Snapshot: All the world is a stage for UW-Parkside scenic designer

Published: April 16, 2017

Stage fright is not in Keith Harris' veins.

Step inside Main Stage Theatre or the Black Box Theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside on any given weekday and you'll likely see one of the area's longest running shows in action.

Since 1984, Harris has been directing and mentoring the performances required to design and build stage sets for the school's theater productions. It's virtually a non-stop operation of concept, design, build, showtime, disassemble, repeat.

The stage called out to Harris while in junior high school when he noticed the ninth-grade students had an annual play and the eighth-graders did not, so he got one organized and played the lead role.

"I realized most of the other kids were afraid of putting themselves out there, and that was something I was not afraid of, so I found my niche," Harris said.

After a theater-centric high school experience, Harris went off to Northeast Missouri State University — now Truman State University — and took only general education courses with the goal of becoming a teacher. He stayed away from theater courses.

"I burned myself out actually," he said.

That all changed during his second year of college when he signed up for an acting class.

"I was gone. I was hooked," he said.

But after failing to make the cut for a male-dominated production, Harris set a new course for himself.

"If I'm going to be a school teacher then I'm going to be a more well-rounded one. I'd been doing the acting thing all my life," he said. "It's time for me to start building."

As a junior high teacher in Muscatine, Iowa, he organized Super Saturdays for theater students to gather and build sets each Saturday for upcoming plays.

"I really enjoyed that environment," he said. "I realized that was where I found my joy, so I applied to graduate schools for scenic design."

Three years later Harris became the first Master of Fine Arts graduate from the University of Kansas' scenography program and headed to Parkside.

Q: How many sets do you work on per year?

A: I average two shows a year. Our focus is to have students design the shows if they are ready for the challenge. If we have the students and the horses to do it, then we want to be mentoring. Our Christmas show that we did in our Black Box Theatre was a student design that I mentored, and we used it two times. That student graduated, and we've got that set stored. and we're going to use it one more time.

Q: Is there a curriculum here at UW-Parkside for this work?

A: For doing scenic design? Sure. There are design classes. You're in theater and you have a focus part of your degree where you get more intensive study in the design world or the acting world. A lot of our students cross over. The woman who painted this set with me was in the last show as an actress. That's not an uncommon thing. That gentleman up there with the hat on is building scenery and he's been in six out of the last seven shows.

Q: How did the collaboration with the Fireside Dinner Theatre in Fort Atkinson happen?

A: That began 28 or 30 years ago. They were looking for someone to build their scenery, and they were willing to hire a technical director, a shop foreman and three or four students to execute that work. When I first got here the shop was only open on Thursdays and Fridays. Our shop now is open and available eight hours a day, five days a week, and it's named after the Klopcices (Fireside owners). We've been building their sets ever since, and we're able to share props. We build seven shows a year for them out of that shop, and we do four (for us).

Q: What other big changes have you noted during your time here?

A: A huge building project (Rita Tallent Picken Regional Center for Arts & Humanities) that added the Black Box Theatre and a shop five years ago — that's massive. We just had a $1 million renovation during the fall where this (Main Stage Theatre) was closed down for six months, and they renovated all our circuitry, all our fly system and installed LED house lighting. The last big thing that needs to happen in here is replacing all the seating, but it's held up pretty good. When I got here the building was probably 16 years old, and that's pretty interesting to come into a place that's that new. It's already gone through two complete re-wiring jobs in that time because the lighting has changed so much and what its expectations are and the loads they can carry. Both of those projects were huge.

Q: What keeps you interested in this line of work?

A: I still enjoy working with the students. It's hard on me in the spring when we lose people. That's not a good thing. How many other professions are there where you work with people and you train them and you try to get them to be the best you can get them to be and then say "please leave." (Laughs) "We need you to move on to the next step." It's very difficult.

Q: Do you attend the performances?

A: Oh yeah. There's never been a show here I haven't seen even if I wasn't involved with it. We have a unique situation where we're a theater company. We only take in 55 to 60 students, and we make a company out of that. When people audition here we have a cap. We're looking for people who are stage managers; we're looking for people who are actors.

Q: What's a typical timeline for each production?

A: The show we're working on now ("A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum") was selected last year at this time. I started working on the design before Christmas. We started building it during Christmas break, then we put it away in the basement. We brought it back up two weeks ago, and we're in a 5½-week building period to finish the set for performances at the end of April and the beginning of May.

Q: How many students have gone on to professional careers?

A: We've been really successful. One of our former students played Benjamin Franklin in a recent Steinhafel's ad. Some of our folks have been in New York, including a painter on the prop crew for Jimmy Kimmel's show. In the technical world we've been fairly successful with people finding places to land and work.

Q: Do former students just stop in on occasion?

A: I have that happen all the time. I'll have people show up before my time (here). Just the other day I had a guy come in and I asked "Can I help you?" and he said, "Well, yeah I graduated from here." One of the things I did when I first got here was to grab all these posters that were duct tapped to the wall and arranged them along the top of a dressing room wall, and this guy went, "Oh yeah. I was in that show, and I was in this show." It's nice to have a piece of your history. I love it. There have been some really good people here. We've been blessed, and we get to do our work, and this is really good work.

Snapshot is a weekly feature introducing a Kenosha County resident. If you have someone who may be a subject for the feature, email the Kenosha News photo staff at photo@kenoshanews.com.

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