Anyone who has seen a lot of theatre in New York City has most likely seen sets designed by Tony Award-winner John Lee Beatty, who has designed over 100 productions on Broadway. He is the winner of the 2019 Robert L. B. Tobin Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatrical Design, as presented at the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards on April 26.
The set designer has enjoyed a long collaboration with Manhattan Theatre Club, and the recent world premiere of The Cake marked his 71st production there. He discusses the sets for The Cake with TDF.
I interviewed Beatty a few years ago about his set design for The Nance, for which he won his second Tony in 2013 (the first was for Talley’s Folly in 1980), and which he discusses in this video:
At the time, I mentioned how I always want to move right into his sets, they are so fabulous and perfect. He laughed and said a lot of people tell him that but the perspective is not true to life and the architectural details are designed for the stage. “It’s theatrical manipulation of scale to make it look right…not truly the right proportions,” he insists. But in spite of his protests, I think you could definitely settle in comfortably.
“The job has changed tremendously,” comments Beatty. “I was talking to props master Buist Bickley about how we used to do things, going out in a car to look for things…now we do it all online.”
When it comes to process, Beatty says, “I’m an old fashioned boy I guess. I draft a show and do ground plans and do sketches. In the meantime, I have been learning to turn over the drafting to my assistant Kacie Hultgren, who does 3D tutorials. She will do the computer drawing…the pencil lead pollutes the math. So now it’s a combination of hand drafting, which is more inspirational, sometimes scanning, and painting together. I still hand paint everything, but am not opposed to 3D printed models. Kacie can take my paper version and build the 3D model, which can live in the computer and print them out. It’s great to have 12 Chippendale chairs without driving your assistant around the bend,” he notes. “I am learning to make bigger and bigger 3D-printed pieces of things I have drafted.”
For The Nance, Beatty notes, “People think I am old-timey designer, but the part that looked the oldest was computer-generated and vice versa. This allows the beautiful handwork of designers to survive the computer.”
Beatty has always been drawn to design (no pun intended). “I have an emotional connection when I am doing interiors,’ he says. “I have always, since childhood, had a strong sense of rooms…I grew up in southern California, in a house from 1907. Crawling around on my knees in rooms with moldings, pocket doors, I absorbed certain things. For me, it takes more research to do a modern, molding-less set.”
The main stage at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center venue has rather low ceilings for a Broadway venue. “You always have to address it anew,” admits Beatty. “I’m not sure there is a solution that makes me completely happy. Oddly raising the floor makes it look less oppressive...I stare at it each time and relearn it, as it has a lot of off stage space, but that compromised ceiling.”
Of the 100+ Broadway shows he has done, two of Beatty’s all-time favorites are Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. “It’s not just they there are pretty, they have good ground plans,” he says. “I do a lot of new plays and you can kill a new play with bad ground plans.” As for his sustained excellence award, “I am grateful to receive it,” he allows, “but I would rather say sustained attempts at excellence. I am always self-critical.”