UA student Chris Harper shares his passion for the stage
Most college students don’t dress up as elderly Irish women during their free time, but last semester, Chris Harper proved that is exactly the sort of thing he is willing to do to achieve his dream of becoming an actor.
Harper, a junior acting major at the University of Arizona, played the role of 90-year-old alcoholic Mammy O’Dougal in the Arizona Repertory Theatre production of Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” He has been a part of eight ART productions, but the role of Mammy required the most extensive makeup process yet.
“I wore a full latex mask from my forehead down to the base of my neck,” Harper said. “I wore prosthetic breasts as well, to really sell it.”
RELATED: Astronomer to Race Across the West
It took at least half an hour before each of the 15 performances to get into full costume, which included the prosthetics, a long gray wig, a white nightgown and often a bottle of liquor to hold, Harper said.
UA theater arts professor Hank Stratton, who directed Harper in the play, said he was impressed by Harper's portrayal of the character.
“He is creative, very intelligent and brave,” Stratton said. “He threw himself into the role and was really empathetic.”
The ART, part of the UA School of Theatre, Film & Television, provides a way for students to gain experience both on stage and behind the scenes.
“This is where they get their feet wet,” Stratton said. “We try very hard to model professional circumstances so they can take the skills and apply them in main stage performances.”
Harper has worked on the cast or crew for past ART shows, including “Evita,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “The Merchant of Venice.” He is now in rehearsals for his next show, Shakespeare’s drama “Richard III,” in the role of Sir Robert Brackenbury.
“This one is very Game of Thrones-y. It’s a really bloody show,” Harper said. “The whole thing is brutal.”
Brent Gibbs, ART’s artistic director, has worked with Harper on two other Shakespeare plays, in addition to “Richard III.”
“We are fortunate to have Chris, because he brings a variety of skills to the table,” Gibbs said. “As an actor, Chris is really starting to come into his own, which is a pleasure to watch.”
ART’s “Richard III” production will show during March, following the all-female play “Top Girls,” which begins performances in early February.
Each year, the ART puts on six shows, generally a mixture of contemporary plays, musicals and Shakespearean comedies and dramas. The final show of this year, the Tony Award winning musical “Spring Awakening,” will be directed by Hank Stratton.
Stratton himself has performed on Broadway and appeared in television shows and movies like “The Unit,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and “American Dreams.” He said he hopes his own professional experience can help him educate future actors.
“I wouldn’t ask the actors to do anything I haven’t done myself. It’s not that I can just teach it, I can do it with them too,” Stratton said.
Harper is one of the theater students at UA hoping to go into professional acting after graduating.
RELATED: The stage is set for Inishmaan
“I think I’m going to go to Los Angeles and start with film,” Harper said. “Then I’ll see what happens. They’ve got all sorts of jobs in L.A.!”
Harper can also be found acting when school is not in session. Last summer, he went to Chillicothe, Ohio, to perform in “Tecumseh!”, a live outdoor historical drama.
“It was a chance to get more experience in a professional theater,” Harper said.
Several other UA actors also went out of state with Harper for “Tecumseh!”, along with Gibbs, who was asked to direct the show during its summer 2018 run.
“Last summer was my 20th with ‘Tecumseh!’”, Gibbs said. “Over those 20 years, I have worked as an actor, fight director, director and stage manager.”
Harper and other actors stayed in a cabin he described as a “plywood shack” and slept on cots for four months while working in Ohio.
The acting students did not return to Arizona until early September, meaning they had to miss the first few weeks of the fall semester, Harper explained.
Harper said he hopes these experiences, dedication and hard work will help him begin a career in acting.
“With acting, you get a job, you do that and then you find new a job," Harper said. "I would just like to be able to do that – to just act.”
Follow Jesse on Twitter