Secret Lives of Faculty — Dr. Chris Harben, musical/stage star

By Heather Cass

Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

There’s much more to Penn State Behrend’s faculty and staff members than what you see on campus. In this occasional series, we’ll take a look at some of the interesting, unconventional, and inspiring things that members of our Behrend community do in their free time.

Image result for erie playhouse annie

Photo courtesy of Erie Playhouse (Credit: Julie Lokahi/ DV8 Photography)

Lecturing can be viewed as form of performance art. Faculty members take center stage, staring in their own daily productions to keep students engaged in the subject matter.

“Performing is what I do in front of the classroom all the time,” said Dr. Chris Harben, assistant teaching professor of management.

It’s also what he does in his free time.

Shortly after accepting a teaching position at Behrend this summer, Harben landed a lead role in the Erie Playhouse’s production of Annie: Harben plays Daddy Warbucks, orphan Annie’s wealthy savior, in the show which is onstage at the playhouse this month.

Harben as Daddy Warbucks

Photo courtesy of Erie Playhouse (Credit: Julie Lokahi/ DV8 Photography)

“During the interview process at Behrend, I learned that Dr. Greg Filbeck (director of the Black School of Business) was a board member at the Erie Playhouse,” Harben said. “I looked at the playhouse’s website and saw they were going to be doing Annie. This was around June when I was currently in rehearsals as Daddy Warbucks at a theater in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, so I thought it was fortuitous!”

Harben, who was a faculty member at Bowling Green State University, nailed both of his “auditions,” and was offered a position at the Black School of Business and a starring role at the Erie Playhouse.

We caught up with Harben to learn more about his love of musicals, his role as Daddy Warbucks, his unusual part-time job, and why he’s been making it a priority to start hitting the gym again.

Why did you choose Behrend?

It was really because it had a small school feel with all the benefits of a big state school, such as research opportunities.

How long have you been acting or singing on stage?

I was in a couple of shows in high school, but then didn’t do any stage work until I completed my doctorate a few years ago. I met an actor who had played Valjean from Les Misérables on Broadway and was inspired to get back into it. My first show as an adult was three years ago.

Do you prefer musicals?

Yes. I don’t consider myself a great actor, so I prefer to audition for roles that require a lot of singing.

What has your experience been like so far at the Erie Playhouse?

The playhouse is an incredible Erie asset. I have never performed any place like it. It is closer to professional theater than it is to a community theater. The experience of rehearsing and getting ready has been fairly typical with ups and downs—especially “tech week,” which is always the hardest week as all the technical aspects and bugs are worked out. But, to work on such a great stage with wonderful sets, a full experienced crew, a full-time professional costumer (who is also in the show, starring as Rooster), a director as professional as Kate Neubert-Lechner, and an incredibly talented orchestra, is an amazing thing that makes me smile every time I walk into the theatre.

There are a couple of Penn State Behrend students in Annie, too?

Yes. Anthony Ventura, a senior Political Science major, has multiple roles but I interact with him the most in his role as “Drake” my butler. Jacqueline Dumont, a junior Communication major, is also in the cast and plays several roles as part of the ensemble.

What do you enjoy most about musicals/stage performance?

I love being able to transform into someone else. Many of my roles have been similar in terms of their character, though, so I’d like to try something different soon, perhaps a comedic role. But the very best part of participating in stage shows are the relationships I’ve been able to build with other cast members. I can honestly say that I keep in touch with people from every show I’ve ever been in. Theater really is a small world.

What’s the most challenging aspect of theatre?

Well, there is drama in drama. Also, things happen that force actors out of our comfort zones. For Annie, we didn’t have the rehearsal time we might have liked because the playhouse’s stage was undergoing renovations, which threw the schedule off a bit. But you just have to roll with it. It is part of being in theater. Stuff happens. Sometimes it happens live on stage.

There are real dogs in Annie?

Yes. Two shelters dogs. One is a sweet, docile pitbull from the Northwestern PA Humane Society and the other, Romeo, is a younger mixed breed dog from the A.N.N.A. Shelter. Romeo is a little hyper, but that’s probably to be expected with all the commotion, lights, audience, and cast members on stage.

What’s your favorite musical?

The Phantom of the Opera! It was the first musical I learned to sing. I’d love to play the Phantom some day.

What has been your favorite show/role, so far?

Daddy Warbucks has been my favorite role and Annie my favorite show, but playing Javert in Les Misérables is a very close second.

What’s your dream role?

I already mentioned the Phantom, but on a more realistic note, I’d love to play Dr. Jekyll in Jekyll and Hyde. I have sung “The Confrontation” from that show at a cabaret in Ohio. It is an incredible song in which both Jekyll and Hyde are singing, and it’s the same actor!

What’s next for you on stage?

I’ll be playing King Triton in The LIttle Mermaid at the Academy Theatre in Meadville. We start rehearsing in February and open in April. The director asked me how comfortable I was going shirtless for that role. So, suffice to say, I’m working on getting in shape for that role now.

Switching topics, let’s talk about your work as an Emergency Medical Technician?

Yes. I’ve been an EMT for five years now. I was a volunteer EMT in Ohio while I was working on my doctorate. I’m still trying to get my certification in Pennsylvania, but I hope to do some volunteer work here, too.

Being an EMT is quite a change from the corporate world. What appeals to you about it?

I became an EMT for a couple of reasons. First, my family is full of medical professionals. My dad was an EMT when I was very young. My mom is a nurse. My sister is a cardiovascular perfusionist, and my brother is a physical therapy assistant/athletic trainer. So I grew up around the language and culture of medicine. But, for me, becoming an EMT was more about giving back. I tried joining service clubs like Optimist and the Rotary Club, but I never felt the impact I feel when I show up at someone’s house who really needs help.

It’s also a summer job for you, right?

It is. For the past few years, I’ve been working as an EMT at Cedar Point, which is a large amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. One of the benefits of that job is that I’ve developed a great relationship with the leadership team there. I actually just had the park’s vice president and general manager come to Behrend to speak to one of my classes. I do hope to work there this summer, too. It’s only a couple of hours away from Erie.

Any other hidden talents?

I can play the drums, trumpet, and French horn. I also love photography and owned a photography business for several years. All the art in my office in Burke are photos that I’ve taken.

What words do you live by?

When I was finishing my doctorate, I had the Chinese symbol for perseverance tattooed on my arm. That is a word that I live by.

Annie is on stage at the Erie Playhouse, 13 W. 10th St., through December 31, 2017. Visit erieplayhouse.org for show dates and ticket information.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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