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John Lee Beatty ’70: Brown to Broadway

English concentration resurfaces in scenic designer’s Tony Award-winning career

Tony-award winning scenic designer John Lee Beatty ’70 could not tell you the number of Broadway sets he has constructed. He thinks that “Tales from Red Vienna,” his ongoing project with the Manhattan Theater Club, is his 107th or 108th production — nothing’s definite. 

Beatty graduated with a degree in English Literature, a flourishing passion for scenic design and a collection of theater experiences, all of which pushed him to Broadway. Two Tony awards later, Beatty said his most significant accomplishment is that he’s “still designing.”

“I’d been designing scenery since I was seven or eight,” Beatty said. His talent for design arose in Claremont, Calif., where his father served as dean of students for Pomona College, and his move to Brown included not only an adjustment to East Coast culture, but also an introduction to elements of theater outside design.

“I got a chance at Brown — because of Sock and Buskin — to be scenic designer, actor, writer, director, board member, whatever,” Beatty said, referring to the University group in charge of mainstage performance selection. His assiduous involvement in Brown theater presented him with a range of projects, while his academic trajectory allowed him to witness the introduction of theater design courses.

Beatty’s concentration choice stemmed from Brown’s lack of a Department of Theater and Performance Studies — which was created in 1973, after he had graduated — and personal inflection.

Beatty’s concentration has gone on to affect his work in profound ways, despite a career focused almost exclusively on theater design. “I tend to be a bit of a writing snob when I select my pieces,” Beatty said, adding that he feels project selection and design rely immensely on the literary backbone of the piece itself. Especially with the design of Western theater pieces, “English literature is incredibly helpful,” Beatty said.

Following Brown, Beatty spent three years at the Yale School of Drama, after which he joined a theatrical union as both a designer and scenic painter. He soon moved to New York, working on smaller-scale projects before moving on to both Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. He has received 15 Tony award nominations and 15 Drama Desk nominations,  with his most recent Tony awarded in 2013  for “The Nance,” which starred Broadway veteran Nathan Lane.

“Most of my connections have been Brown connections,” Beatty said, contrasting it to Yale networking.“Sometimes companies didn’t want a snotty Yalie,” he said. A Brown alum introduced Beatty to the Manhattan Theatre Club, for which Beatty still works.

Beatty considers himself a sort of “poster child as to how a liberal arts education is useful.” In an industry where many consider arts school a necessary pedestal for intense training, a broad education can prove very applicable. “Everything in our culture is useful for a designer,” he added.

Beatty said he was speaking with friend and colleague Hugh Jackman the other day about “Carousel,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Jackman hopes to adapt into a movie, when he recalled an experience at Brown. Beatty’s Spanish literature professor had translated the musical for use in a course. “These little bits of your education float back up to the surface,” Beatty said. “Nothing is lost.”


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