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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
2011-2012 Season, Don't Dress for Dinner, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage