You have to start from the size of the ladies' skirts and work backwards when you're designing the scenery.
—John Lee Beatty
Broadway set designer John Lee Beatty has designed sets for some pretty big productions over the years. Now he's facing the challenge of designing the set for Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's new production of Gone With the Wind, which will premiere in January, 2013.
So SCENE went behind the scenes with the Tony award-winner to find out his process for bringing this iconic work to the stage.
What is your personal connection with the book?
I read the book first when I was15 and living in Bogota, Columbia, so that was an interesting cultural division. I found it to be a big page-turner, which is what we're trying to do here.
I purposely did not re-read the book when I started this project because as a designer you deal with what's in the play. Of course I've checked out some details, but you want to deal with the piece that has been written as an entire piece.
There are so many scene changes including different cities and vistas. How do you capture the vastness on the stage?
Well, it's vast. Thank God we never leave the South. So the basic metaphor I chose for the South was the huge shutters. And there are many of them and they keep reconfiguring to be different parts of Georgia.
The book has been made into a movie, of course. People will have certain expectations and ideas in their head. So how do you deal with that?
Page from Beatty's sketchbook of the scene where Rhett and Scarlett meet (John Lee Beatty)
I am purposely trying to avoid any pictorial representation. They did it very well in the movie (although there are some romantic embellishments that don't make sense), so we're not even trying. I've distilled it down to the porch of Tara and its columns and a wonderful Southern staircase. Those are the only real accents.
Every so often a "signifier" comes in -- something that tells us where we are by economic means. But it's more important to just keep going and have a hint of where they are so you can follow the story but not overwhelm it with trying to compete with the movie.
I did avoid one scene because of the Carol Burnett Show
-- the one where she does a parody of Gone With the Wind
and wears the curtains, including the curtain rod. I just couldn't go there.
I'm also avoiding colour most of the time. There are certain colours associated with certain characters, but otherwise I'm trying to stay away. Humourously, you have to start from the size of the ladies' skirts and work backwards when you're designing the scenery because the skirts are about four feet in diameter at least. So you think of a modern door which is about two and a half feet.
How does the fire scene work?
It's really suggested. Again, we're in the theatre. You bring your imagination. Obviously there are some effects and smoke. My metaphor is the shutters that have been so lovely and then have been seriously destroyed.
What would you say has been the greatest pleasure developing this set?
Just that it's so difficult. I couldn't resist the difficulty of it. It's just a big challenge. I'm trying with my artistic skills and my organizational skills to come up to it. I just wanted to see what that's like.