Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.
Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)
Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.
Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.
Michael Ray Wisely is one busy guy: actor, director, teacher, and more. He has long been one of the Bay Area theater scene’s most prolific members. Most recently he played the despicable manipulator Iago in African American Shakespeare Company’s production of Othello, and was a core member of the SF Playhouse production of Aaron Loeb’s Ideation, a stunningly apocalyptic dark comedy that went from San Francisco to an extended run in New York. MRW kindly took time from his hectic schedule to chat with Aisle Seat Review.
ASR: How did you get started in theater?
MRW: Mrs. Stuart’s 6th grade class and, later, I literally knocked on a door!
My first experience was playing Huck Finn in an adaptation of Tom Sawyer. My 6th grade teacher, (Nancy Stuart, now deceased) told me that I had potential, but, growing up poor, the idea of being a theatre artist was as remote as being an Apollo astronaut. After high school I went to college for broadcast journalism, had a summer internship working as an on-air DJ at a radio station, but couldn’t afford to return to school fall semester. With few prospects, I joined the Air Force with the idea of eventually getting a degree in electronics engineering.
Here’s where “the door” opened. I was exploring the neighborhood near McChord Air Force Base one day and saw the Lakewood Playhouse. I knocked on the door to get some information and just as I was leaving, the AD asked me if I could read for a part that evening because some-one had just quit. I said yes, and two years later, I chose to go to a conservatory training program rather than re-signing with the Air Force. I started my professional career the month after college and never looked back.
ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?
MRW: Amateur: Tom Sawyer, in the 6th grade. Directing: A touring theatre company Children’s Theatre Workshop. As an AEA actor: San Jose Stage Company.
ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?
MRW: 25 to 50. I really don’t know.
ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?
MRW: It’s a village. I learned my craft in the traditional way: classical training followed by apprenticeship, followed by work. So many actors and directors that I have worked with have left their mark and I still meet new teachers, sometimes in the youngest members of a company who remind me what open-eyed awe and reverence look like.
As to the stalwarts, I would probably have to say my wife Wendy (a director/actor/professor herself) , the late, great Sydney Walker (a mentor, and in the original acting company of Bill Ball at ACT), casting director Annie Stuart (Playground), who was a big champion of my work, and the many AD’s/directors who have hired me over the years. So many people are a part of who I am as an actor/director. It’s humbling to think about. I could list 100 + and still wouldn’t be giving someone their due.
I think that’s one of the great lessons in this business. The next person you meet, the next move you make, could change your career, your acting, your life, your world, forever. Understanding that is the key to a sustained career in anything I think. I believe in the power of the arts to change the world in the same way. I try to pass it on by being a mentor any time I am fortunate enough to be given the chance.
ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?
MRW: It changes week to week. Some weeks, I’ve been really productive. I’ve done online readings with other actors working on dream projects. I’ve made some short films and put together some online film auditions.
Mostly, I’ve been trying to organize, plan, file and take care of the minutia of life so I can be more focused when we get back to some kind of normal. Some days are better than others, but I cannot complain as I have a great life, generous talented friends, a roof, food, and my wife and daughter. I live in gratitude even more than usual.
ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?
MRW: Tough one … As an actor/director, my planning is dependent on the theaters I collaborate with. I usually know what I’m doing for six months to a year in advance, and I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen now. Both of the shows I had have been postponed. One has been moved to next summer and the other’s fate is in the hands of the gods.
ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community over-all?
MRW: I think in the short term our community is already deeply affected by the economic situation. We may lose several companies and the ones that survive will be in difficulty for quite some time. I’ve always believed in the theatre as a survivor and no doubt it will. Some great art is going to come out of this, but we’re all going to be changed. It is my hope that our communities will rally in support of artists and companies, that theatre companies will have more appreciation for their local artists, and that we will all understand how fortunate we are to make art on a deeper level than before.
One thing is for sure: when people feel safe to be in the dark with strangers again, it will be electric, life affirming, and I’m looking forward to the pathos of those moments.
ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?
MRW: I’m often so in love with what I’ve just done or what I’m about to do that it’s a difficult question. Playing Robert in Pinter’s Betrayal was a favorite, as was Iago in Othello. I’ve played some of Shakespeare’s greatest clowns as well as the Scottish King. I love challenging language and that has drawn me to playwrights like G.B. Shaw, Pinter, O’Neill, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Wilde, Williams, and more recent playwrights like Mamet, Rebecca Gilman, Tracy Letts, and Theresa Rebeck.
