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Tony Award Winning Scenic Designer Shares Experience with UNC Students

John Lee Beatty talking to students

January 9, 2023

At the end of last semester, students in UNC’s Theatre Design and Technology program had the opportunity meet award-winning set designer John Lee Beatty, who has designed sets for more than 100 Broadway shows. 

Beatty, a scenic designer who has won two Tony Awards and been nominated for another 13 Tony awards, was on campus as part of a newly established speaker series funded by an anonymous generous donor and UNC alumnus and his wife. The couple have had long and successful careers on Broadway and in film and wanted to give back to their profession and UNC’s Theatre Design and Technology program and its students in a unique way.  

By funding this speaker series, the donors saw an opportunity to invite their professional connections into the classroom and provide students with real-world scenarios, instruction and opportunities to build connections with notable industry talent. Their goal is to make an impact on the entire Theatre Design and Technology program while hoping to inspire other grateful alumni to do the same for the programs they care about.  

Students had the opportunity to attend Beatty’s presentation and a Q&A session during the first day he was on campus. The following day he gave lectures for two classes, had lunch with Design and Technology Student Association (DTSA) officers and held open office hours to meet with students. 

 Anne Toewe, Ph.D., UNC’s associate director for the School of Theatre Arts and Dance, professor of Costume Design and head of Theatre Design and Technology, says the opportunities to see Beatty’s presentation and to talk with him impacted students in multiple ways. 

“I think it surprised them to have someone with the breadth of experience that he's had, the amount of years that he's worked, where he is in his career path, who was willing to come and share his experience with them,” Toewe said. “To actually have a person in front of them who's currently living and working in New York was important.”   

The experience also helped students make connections between what they are learning in class and its professional applications. 

“He talked a lot about his process and seeing what they're being taught is exactly the same professional process, that benefited them,” she said. 

As he shared reflections of his career and the lessons he learned, he also inspired students to take advantage of opportunities they have while in college. 

“One of the students was blown away when he talked about how he had lived in Europe for a little bit and how that had changed his life. She had not planned to do study abroad, and now she’s going to do a summer abroad,” Toewe noted. 

“The other thing he talked about is assisting and how important that is. It’s like an apprentice system where you get a job as an assistant. He talked about how he's got assistants that don't look for jobs because he goes on a job and says, ‘this is the assistant I'm bringing,’ and I think a lot of them didn't see assisting in the same way as a Broadway assistant is seen.” 

Wren Ferguson, a senior Theatre Design/Technology BFA major with a Lighting and Sound Design emphasis and a DTSA officer, had an opportunity to meet with Beatty over lunch and to attend his lectures and presentation. She also felt his advice on assisting was insightful. 

“As someone soon to enter the industry, John Lee Beatty's advice on assistantships -- the attitudes an assistant should have, how to be a helpful assistant and that you do not necessarily have to assist someone in the same design discipline – felt truly relevant,” she said. 

The experience also gave her a glimpse into the culture of the design and technology industry. 

“The opportunity to meet John Lee Beatty demonstrated that the people who are at the cutting edge of our industry are human, but also incredibly willing to share their insights and expertise with young designers,” she said. “It was encouraging for me to hear how open people are.” 

Toewe says plans are underway for the spring speaker series of 2023. “We have the guest speaker planned for spring, which will be sometime in the last two weeks of April, and it will be another currently working Broadway scenic designer,” she said, adding that they are also considering developing a masterclass series that would bring together students and designers in hands-on projects. 

 For more information on supporting students and faculty within the Design and Technology program, or to learn about how you can give to the College of Performing and Visual Arts, contact University Advancement at donor.relations@unco.edu or 970-351-2551.

– written by Debbie Moors