Michael Gray is listening to classic rock and maneuvering his way around a warehouse stocked with decades’ worth of dismantled scenery and props.
As he walks among the pieces, he can picture them on stage at The Players Theatre, where he’s worked on and off as a set designer since 2000.
There’s the polka-dotted toadstools from “Seussical,” the pirate ship from “H.M.S Pinafore,” the transparent bistro backdrop from “Dear World” and the winding staircase from “Mame” that was used in so many other Players productions Gray is beginning to lose count.
“We store a little more than we should,” he says, his voice muffled by the loud whir of a box fan, which serves as the only form of air conditioning in the muggy scene shop. “It comes in handy, though. When we were in production for ‘The Full Monty,’ we were able to pull most of the set from stock. Right now, we’ve probably got (scenery from) 15 different shows on stage. It’s all just reconfigured. That’s the thing about scenery. You can rework it and no one notices.”
A seasoned set designer and Sarasota native, Gray, who was hired last season as The Players’ technical director, has worked backstage at almost every performing-arts organization in town.
Between his work at The Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, Florida Studio Theatre, the Asolo Repertory Theatre and Sarasota Opera, he estimates he’s built more than 150 show sets.
“I originally thought I’d go into film and TV,” Gray says. “This seems like a better fit. It’s a fun job. It keeps me busy, and each month is something new.”
The 38-year-old got his start in carpentry straight out of high school, working for the Sarasota-based construction company, Maglich Homes.
He was a good builder, but admittedly too antsy to perform the same tasks over and over. Eager to pursue a more creative industry, he transferred from State College of Florida (then Manatee Community College) to Florida State University, where he studied design technology and dreamed of following in the footsteps of his godfather, Sarasota native Steve Rothman, who in the 1970s moved to California to revitalize the Pasadena Playhouse.
“I was never really interested in acting,” Gray says. “I like being behind the scenes. It’s neat to sit in the audience and know that I made something for a couple hundred bucks. It’s satisfying.”
Adrenaline junkies can appreciate his handiwork as well.
After college, Gray worked for a company in Orlando that built many of the fake rock walls that surround the rides at Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure.
“I’ve done a lot of different jobs,” Gray says. “About eight years ago, I worked for the Home Shopping Network, setting up stages for Suzanne Somers, Richard Simmons and Wolfgang Puck. I worked from noon to midnight, moving sets in and out. I got to be on TV, but it wasn’t glamorous.”
Despite his celebrity co-workers, rolling in kitchen countertops and cookie-cutter bedroom sets for 12 hours a day paled in comparison to building pirate ships and making it rain on stage, the details of which Gray won’t divulge.
“(Stage rain) is a theater secret,” Gray says. “Although, if you really wanted to know, you could Google it pretty quickly.”
THE STORY BEHIND ‘JADA’S ROBOTS’
Inspired by the funny little box-shaped robots his young daughter, Jada, often scribbles in her notebooks, Michael Gray started building quirky box-shaped figures out of found objects and antiques.
Many of the pieces, which are sold at Ashby Art & Antiques in Towles Court, are functional, such as this shelf-like design, titled “BanJoe.”
Gray says he scours estate sales, Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore location and Architectural Salvage to find antique crates, cabinet pulls, table legs, faucet heads, brass fittings and doorknockers.
Although the collection is named “Jada’s Robots” after Gray’s daughter, in conversation, the set designer usually refers to them as his “little dudes.”
He’s hoping his work appeals to art collector Mary Lee, the owner of Sarasota’s Marietta Museum of Art and Whimsy.
“They’re designed to make you laugh,” he says of the robots.
Sounds like the perfect fit for the eccentric North Trail museum.
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