DAYTON — When Chris Newman’s high school art teacher informed him that he would be going to art school, it wasn’t just a suggestion — it was a mandate.
“She leaned over my shoulder one day as I was working on a painting and said, ‘You’re going to CCAD — Columbus College of Art and Design’,” said Newman, familiarly known by the single moniker of Red.
It’s been more than 30 years since Trotwood-Madison High School art teacher Denise Stovall issued that order, and those three decades have taken Red on an artistic journey from department store display work and interior design to the theater stage.
The 50-year-old father of three daughters also runs his own company called Cheeky Monkey and serves as the resident set designer for Dayton Playhouse. He recently painted us a picture of his life as an artist from high school to the present.
Q. Before your teacher mentioned art school, had the thought ever occurred to you?
A. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life; I was still on the fence. I was thinking about architecture, but math was kicking my butt! This was my junior year. I knew I was going to college and I thought I’d just go and figure it out along the way. But when she said art school, that’s all I had focused in my head from that point on.
Q. Your parents were both employees of General Motors. Did they try to steer you into a more “practical” direction?
A. Thankfully, my parents never tried to force me into a path I didn’t want. My dad was just bound and determined that I was going to college because he only had an eighth grade education. He didn’t care that it was art school.
Q. What was your path from art school to set designing?
A. I almost immediately jumped right into (department store) Lazarus. I worked on the sewing floor for about six weeks, then there was a seasonal opening in display and I helped work on Christmas trees. That January a position opened up at the (now-defunct) Salem Mall, so I started almost immediately. The last five years I was there, I designed and decorated the furniture there; that’s where the interior design came in.
In 1996, my job was eliminated. My next job, I fell into by accident because a couple of interior designers I’d made friends with were working for other people. Two of them called me that summer and said, “Can you come and faux-finish some furniture and walls?” If I had pushed to do something like this, it probably wouldn’t have happened.
Then the theater stuff popped up when I wasn’t getting as much work with sewing and murals.
Q. What’s your process for designing a set?
A. I sit down with the director, find out what they need. Sometimes I read the script, sometimes I don’t. I like to get a feel for a show based on what the director needs. If I have all the boxes of what they need ticked off, after that, it’s mine.
Sometimes I will go online to look at how other sets were designed, for example, on Broadway. Sometimes other sets will show me which direction not to go as well.
Q. How do you go about finding your set pieces?
A. That’s the fun part! I have almost an obsession for thrift store shopping — Goodwills, Salvation Army stores, yard sales, anywhere I can get stuff for cheap.
Some of my sets, I only have a budget for $500-$650 and that’s for everything, props, the whole shebang.
Some of the things are mine — like in the latest show, “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” all the pictures, all the tchotchkes. Some things are made, like artwork, and some I just found super, super cheap.
Q. What has been your favorite production to design?
A. Last year, we did “The Fantasticks,”’ which was probably most representative of my style. I made it look like an old vaudeville theater, with some of the light bulbs burned out, a lot of scrollwork and decorative stuff. I went in not knowing what the show was about and fell in love with it. It won DayTony awards for Best Design and Best Overall Production.
The latest show I’m working on, “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” I don’t want to tear it down!
Q. In addition to designing sets for Dayton Playhouse, do you work with any other theater groups?
A. I’ve also worked for Children’s Performing Arts of Miamisburg (CPAM) since they started five years ago. It’s basically the same idea as Dayton Playhouse, but with kids in fourth through 12th grade. Also, I’ve done a few things for the Dayton Theatre Guild.
Q. What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
A. I don’t know! I recently read a story about people reinventing themselves in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, some out of boredom, some out of necessity. I couldn’t even imagine what I would reinvent myself into. I guess I was just fortunate enough to realize what I wanted to be early on.
Q. What’s coming up next?
A. I’ll be working on “1776” for Dayton Playhouse and “Shrek” with CPAM. They’ll be opening the same night, May 5.
Reach Belinda M. Paschal at (937) 451-3341.