Location! Location! Location! The setting of a play or movie can transport you to another time or place and set the tone for the emotions of the show. I recently saw a production at the Suzanne Roberts Theater called, “EmpathitRaX”. The show is a searing, darkly funny sci-fi story of a young couple who turn to a breakthrough in pharmacology to save their fractured relationship.
The person responsible for creating the set design, which highlights the intensity that permeates the show, is designer Chris Haig. Haig enjoyed ten seasons as the Props Supervisor at Arden Theatre Company and has designed throughout Philly for over 20 years. He received a Barrymore nomination for Best Scenic Design for (prior Portrait subject) R. Eric Thomas’ “Time Is On Our Side.”
So what was the setting for your first entrance?
I was born in Harrisburg, but I grew up in Norristown.
Tell me a little about the family?
I have an older sister; both of my parents are retired now, but my dad was a glass contractor, so he sold glass to buildings like One Liberty Place. My mom was a nurse originally but later started working at GlaxoSmithKlein, the pharmaceutical company. They’re both watercolor artists, not professional, just as a hobby, but art was always around. They’d take me into Philly to see shows when I was a kid so I was into the arts at a young age.
Yes; when I was about 8 years old, they took me to see “Cats” at the Forrest Theater. It was the first musical I saw and it changed my world. After that I had a chance to do community theater and school plays, and then went to college at UArts where I majored in acting. At that time they didn’t have a design program. I never actually went to design school; I’ve just accumulated knowledge throughout the 20 something years I’ve been doing it.
I read that you were in a choir as well.
Yes, from age 8 to 13 I was part of the Philadelphia Boys Choir. It was such an amazing time. We had to rehearse two or three days a week, so I guess I gave up a lot of free time and friend time to commit to that. I was also getting bullied in school for it, but I had a teacher who pulled me aside and said, “Chris you’ve done things that no other kids here have done.” It was true, I got to see the world, to go to Israel and Jordan and perform in some incredible places like Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House, the Academy of Music. The things he said made me feel a little bit better about life. I was really an introverted kid other than when I was on stage, so it was clearly an outlet for me, maybe a chance to be someone else while I was figuring it out.
What was the best concert that you did with them?
That’s hard, there are two of them. I performed at the Sydney Opera House at a festival of international choirs. That was epic, the scale and scope of that place was incredible. I also had a chance to perform with Pavarotti at Carnegie Hall. [Laughing] Well, not just me, the choir, it’s not like I was doing a duet with him. But to be able to say at 10 years old you got to do that kind of thing was special, and I understood the gravity of the place and the history behind it. And he was a really big thing at that time. We also did “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the Pennsylvania ballet, and we had to travel from the rehearsal space through the backstage area to get to our positions so I got to see all the scenery and dancers in the wings getting ready for the show. To this day I remember how cool it was.
As an actor, what was a favorite moment, and what was something that drove you away from the stage?
One of the best moments was at UArts. We did “The Crucible” and it was directed by Naum Panovski, and it was the coolest production. His take on the play was really avant-garde, cutting edge, with the most interesting design elements. It was a type of theater I’ve never seen before. I’ll always remember it as a pivotal theatrical moment in my life, a new way of thinking. It taught me that theater doesn’t have to be what’s written on the page.
As far as leaving the stage, I realized how much I hated auditioning. It was also a difficult time in my life, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I went to London and studied at the film academy and then went to LA. But I found that the hustle and grind and rejection was something I couldn’t handle. I came back here and found there was a lot of opportunity for me to work as a designer. I’d done a lot of prop and set design throughout college. I started with a lot of theater companies and built my portfolio as a designer. I could work in the theater world without having to audition!
You started out mostly doing props, correct? I read a quote from a prop person, “If it moves, it’s mine!”
I like that. There’s also a moving van analogy: if you’re moving your house and you can put it into a moving van, it’s a prop, and if you can’t, it’s a set; the walls and windows etc, all scenery.
Tell me about your “affinity for physical objects.”
I’m a big history nerd, so I like the stories that the objects tell. I’m intrigued by their history, by the hidden stories inside them, by the mystery of their former owner, where they lived and what they did. As an actor, I always found that the props would inform my character choices, and I think that made me a pretty good prop person too because I could understand how the specificity of the prop can help the actor with the character.
I guess there’s a lot of research involved with both props and design.
Yes. It all starts with diving into the world of the script, where and when it’s taking place, the socioeconomic realities of the characters. And I like to do a deep dive into whatever I can about the place and time. Most of the time I’m looking for visual references. Sometimes it’s very specific and realistic, like the show that just finished running at InterAct, “The Last Parade”. It takes place in the ’90s in Kiev and it’s very specific. But then you do a show like “Alice in Wonderland” and you get to make everything up. And it ends up being an amazing drag show!
Do you meet with the director first?
Actually for me, I first read the script and then do what I call my first rough pass of whatever comes to me from the script. I’ll get a piece of paper and start drawing some sketches and take those to the director. “Here’s what I saw, is this something like what you’re envisioning?” And that starts a back and forth discussion. We get into the nitty gritty; “there needs to be an entrance here and an exit there”, we talk about the mood, the message and the budget. And 8 times out of 10, something from the initial drawings will end up on the stage.
