ARTIST INTERVIEW: Karen Lee Tait, Set Designer


This week, our Communication & Development Intern, Brianna Olson-Carr, interviewed set designer, Karen Lee Tait, who designed the set for Intrigue With Faye.

Q: Can you tell us a little but about yourself and your background? How/when/why did you get into theatre?
A: I originally grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and then moved to Columbus, Ohio, with a goofy accent and a history of renovating houses with my family. We fixed up three houses in six years so I got pretty good at laying floor and building cabinets. I was on the bus one day when these two ladies came up to me and asked me if I would be interested in building them a window seat for their play. I was desperate for friends so I went along with them. I had acted a little here and there, but coming from a small school I was clueless about tech and had no idea how sets were built! That window seat I built for them was to code and weighed a TON! We would joke that if a bomb ever went off we would all climb into it and use it as shelter. It was absolutely ridiculous. I quickly learned how to build things efficiently and cheaply. There was no going back after that – I was totally hooked. When I went to college at Bowling Green State University, I spent a few years studying Biology. I was dead-set on being a dentist, which didn’t last long. Two days after graduating in December 2011, I packed up everything I own into my itty-bitty Kia and started driving. I was planning on moving to Chicago but hit rush-hour traffic and saw my life flash in slow motion before my eyes. I kept on driving and was lucky enough to land a few jobs within the first couple days of moving to the Twin Cities.

Q: What attracted you to set design?
I never meant to be a set designer! As a carpenter, bringing other peoples’ designs to life, it is difficult to not let your own ideas surface. I’m totally a visual learner. I have to see something to understand it. One time in college I had to read The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In order to understand what the main character was doing in her chambers I started sketching rooms. Where was the bed? Where did the light source come from? Where were the cracks in the wall? Those kind of sketches were all over my English Textbooks. My designs become completely inundated with meaning behind every little detail. Ever take an English class? An author misspells a word and suddenly that extra letter means something. The color of his shirt…means something…the double layer baseboard…means something. It just happened and again, there was no turning back.

Q: How did you get involved with 20% Theatre Company?
A: I stumbled across 20% Theatre on Minnesota Playlist’s website, and sent Claire an email in attempt to learn more about the company and the work that they do. I had just had two great interviews for local theatre companies and then wasn’t hired because of my “lack of real-world experience.” I was hitting a wall, and it hurt. If you don’t give me a job, how will I ever gain real-world experience? The 20% Theatre website was encouraging because it mentioned how they provide learning opportunities for the underrepresented and green. I put that to the test and was lucky enough to be hired to design their winter mainstage production. This has been an amazing opportunity that I am so very grateful for. I have learned a lot about myself as a solo artist, carpenter, designer, and teacher.

Q: What is your favorite genre or type of theater to design? What are some plays on your set design “dream list”?
A: This is a tough question, as I don’t feel I’ve been in this field long enough to be partial to one genre over another. I’m just excited to work on any play offered to me! For me, it is all about the director and their vision. If a director comes to me and says: “I want a green wall with purple trim and 4.5ft between point A and prop B” I have nothing to design. I’m shut down. The director has dictated exactly what they want to see and has given me zero room to collaborate. In the case of Intrigue With Faye, Nicole gave me a thought, a philosophy, a place to go, a painting, and a sentence that summed up her feeling about the show. In this case I felt such a freedom…… Now, what is my budget?!

Q: What are some of your other interests/hobbies when you’re not covered in paint or sawdust?
A: I am currently planning a hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2014 — over 2,000 miles, and it will take about six months. So, when I am not covered in paint or sawdust, I put on my wool socks with lace trim and my boots, pack my bag and take a hike. I trade the paint and sawdust for dirt and grime. (BTW – I really do believe there is always room to feel pretty and about 90% of the time my socks really do have lace on them.)