTERVIEW
Part 13: “Stage Designing Is Not Going to Make Anyone Rich”
As told to Samuel L. Leiter
This is the thirteenth installment in my previously unpublished 1980 interview with designer John Lee Beatty, which is being serialized in Theater Pizzazz.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.
Designing is a truly collaborative job. I find that the other designers, those doing costumes and lights, bring something more to it. Even if you designed everything, it’s the director’s input, the leading lady’s input, the author’s input. It’s not yours alone.
I like to have a lighting designer come in and make more of what I have than I thought I had. A costume designer oftentimes will have a slightly different outlook on something and the contrast set up between the scenery and the costumes helps rather than hinders.
I have, of course, had some bad experiences, especially with lighting designers where they have, if not ruined the set, then simply not taken advantage of it. Usually, I go to a lot of trouble to make interesting textures, interesting colors, and I even provide a lot of interesting lighting positions. However I have, a number of times, seen lighting designers ignore all of that completely and light everything from the front or do it very flatly or change the color or fix things for me by throwing their own little patterns and colors on top of what I’ve done. I wouldn’t necessarily want to work with those people again.
On the other hand, I’ve worked with only four or five lighting designers in my whole career [through 1980]. There’s one lighting designer I’ve done over two dozen shows with—Dennis Parichy. And Jennifer von Mayrhauser has done the clothes for about two dozen of my shows. Therefore, there is so complete and ongoing a collaboration that I sometimes think we’re all doing one thing. But when we go out and work with different people, that’s good, too. You don’t want to bore people with a sameness all the time.
Stage designing is not going to make anyone rich. I had Ain’t Misbehavin’, which is unique. You hope for one unique show every so often. I made money off that. Not as much as anybody else would make, but for a designer I made quite a bit. To be honest, I think last year  I grossed $40,000, which for someone in the top part of a profession is not a lot of money. [$40,000 in 1979 would be worth $151,831.02 today.]
With that money, I have to support my own studio and any extra assistants, and my art supplies, and all that, so my net earnings don’t come to that much. I have to take a lot of transportation, an incredible amount of transportation. So my real earnings are somewhere in the twenties. My problem is I can’t divorce my life from my work, even in financial terms. Who’s to say what trip is for business or what book you buy is for commerce?
At the top, what I’m earning is about it, if you make your career entirely in the theatre. What you hope for is to have a hit show that you have a percentage of or a high royalty. On Ain’t Misbehavin’ I’m making about $150 a week [$569.37 in 2020], but the director’s probably making $1,700 a week [$6,057.20 in 2020]. You need a couple of mega-hits to make a lot of money. What they always said about designing is that it’s a gentleman’s profession. The implication is that you’re supposed to marry someone with money. Or have money already. Which a lot of the early designers did.
I have a private life, I hope. I think a lot of theatre people (at least, a lot of designers) tend to go very far with their careers very fast. A lot of us are sort of at forty in designing and twenty-two in living. I haven’t not had a life but I feel I’m a little behind some other people. Personally, I don’t like to combine my life and the theatre.
I don’t have pictures of my sets on the walls of my house. I don’t hang posters from my shows. I don’t tell everyone I’m a designer. In fact, I often go the extreme of not telling them I’m a designer. Then it becomes painfully obvious. I don’t keep scrapbooks (I hope my parents do). I don’t even invite my friends to see my shows. Sometimes it offends people. But friendship and my shows don’t have anything in common to me. I’m disturbed when people equate my shows and me.
(To be continued.)