Part 5: “You Have to Have a Little Charm to Do This Work”


John Lee Beatty


As told to Samuel L. Leiter


This is the fifth installment in my previously unpublished 1980 interview with designer John Lee Beatty, which is being serialized in Theater Pizzazz.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.

I started to get my own designing jobs when a friend of mine from Yale who’d been a friend from Brown was working at the Manhattan Theatre Club as an administrator. She was always supportive and she wanted me to come over and meet Lynne Meadow, who is the head of the MTC, and show her my portfolio. So I went and showed my portfolio to Lynne and she liked it enough and liked me. I would work for Doug Schmidt during the day, and some of the days I went and did some scenic artist painting as well.

At night I designed a show at the Manhattan Theatre Club [which was then an emerging Off-Broadway company]. It had the world’s smallest budget. I think it was something like $500 [around $1,900 in 2020] for the whole show. I did the sets and costumes. They only had floor space to do a piece of scenery that was three feet by three feet, so everything had to be smaller than three feet.

I did the whole set out of gauze handkerchiefs and bamboo. It was called Marouf, Cobbler of Baghdad [1973]. It was when we still did story theatre-style stuff. I used Persian carpet patterns and painted them in dyes and used the little pieces of “schmata” and just hung them up everywhere, as what’s called a “handkerchief drop” in scenery terms.

Funny thing happened after that. It was a showcase, a classic low-budget showcase; I got three jobs from it. I never got a job from a showcase since then. I did plenty of others but that one show (I don’t know why, since it was a flop) led to three job offers.

I did showcases the rest of that year and worked for Douglas. That summer, I got a job, from the first showcase, designing scenery for a company called the Queens Playhouse, which was in Flushing Meadow on the old World’s Fair grounds. They were looking for someone young and cheap. Boy, I qualified in both departments.

I got the job partly through my portfolio and, quite honestly, partly by flirting. Well, not flirting, it’s just that you have to have a little charm to do this work. I was exercising my charm when I got the job. I never had to sleep with anybody, thank God, because when people asked me to sleep with them to get a job, I usually said, “Well, I’m pretty bad in bed.” They would never bother me so much after that.


I got that job, and the theater, Queens Playhouse, went bust after three shows, but the third show happened to be a revival of Inge’s Come Back Little Sheba, with Jan Sterling, that Marshall Mason directed. Marshal had just done Hot L Baltimore [1973] with his company, the Circle Rep, and was a hot young director on the way up, and I didn’t know from “nothing” still.

I’d never seen any of Marshall’s shows but soon I had a pretty good idea of what he was about. I instinctively knew. I’d read something in the Times once, a review. It was this “new realism,” and “suddenly, real plays about real people.” I said, “Oh, realism. I’ll put in real light sockets and real electrical plugs in the wall.” And sure enough, that was what he wanted. Not only that, but he wanted them to work. I got it. I could do that pretty well.

I came up with a pretty good set, under the circumstances, and Marshall was very pleased. Years later, he told me that I was kind of on probation. He had one meeting with me to see whether I’d work out. Marshall and I have since done at least 20 shows together.


So Sheba got noticed in the Times. I don’t think it said anything wonderful about the set but it mentioned my name. Then Circle Rep was moving down to Sheridan Square and they were opening their new theatre with Battle of Angels [1974], so they asked me to design that. They were afraid that I’d be some sort of snotty Yale designer. They weren’t impressed by my Yale background. But they were impressed because of my summer stock training. I would just jump in and help them build the set and got out the saber saw and cut out the detailed Victorian molding myself and then I would paint it, too.

We all got along really well. So they asked me to do the second show. Lanford Wilson loved the set for the first show, and he was doing a new play of his, The Mound Builders [1975]. He wanted me to design it. Marshall really didn’t want me to at first because he thought he was going to use someone else, but Lanford prevailed.

I did that second set and then they didn’t have a designer for their third show, so they asked me to do that one, so I did, and the same thing happened with the fourth and fifth show. We all were getting along real well, obviously, and then I got an Obie for the season (for the first three of them actually, but it was meant for the season).

At the time, I had never seen Hot L Baltimore and I had to sneak in one night undercover to see it because they’d all assumed I’d seen it and I never had. I guess they thought I’d studied Marshall’s style before but I really hadn’t. MarshalL and I had a wonderful INTUITIVE working relationship. We still do. He just had to say three words and I could go TO it.

*Photos represent early set designs various theaters


(To be continued.)