Part 2: From High School to Brown to Yale


Fifth of July, 1981 – John Lee Beatty Tony Award Nomination


As Told to Samuel L. Leiter


This is the second installment in my previously unpublished 1980 interview with designer John Lee Beatty, which is being serialized in Theater Pizzazz.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


Set Design for “The Water Engine” 1977 at the Public Theater and 1985 Joseph Jefferson Award at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago


When I was in the fourth grade, after being so shy (I still am terribly shy), I did shows in elementary school. I designed and directed them. I built the scenery at home and brought it to school. I did a show a year in elementary school. Then I did miniature stages. I built a theatre in my garage and made miniature sets and built little models, and had a little flying system. I went to plays constantly. Any book about theatre I read, any play I came across I read. Like the plays of Shaw. I liked to read Shaw when I was 12. I went through all the books and just absorbed everything I could find. I remember the section in the college library that had the theatre books. My idea of a treat was to have my mother take me into the stacks and leave me there.

In high school, I fell in with the drama group and acted and directed and did sets and costumes. I was forced to do costumes. I didn’t really want to do them but my teacher liked costumes more than sets. I never questioned. If they wanted theatre, I would do it.

And then I went to college, to Brown. I was an English lit major (life imitating life). I always did theatre, though even in college I thought designing was so wonderful that they wouldn’t allow an undergraduate to do it. So I had to act for a while just to be around theatre. And I liked acting, at that time. I don’t know, though. Then they found out that I wanted to design and, of course, immediately they just dumped everything on me. Cheerfully, cheerfully, willing victim that I was. You know, stay up all night doing scenery and costumes. I just kept doing it.

In my last year at Brown, they started a tech theatre course. Well, I was far ahead of anybody else at school doing that so I did well in the class and I kept designing there. Just before my last year, I went to a college summer stock situation, amateur obviously, called College Light Opera in Falmouth, Massachusetts. We did Gilbert and Sullivan and all that kind of stuff, so I had some experience with summer stock, which was a real eye-opener. I’d never stayed up all night doing scenery before. I’d stayed up to four, maybe, but never all night and not for three days straight, certainly.

To be honest, I don’t know where I learned all the technical aspects of set and costume construction. Sometimes you just have to do things. I am a great believer in just jumping in. I didn’t know how to sew and I designed three costumes for a musical in college .They said, “Oh, and can you build them?” And I said, “Sure!” So I went out and bought a sewing machine and made them.

When you’re in summer stock you have to fuck up once to remember the next time. If you make a mistake that costs you four hours on an all-night setup of a show that has to be ready the next night, you remember and you don’t do it again.

Of course, I had read all those books about theatre and I had absorbed as much as I could from listening to people and watching them. But there’s just a whole world of things you can only learn the hard way: painting techniques and just building techniques. What you can fake and what you can’t.

I came back to college for my senior year and I was taking this tech theatre course. My teacher had gone to Yale. I was his best student and he was proud of me. I didn’t know what to do after college (the Viet Nam War was on) so he suggested that I apply to Yale for design. I didn’t even think about it. I just said, “Oh, okay.” That’s the only place I applied. I didn’t think of applying anyplace else.

Yale asked me to come for an interview, unless there was great difficulty. There I was in Providence and they wanted me to go to New Haven. And I said, “Oh, that’s pretty hard. I think I’ll just send my stuff.” It didn’t occur to me that I was being nervy. I didn’t think about it. And then they took me in. I remember the day I got in, my teacher went running up and down the aisles of the theatre screaming, “John Beatty got into Yale! John Beatty got into Yale!” I had always thought I was going to be an English lit professor. I loved Jane Austen. To my dying day, I love Jane Austen.


(To be continued.)