[Smiling] Do you draw from your parents’ watercolor talents?
I have actually. Recently, while I was trying to come up with ideas for “Into the Woods”, my dad was working on a piece. I really loved the colors and textures he’d created and I totally stole them! And in one show, I had one of their paintings on the set.
So sweet! I read that in “100 Words for Snow,” you used a fire retardant paper that was used by welders because when crumpled it would “catch light like a glacier would.” What are some other fun “tricks of the trade”?
I try to always incorporate a hand-crafted element in my designs. I’ve been really fascinated by paper, and I’ve used that particular welders paper in a bunch of shows in different ways. In fact I used paper for the show that you just saw, “EmpathitRaX”. As you know there’s a powerful scene at the end that has a strong visual impact, yet I spent about $40 on paper for the main features, not counting labor. I hung everything myself which is a result of years of being a prop person and part of a production team. It’s in my nature to want to be hands-on and be part of the physical creation, not just the design and concept.
I remember reading that on TV and films, because the lights are so hot, they often use mashed potatoes to simulate ice-cream. Do you have a secret go-to?
Sure: for “Two Trains Running” at the Arden, we had to create a fake ham for a scene. It was made out of carved foam and sealed and painted, but to get the heft of it, we put metal weights inside so when it landed on the table it would thud like a real ham. Oh! One of my favorites is an old trick. When actors have to eat steak on stage, use a piece of watermelon colored with brown food dye. When you cut into it you get that nice pink inside, like a steak and the actor gets a refreshing bite of watermelon that’s a lot easier to chew while trying to say their lines. There’s a lot that goes into food props. You also have to take into consideration an actor’s allergies or religious beliefs, things like that. We did one show and the actor had to eat Neapolitan ice-cream, but they were lactose intolerant. I was able to get Franklin Fountain in Old City to create an oat based ice-cream for us.
I love that! Switching to set design, I just saw “EmpathitRaX” and it was very stark and stylized. What was the feeling you were trying to impart?
With this show, the director is Nell Bang-Jensen and we’ve done several shows together. She contacted me and said, “Read the script, I think you’ll like it and there’s a scenic gesture at the end that I think you’ll have a good eye for.” So that intrigued me, I read the script and it really moved me. I’ve dealt with depression all of my life and it plays a significant part in the story. I could really relate to the main character of Her. Like Her, I was on antidepressants and weaned myself off of them. I had the brain zaps from the medication and all the things she talks about. I too struggled to express myself to the person I loved and to allow them to help me. I turned a corner when my now husband came into my life, he was the hand that led me through that dark forest.
So this play really resonated with me. When it came to designing the apartment, what we were trying to do with the color, scope and size of it was to design it to make it a cold, oppressive space. There is a large couch that looms large on the stage like an island and she’s stuck on it. Behind her is a big window with a view of the city which says that outside the window, there’s life bustling, there are positives but she’s stuck inside never able to leave. So the set with gray walls and tone implies a sense of heaviness that’s a visual interpretation of her depression.
So getting personal, what was your coming out story?
Oh my goodness. I came out when I was 15, I was sort of dating a guy from our community theater company and someone told my parents. My parents sat me down and said, “We don’t want you hanging out with him. We think he’s a bad influence.” We had a bit of an argument and at one point my mom said, “He might turn you gay.” I responded, “I am gay” and that’s how I came out to them. Both had a strong Catholic upbringing so it wasn’t easy for them. There was crying and a lot of emotions running high, but my father said something that looking back was pretty funny, he said, “You’re not catty enough to be gay!” What? At the end we all said that we loved each other, but then didn’t talk about it for 2 years, which was really uncomfortable and awkward, a big elephant in the room. They also sent me to a therapist who told them there was nothing wrong with me. So then they went to therapy! I was still in high school and trying to figure out myself but I found my tribe in community theater. That’s also where I found my first Guncle [gay uncle] who taught me what to expect and how to get through it. Fortunately, my parents came around and are now the most supportive, loving and wonderful parents you could ask for!
And now you’re a married man! Is he in the arts?
He is, his name is Robi Hager and he is an actor, composer and director. He was in the original cast of “Spring Awakening” on Broadway; he’s been on Broadway 4 times and has written beautiful musicals that he’s working on getting produced now. He’s worked here in Philly a number of times too. In fact we met at the Arden, and our showmance turned into a marriage.
Lovely! Let’s wrap up with a few random questions, what was a favorite toy?
I had a cabbage patch doll that I loved; I still have it!
Well, because my focus is on designing now, most people don’t know that I can sing and act. There may be some videos out there of me and Robi singing.
Russell Tovey, he’s a British actor from “Looking” and the most recent “American Horror Story.”
And finally, if you had to live in one of the sets you’ve worked on, which one would you choose?
It was not designed by me but I worked on a show called Stick Fly with a set designed by David P. Gordon. It was an ultra-realistic set of a home and it was just the living room and kitchen but it was gorgeous! And it’s the set that my dad’s watercolor was on. I could live there!
EmpathitRaX runs through March 5th. For more info, visit: https://philadelphiatheatrecompany.org/empathitrax