Steve Haggard | Performer of the week

Steve Haggard in rehearsal for Timeline Theatre's Wasteland.

Steve Haggard in rehearsal for Timeline Theatre's Wasteland. Photograph: Lara Goetsch

Susan Felder’s Wasteland is a heartbreaking but hopeful new drama at Timeline Theatre about two American soldiers captured and imprisoned in northern Vietnam, but only one of the actors is seen by the audience. Behind the curtain, Steve Haggard is performing without the benefit of a set or audience, giving a remarkably deep performance with only his voice. A native of Columbus, Ohio, Haggard wasn’t involved with theater until he got benched on his high school baseball team, after which he quit and began working on stage crew. He auditioned for plays the following year, getting cast in lead roles and igniting a passion that took him to the Theatre School at DePaul University, where he graduated in 2002. He’s been working steadily ever since, and became an ensemble member at A Red Orchid in 2007, where he will be appearing later this season in Annie Baker’s The Aliens. Haggard speaks to us about Wasteland’s unique rehearsal process, what he’s doing behind the curtain, and how his mental image of Riley doesn’t actually look like him.

What was your first reaction when you first read Susan’s script?

My first reaction was that it’s a very powerful play, and there’s a lot of hope in it for being such a desolate set of circumstances. There’s a lot of hope and there ends up being a lot of love in the play. And that’s really what I was excited about. It’s a huge opportunity to connect with another person, which is something that all of us in our lives are trying to do—to have someone who understands us, or at least is understanding of us—and it’s a struggle every day. I’m not sure that anyone can understand anybody else completely but we can all try to be understanding of each other. And I think that’s the thing that was most exciting to me about the script, that and I think Susan has a wonderful way of bringing out these characters, these men. They’re such likeable men and such hate-able men at the same time; you don’t get to feel perfectly comfortable with either one of them, which makes them really full people.

How has the script changed since the first reading?

Well, quite a bit. Some of the structure has changed and some of the scenes have gotten rearranged. Susan always called it killing her children whenever she’d make a change because she said, “You know sometimes it’s necessary to kill your children,” and she would say it just like that, very matter of factly. And sometimes I found myself mourning the changes because you get attached to something and she was just like, “Yep, but we gotta kill our kids, sometimes we gotta kill our kids.” And lots of things changed, like there’s a huge scene where we talk about war and politics and why we’re here, why we’re in this war, why we’re in these holes, why we’re over in Vietnam at all. That scene morphed and changed, and arguments in it were completely one way and then completely the other and reversed and flipped around and focused and Susan did a great job making it easier for the audience to see the differences between people. We kept talking about arguing over a meal, arguing with your friends over politics, and how it can just kind of escalate out of control over Thanksgiving dinner without warning. That’s kind of how it feels to me, and she did a great job of focusing the play and the arguments and writing and writing and rewriting all the way up until opening.

Part of the rehearsal process was up at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Was that the first time you’ve rehearsed a Chicago show up there?

Yeah, that was kind of crazy, we’ve never done that. Nate Burger and I worked up there at APT for a few seasons, and it’s an intense experience up there all by itself, because it’s repertory theater so you’re always rehearsing and opening shows. And then as soon as we opened our last round of shows we started rehearsals for Wasteland. And it was kind of a great experience and ended up being perfectly natural. APT was really nice and gave us a rehearsal space and PJ [Powers, Timeline’s artistic director] came up a couple times and checked on us to make sure we were actually working. It was perfectly intense, as you know this play is. Nate and I have worked with Bill [Brown, director] so much that it was kind of like, “OK, now we’re gonna get in here and do our work.” And then we walk outside and go, “Oh my god, we’re in Wisconsin.” It was kind of a trip to bring it back to Chicago and see the set. We closed up at APT and then the next day we started tech for Wasteland so it was a little grueling, but it was exciting because we walked in and we saw that set that Kevin Depinet did and it was like, “OK, yeah. This is where we are now, we’re here."

Everything’s real once you see that set.

And I think Nate was excited to get on that set and I was excited to have it as a reference. Have the real wall to talk through. Because before that I was just talking through sheets and blankets that we’d set up.

Going with that, what are you doing behind the curtain? Do you have blocking?

It’s funny because sometimes people ask me if I have blocking and I hadn’t really thought about it until somebody asked me. But yes, I very much do, and I only became aware of it a couple days ago, because somebody asked me and I did the play again and I went, “Oh my god, I totally do.” Because there are no rules for doing a play in which you’re never seen, you know what I mean? There’s no, like, and now you come over here to pick up the coffee cup. I could do whatever. And Bill and I and Nate found that it was much more effective to do it, you can’t just act with your voice, you have to do it or not do it, or I can’t just act with my voice. I have to really sit there and do it. I have a bucket just like Nate, I have everything that Nate has on stage. I have a bucket, a couple of crates and I have a banana leaf with rice in it so I can eat when Nate eats and it’s—I’m very protective of that space because it had to be mine, you know? Just in the same way that Nate has his space out front, I have to have that feeling of solitude, that feeling of this is my space that I’ve been in for six months, a year, and how does the space that you know that well, how do you live in that space? There’s a space that I sit, it’s my living room, there’s a place that I go to the bathroom in, there’s a place where I eat, there’s a place that is reserved solely for screaming at Nate and talking to Nate. And in some ways, it’s very freeing to not be seen at all by the audience because I can be ugly, I don’t have to worry about what my body is saying.

Have people been surprised when you come out for curtain call and they actually see your face?

I think so. I try not to pay attention to it very much. It’s funny, the first preview we had I became aware of it because I hadn’t really thought about it. And in my head, Riley looked different than me. And I didn’t become aware of that until I walked out for curtain call for the first preview and I got a little embarrassed because I realized that I don’t look like Riley. I don’t look like my own character in my head, which is kind of crazy. I mean, most of the time you are you. The only time I think you could ever have your character look like somebody else is if you have extensive amounts of make up on or you’re behind a wall and nobody gets to see you. But yeah, there’s something incredibly freeing about that and I think people are surprised that I’m a skinny, awkward-looking guy. I think that they put characteristics on Riley with their imaginations, which I think is so powerful. Almost more powerful than if you were to see me and Nate at the same time.
Wasteland runs through December 30 at Timeline Theatre (615 W Wellington Ave, 773-281-8463). Read our review of Wasteland.

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