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Don’t Dress for Dinner

A Conversation with John Lee Beatty

Posted on: March 29th, 2012 by Education @ Roundabout

 

Ted Sod, Education Dramaturg, interviewed scenic designer John Lee Beatty about his thoughts on Don’t Dress for Dinner.

Ted Sod: Tell us about how you worked with John (Joey) Tillinger, the director, to come up with the set design for Don’t Dress For Dinner?

John Lee Beatty: Joey and I have done a lot of plays together. Especially Joe Orton’s plays. Basically, it’s a fairly straightforward process. It’s a comedy and you have to make the sculpture of the comedy work first rather than the visual. Since someone’s not just standing still and having a beautiful setting behind them, it’s more about where does everyone exit and enter from? And where do they go to and what do they have to fall over and what has to be pointing in which direction for it to all work. A lot of nuts and bolts have to be discussed with the director. In some ways, comedy is a bit of a machine. In this case, it’s a glamorous machine, but a machine nonetheless.

Do you see this more as a comedy or as a farce?

It’s a farce, you’re right.

It seems to me that in a farce, doors are really important. Is that true in this setting?

Yes it is. However, this is a play about entrances and exits more than it is about slamming a particular door. Entrances and exits are very important. And I have to say, if you follow the theories of comedy, if you want to be literal about it, sightlines are very important. There can’t be mysterious nooks and crannies to make it all seem confusing. The joke is that the logic of the world is turned upside down.

What kind of research did you have to do before you did your sketches?

Oh! French country houses. That’s a pleasure.

Where are those country houses located?

I’m saying that we are in northwestern France, so I’m putting it in Brittany. I’m an addict of House Hunters International on HGTV so I am remembering some houses they were showing us in Brittany.

Is that a specific kind of architecture?

Oh sure, but more importantly this French country house probably started as a barn and was made into a house. It was probably started in the 18th Century and then perhaps had something done to it in the 19th Century and then had something else remodeled in the 20th Century. So it’s gone from being an animal abode to an upscale country retreat.

'Don't Dress for Dinner' set rendering by John Lee Beatty

Who was responsible for the decor? Is it the wife? Do you see her being the one who decorated the house?

That’s a good question. I actually think they’ve done it together. They obviously have aesthetic taste. They’re both quite chic. It’s very upper class French.

In French movies, the characters always seem to know how to decorate, how to dress and how to eat.

As we were working together, Joey wanted the characters to be elegant and so we decided to set it circa the late ‘50s. It started with Balenciaga and all those wonderful clothing designers of the period and thinking about people who were dressed like that.

So it’s not happening in present day France?

No, no, no. It’s in 1959. Originally it was done in the ‘80s and we pushed it back.

It makes it more of a period piece.

Right, and we’re trying to conjure up Capucine and The Pink Panther and all those wonderful movies where the ladies are so lovely and the scenery is high bourgeois. It’s quite a lot of fun. And it makes it internationally attractive.

Poster for the 1963 film "The Pink Panther"

Did you watch any film besides The Pink Panther for ideas?

I’m an Audrey Hepburn fan so I don’t need to watch movies. They’re burned into my head.

Will you be working closely with the lighting designer?

Oh sure, we always collaborate. I’ve worked with Ken Billington many times. I’ve done comedies and musicals with him. One of the things we know is that the actors are going to be completely lit.  There’s just enough requisite theatre lighting for a comedy.

We can’t go in for mood lighting in this show.

By putting it in another time period, it becomes less about sex and more about sensuality?

Perhaps. This time period is before the sexual revolution. It’s a comedy of form. Come on, this isn’t quite reality. Men are men and women are women and men are shaped like men and women are shaped like women and you move the chess pieces around, you know?

Jennifer Tilly in 'Don't Dress for Dinner'; Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2012

It seems like the smartest character in the play is the cook. Do you agree?

Oh my God, yes. She’s a riot.  In most comedies, the whole first act is all setup and then the comedy kicks in in the second act. In this play it’s almost immediate. Within a few pages you’re into the middle of it, which is wonderful.

The playwright doesn’t waste any time getting to the complications of having a mistress or boy toy.

Right.

What do you think the play is about?

It’s basically a comedy about sex so obviously nobody actually ever goes to bed with anybody. It goes without saying if it’s a comedy about sex, no one’s ever actually going to get in bed.

Especially with the person they want to be in bed with. How did you all choose the specific year to set the play in?

I instinctively went to ’59. I was in love with a Balenciaga dress Kay Kendall wore in a movie and I researched the year that was from and 1959 popped up. We all know ’59.

It’s right before Jackie Kennedy took over the White House and she brought a French influence to Washington.

Yes, absolutely. That is the period where French is French. I used to read my sister’s Vogue magazine from that period, so I know what it is about.

I think it’s really smart to make the play a period piece.

