"I started designing scenery when I was seven," says John Lee Beatty. "When I was in first grade, my parents took me to see Mary Martin in Peter Pan — it was trying out in Los Angeles before coming to Broadway. When I came home, I wanted to fly. And I wanted to be a set designer."
Beatty has turned that childhood fantasy into a 35-year career in New York theatre. His credits include the long-running revival of Chicago; the Pulitzer Prize winners Doubt, Proof and Rabbit Hole; The Color Purple; The Heiress; The Sisters Rosensweig; and the revival of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. He has 12 Tony Award nominations and has won once, for Talley's Folly in 1980.
Beatty grew up in Claremont, CA, a small Southern California town where his father was dean of students at Pomona College; his mother had also worked in academia. "My mother wouldn't let me have coloring books," he recalls. "She gave me stacks of paper and crayons and I had to draw by myself. I was always attracted to floor plans. Even as a child I enjoyed floor plans. I've always been very good with my hands — I enjoy painting and carpentry and making things in general."
After Yale, Beatty tried to get a job in regional theatre, "but they really wanted a designer with New York experience. They didn't want me. So I arrived in New York one September morning with my suitcase, and I got a job as assistant to the set designer Douglas Schmidt and started painting scenery for Broadway shows."
Those years, the mid-1970s, saw "the birth of the Off-Broadway theatre companies," Beatty says. "I went over to the Manhattan Theatre Club. There were four people and two phones. It was the winter of 1973. Now it's a huge organization. And I'm still there. I'm even on the board."
A year later, he began working for the old Circle Repertory Company. Those jobs eventually led to Broadway — his first Broadway show was Jules Feiffer's Knock Knock, in 1976.
One thing Beatty loves about his work, he says, "is the irregularity of it. In a way there is regularity, because we know how shows go together. But I don't know exactly what I'm going to do next week. I have a vague idea of what I'm doing next March, but that might all fall apart. I find that kind of thing fun. It's the mystery of theatre — which shows might succeed, which might fail, the twists and turns projects might take, the curious accidents of theatre life."
His most difficult show? Penn and Teller, from 1987. "It looked like I hadn't done a thing. But sometimes doing the simplest things is the hardest. And The Sisters Rosensweig. The actors handled so many objects, so there were lots of things onstage. The public doesn't think about it, but the designer is responsible for everything except the costumes. Getting it right is really hard."
How does he do his very difficult job? "It's a little mystifying. I think most designers are mystified by it. I'm the most practical person and yet at the same time I'm the most airheaded. I call it associative thinking. I make associations. When I read a play — and I do a lot of new plays — I don't know what the scene is supposed to be like. And I make a visual association from what I'm reading — with the help of the director and everyone else.
"It's a curious kind of thinking, but it's common to all designers. In A Delicate Balance, for instance, I returned to childhood and how I felt in my house when I was growing up. Out of that comes a ground plan and a sketch, and I go back and forth between the practicality and the emotion. I have the skills of an architect and I paint like a painter, so what I do is design scenery."
What fascinates him, he says, "is how an inanimate object or an environment can evoke an emotion in people — you can cry at what an actor says or does, but sometimes you can also cry at a feeling the scenery gives you."
John Lee Beatty's memorable set design for Talley's Folly can currently be seen in the new McCarter Theatre production starring Richard Schiff and Margot White. The play runs through Nov. 2 in Princeton, NJ.