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Tony-winning scenic designer John Lee Beatty dishes on his decades-long collaboration with Manhattan Theatre Club
On April 26, 2019, John Lee Beatty will receive the Robert L. B. Tobin Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatrical Design at the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards. Read our press release for more information.
Scenic designer John Lee Beatty says he learns something new from every show he works on at Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC). For his 71st production with the venerable company, The Cake, he got schooled on the nuts and bolts of baking. "That is the fun thing about being a designer," says the 70-year-old master. "Who knew I'd ever learn so much about cakes?"
Penned by This Is Us writer-producer Bekah Brunstetter and reminiscent of the Masterpiece Cakeshop court case, The Cake centers on Della (Debra Jo Rupp), a North Carolina baker who's plunged into a moral quandary when her beloved surrogate daughter Jen (Genevieve Angelson) asks her to bake her wedding cake. Trouble is, Jen is marrying a woman, and that goes against Della's religious beliefs.
The Cake jumps between Della's colorful confectionery, where she frequently fantasizes about her upcoming stint on a reality baking competition, and two different bedrooms, all located in Winston-Salem, a city Beatty knows well from his time as a guest instructor at the North Carolina School of the Arts. To tackle the various locales, Beatty designed three independent revolving set pieces. "That's something I'd never done before," he says. "It is kind of a big surprise when it all starts twirling. There are so many transitions in this play, so it was really important that we quickly and gracefully go from place to place."
Eye-popping cakes are the design's main motif -- there are even glowing wedding cakes seemingly floating at the back of the stage that are visible during scenic changes. For inspiration, Beatty looked at the work of Wayne Thiebaud. "He's a wonderful California artist who painted cakes and pastries and gumballs and all sorts of wonderful things," says Beatty. Local bakeries also helped. "I take these long Sunday walks and I went around New York going to cake stores taking photos," he says, noting his travels ranged from the Bronx to Chinatown. "That was kind of a revelation. I also went to Costco and watched them frosting cakes in the window and I was just fascinated by the revolving cake stands."
While all the desserts look delicious, only a few are edible. (Do not go hungry or you'll be envious of the cast, who get to have their cake and eat it too.) Beatty worked with the props team to create the fabulous fakes featured on the bakery's shelves. "Most are made of spackle, joint compound and tub caulking," he says with a laugh. Others are crafted from rice paper and gel sheets, and filled with light bulbs. "Lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg and I really felt that the cakes needed to light up to underscore the show's fantasy moments," Beatty explains.
Beatty says his favorite part of working on The Cake was getting a chance to collaborate on all aspects of the design, an all-hands-on deck approach that harks back to his initial shows at MTC. "I think there were four people on staff and maybe two phones," he recalls of those early days when the company produced out of a three-story space on East 73rd Street. After earning his MFA from Yale School of Drama, Beatty arrived at MTC in 1973, just a year after its founding. "The thing that I look back on most fondly is the people and the whole technical experience year after year, the wonderful crews, and what we could cook up on our own," he says. "We all learned a lot about making theatre."
Beatty's interest in design was sparked by seeing a production of Peter Pan when he was in first grade. He promptly went home and built a miniature theatre with scenery and puppets in his family's garage. While an undergrad at Brown University, he participated in theatre before going to Yale and then NYC. Over the decades, Beatty has forged artistic relationships with other companies, notably City Center's Encores!, Lincoln Center Theater and the now-closed Circle Repertory Company, where he did the original designs for many Lanford Wilson plays including Talley's Folly, which earned him his first Tony Award. He won his second Tony for The Nance, and has designed more than 100 shows on Broadway since 1976.
While he acknowledges that technology has transformed the design game, he says his personal method has remained more or less the same throughout his career. "I read the script, I read it again, and then I take the script apart in little bits," he says, adding that his BA in English Literature from Brown comes in handy. "I'm one of the last designers to do colored sketches. I imagine better in two-dimensions. I paint it first and then work on plans." That's why he has an assistant who's a pro at computer drafting.
The Cake is Beatty's third completed project this season, after Mother of the Maid at the Public Theater and Dan Cody's Yacht at MTC, and he's working on the upcoming Long Lost, also at MTC. All four are new plays, and Beatty says that's by design. "I'm getting old and I don't want to do revivals so much anymore," he concedes, noting that he loves working with living playwrights. "You're creating with them, so there are certain things you see on stage that weren't written in the scripts," he says. "It is so much more interesting to do new plays."
He finds world premieres particularly rewarding because his design elements often carry over to subsequent mountings. Beatty points to the original production of Lanford Wilson's Burn This as an example. "I designed a walkable fire escape knowing that the actors would find something to do with it," he says. "Sure enough, they did. It's weird as an older designer when they revive plays I designed. I did that play so long ago, in the '80s," and now it's about to come back to Broadway. "They don't warn you about that in design school, that you're going to see your big successes designed by other designers later. It makes me feel very proud to see how many of the plays I helped to create go on to become standards in American repertory. That really is a thrill."
To read about a student's experience at The Cake, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Allison Considine is a staff writer at American Theatre magazine. Follow her at @theatric_ally. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Debra Jo Rupp in The Cake. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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