Well, there’s this whole plot point about a fur coat. And we were talking about the fur coat and I was saying, “Well, you know, I remember how my great aunt, who was well-to-do, thought it was horrible that my mother didn’t have a mink.” But nowadays, who would ever think that everybody had to have a fur? In that day and age, it was a symbol of prestige and every woman had to have a fur. And the fact that the cook ends up with it makes much more sense in a period piece than it would if it were set in modern times.

Ben Daniels and Spencer Kayden in 'Don't Dress for Dinner'; Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2012

Who were your role models when you started in this business?

I’ve been designing scenery since I was a little boy, to be honest. But, I was an English major at Brown University and then I went to Yale School of Drama for three years.

Were there people there who influenced you?

Well, my teacher at Yale was Ming Cho Lee. I was affected by Ben Edwards and his wonderful designs of stage interiors.

Ben was married to Jane Greenwood.

To Jane, right.  And I remember I went to a play that Jane and Ben designed entitled Finishing Touches and I thought it was so well designed, scenery and costumes both.

What kind of advice would you give to a young person who wants to design scenery for the theatre?

Do it. Designing scenery is such a collaborative experience. I’ve worked with Ken Billington and William Ivey Long and John Tillinger many, many times and worked for the Roundabout many times. So, you learn a lot about designing by doing it with people. I know it sounds flip, but it’s also kind of profound, you have to just do it.

Training was important?

Training’s important, absolutely! But learning how to talk to your collaborators is very important also. Learning just to be a in a room with people is really important.

You had an artistic home for years at Circle Rep. Was that valuable?

Because I’m a shy guy, yes, tremendously. If you watch my resume closely, I’m doing my nineteenth year of Encores! at City Center. And I first worked with Manhattan Theatre Club in the winter of ’73 and I’m still working with them. It’s scary out there when you’re just doing one-offs in high-level commercial theatre. And often times with collaboration too, the first time with people is sometimes a lot harder than the second, and third, and fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh times. So getting experience is great, any kind of experience. Making scenery in college is a good experience. Upholstering a chair. All those things. All of it counts. Everything counts—even if you just help somebody who needs assistance and it’s just two days, one thing leads to another and you get exposure to people and you meet people and you see how things are put together.

What I hear you saying is that it’s a business of relationships and those relationships are really important.

Yes, but it’s not like climbing the corporate ladder as much as everyone’s jumping into the deep end of the pool together and trying not to sink.

Don't Dress for Dinner plays at the American Airlines Theatre through June 17, 2012. For more information, click here.


Related Categories:
2011-2012 Season, Don't Dress for Dinner, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage


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The playwright Marc Camoletti may not be a household name here in the US, but his work has been seen all over the world, touching some 55 countries and a multitude of languages. Camoletti, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 79, was arguably the modern day master of the French farce, but it’s taken a while for Americans to jump on board and appreciate his work the way the rest of the world has for so long.

You may recall that Camoletti’s Boeing-Boeing had a wonderfully-received Broadway revival just a few years ago, and I think the playwright would have been rather pleasantly surprised by that occurrence. After all, the play’s Broadway debut back in 1965 was considered to be a fairly infamous flop, in spite of running for seven years in the West End and, even more impressively, for more than nineteen years in Paris! For some reason, American audiences just didn’t respond to the piece, which may explain why Don’t Dress for Dinner, taking on the same farcical tone, never even made it to Broadway during the playwright’s lifetime. Under the original title of Pajamas Pour Six, this follow-up premiered in Paris in 1987, where it would go on to enjoy a run of more than two years. It was soon adapted into English by Robin Hawdon (whose version we will be using in Roundabout’s production), and the play would run for seven years in the West End.

A good farce is hard to find these days, and I wish I knew what made Broadway so inhospitable to Camoletti the first time around. To my mind, he does exactly what a master of comedy needs to do: he creates very real characters and then sends them spinning off their normal axes by throwing them into crazy situations. There’s an art to this genre, but Camoletti also knew that there was a bit of a science to it – with each set-up, there must be pay-off, and each minor case of mistaken identity must build upon the one before it, to bring the play to its highest points of hilarity before the evening is over. Farce in general and Don’t Dress for Dinner in particular is filled with pure joy. Watching this play is, for me, an absolute delight, and it’s easy to forget how hard it is to do something so deceptively easy so very well.

Our great director, John Tillinger, has pointed out that if the characters in Don’t Dress for Dinner had cell phones, there wouldn’t be a play at all. Living in a world that is so constantly “online” or artificially connected, there’s something wonderfully simple about stepping back into a time and place where troubles may have been more difficult to fix, but they were fixed through actual human interaction.

And in this play’s case, those interactions are fun, physical, and full of wit. I’ll say that the first half of this season was on the darker side, and I’m thrilled to be lightening up a bit with this frothy piece of work. For a multitude of reasons, I think we’re all ready to embrace Marc Camoletti’s play and simply have a few laughs. And with this fantastic group of actors and designers, I know we’ve put the piece in the right hands.

I hope that you will share your thoughts by writing a comment below or emailing me at artisticoffice@roundabouttheatre.org, and I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!

Todd Haimes
Artistic Director


Related Categories:
2011-2012 Season, Don't Dress for Dinner, From Todd Haimes


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A Recipe for Farce: Don’t Dress for Dinner

Posted on: March 26th, 2012 by Education @ Roundabout

 

For over two millennia, the recipe for farce has called for a few essential ingredients. Start with a set of stock characters in an everyday setting and introduce someromantic or sexual intrigue. Toss in at least one case of mistaken identity. Blend in absurd plot twists, unexpected characters, and escalating complications. Include enough slamming or swinging doors for all the entrances and exits necessary to keep the action flying. Place everything under intense time pressure and allow events to boil into a chase-like speed, until the situation reaches a state of near anarchy. Just when everything is nearly out-of-control, restore order and avert disaster. Serve it fast and furious—enjoy!

These formal elements help to distinguish farce from high comedy and comedy satire, but in fact the differences are not hard and fast, and some of the greatest stage comedies, such as Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, mix all three categories. Farce differs from high comedy with an emphasis on physical activity and absurd situations over character-based humor and verbal wit. And while satire uses humor to make social commentary, the goal of pure farce is entertainment for its own sake.

Brian Bedford and Charlotte Parry in our 2010 revival of 'The Importance of Being Earnest'; Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2010

The situations and dramatis personae of farce have been in play since Aristophanes used outrageous physicality, broad characters, and ridiculous situations in the 5th century BCE. In the 2nd century BCE, the playwright Plautus entertained the Romans with a stock of character types—fathers and sons, domineering wives, courtesans, crafty servants, and braggart warriors—dealing with love affairs and mistaken identities.

The commedia dell’arte of the 16th century brought farce from ancient times to the modern world. Though its origins in Italy, commedia troupes travelled across Europe. Commedia was built on on lazzi, comedic physical business.  Actors used improvised scenarios rather than scripts, portraying a set group of characters (including the crafty Pantalone and the hapless servant Arlecchino), shuffled through a series of ridiculous situations. A century later in France, Moliere built upon and characters and situations from commedia. His earlier plays, The Flying Doctor and The Imaginary Invalid are highly physical and farcical; later, he would turn his emphasis to character and satire.

Claude Gillot (1673–1722), Four Commedia dell’Arte Figures: Three Gentlemen and Pierrot, c.1715

In mid 19th century, farce thrived in the popular theatres of Germany and France.  Perhaps the greatest farceur of this period was Parisian Georges Feydeau, who tweaked the intricate plot machinery of Eugene Scribe’s well-made play for outrageously comedic purposes. Feydeau took situations to extremes in order to push the bounds of conventional taste; for his characters, reputations and respectability were at stake. He was of the first farceurs to set scenes in the bedroom, where he found a myriad of comic uses for a bed—everything except sex. Feydeau’s plays flew with intense speed; a director from the Comedie Francaise said that an actor must be able to run a mile in the course of the evening to perform a Feydeau play. Feydeau also had a dark side; playwright John Mortimer notes, “the story Othello and Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear have a striking similarity”; their key difference is that “farce is tragedy played at about 120 revolutions a minute.”

Poster from our 1998 revival of Feydeau's 'A Flea in Her Ear' directed by Bill Irwin

In the 20th ncentury, Eugene Ionesco transformed farce for the Theatre of the Absurd. Joe Orton manipulated it for black comedy, and Alan Ayckbourn has used farce elements in many of his comedies. Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny A Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum drew on several plotlines and situations from Plautus. On film, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers mastered broad physical comedy. In the 1960’s, Peter Sellers’ bumbling Inspector Clouseau in the popular Pink Panther continued the farce tradition on screen.

In 1960, with his first hit, Boeing-Boeing, Marc Camoletti picked up the farce baton and ran all the way to the Guinness Book of World Records by writing the most-performed French Play in the world. Camoletti’s sequel, Pajamas Pour Six, opened in Paris in 1987 and in London in 1991, under the title Don’t Dress For Dinner. Camoletti and his English-language adaptor Robin Hawdon provide a fresh take on the classic recipe, using time-honored character types and situations to serve a zesty new feast.

Spencer Kayden, Patricia Kalember, Jennifer Tilly, and David Aron Damane in 'Don't Dress for Dinner'; Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2012

Don't Dress for Dinner plays at the American Airlines Theatre through June 17, 2012. For more information, click here.


Related Categories:
2011-2012 Season, Don't Dress for Dinner, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage


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