A favorite is Ideation, by Aaron Loeb, a local playwright and friend. I worked on the play with Aaron and the rest of the company, put together by SF Playhouse, and ended up going with it for an off-Broadway run with the original cast intact. It’s hard to top that kind of experience. Aaron’s language is specific, smart, fast, and a thrill for the audience and the actor.
We’ve got some insanely gifted writers here in the Bay Area: Jonathon Spector, Lauren Yee, Michael Gene Sullivan, Geetha Reddy, and Lauren Gunderson (ok, she’s not a native but we claim her) to name a few. As a matter of fact, local playwright Anthony Clarvoe wrote an incredible drama called The Living that I performed in at San Jose Stage Company in the mid-90s. Written as an AIDS parable, it was about the bubonic plague in 1666. It’s a beautiful play and I’ve been revisiting it during this pandemic. So many things it chronicles are happening right now—the fear, the misinformation, the avarice, the stupidity. That’s what good art does—it stays relevant because it speaks universal truths in inventive ways. That’s why art and artists are important.
Favorite Musicals: Sweeney Todd was the first musical that really made me sit up and take notice. I’m a sucker for classics like Guys and Dolls. Of the ones I’ve been in, On the 20th Century is a favorite, and I loved playing Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast and the Sheriff in Whorehouse. I rarely do musicals, but really enjoy them when I’m given the opportunity.
ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?
MRW: I’ve got several. Some I’d like to see put away forever, but, I won’t say because I wouldn’t want to denigrate any artist’s work just because I don’t like it or don’t find it interesting. The act of theatre is brave in any of its many disciplines and it should be celebrated. With that, I will say that there are things I’ve despised, mocked and laughed at that I’m sure have been important to or changed the lives of others.
I’ve got an example for that I’ll share over a cocktail sometime.
I learned my craft in the traditional way: classical training followed by apprenticeship, followed by work.
ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?
MRW: Big, giant plays with large casts, fire and water and spectacle. More Shaw and Chekhov and sweeping dramas 3+ hours long. When I go to the National Theatre in London sometimes and see these epic straight plays with a cast of 25 and more, it is thrilling and heartbreaking to me because American audiences will rarely ever get that experience with the exception of musicals.
Societies are known by the art they create. Look at how we revere art of the past. The support of the arts by our government should be an order of national pride, not a wedge used by career politicians to hold on to power and separate the people that art is serving. It’s a travesty and should be seen as a national shame, but, alas, there’s plenty more of that to go around.
ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?
MRW: I think Love’s Labours Lost. It is such a simple love story on the surface and yet it is filled with characters whose very human actions expose love and its many sides with a sophistication not seen in later plays. It’s singular and original in that it doesn’t seem to be taken from other plays and stories of the time. It also has an ending that’s surprisingly melancholy, as love is postponed.
ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?
MRW: Sound and projections/video. I love creating with sound and am a photographer and filmmaker. Sound can move people subconsciously and I am a sucker for those who are brilliant with it. As an actor, it can raise the stakes of a scene or the reality of a play in every way.
One story that I remember is sitting in the audience of Superior Donuts at Theatre Works several seasons back and when the “furnace” came on in the donut shop, it had a visceral bass WHOOMP to it that I could feel in the middle of the theatre. We were inside that donut shop. It was wonderfully surprising and I thanked Bay Area sound designer Jeff Mokus for bringing me the reality of what an old oil furnace feels/sounds like when it starts up.
ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?
MRW: Many could fit that description, but I’d like to hold up a couple of up-and-coming artists you may not be familiar with: Patrick Kelly Jones and Tristan Cunningham. They knock me out. Both of them have great skill and are inventive and make surprising choices.
ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?
MRW: My warm-ups are all about ritual. I have a routine vocally a few hours before a show then physically in the space and then I get very particular, even superstitious, about the order and timing up to curtain. I’ve heard professional athletes talk about this as well. It changes a little from show to show, but it’s always been that way for me. I’m not alone in pre-curtain idiosyncrasies. We’re a ritualistic tribe.
After a show, you can be so wound up and tired at the same time that you have to have some kind of cool down. Sometimes it’s drinks with friends, but I try to keep that in check for obvious reasons. No matter how I chose to do it, it always takes a few hours.
ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?
MRW: These three…
1) Show up! (on time, prepared, ready to throw down. That’s the entry fee for a career.)
2) Integrity! Professional and personal (Do your work in the service of others and the project and know why you do it. If it’s only about you, you’re not going to make it.)
3) TCB! (taking care of the business of your career, treating people well, caring, following up. How you go about your business is as important as everything else you do.)
ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?
MRW: I have a few people that I can talk to in any way about anything! That’s important as an artist. You need to have a few people in your life, a posse even, who you can let it hang out with. Who you can be ridiculous with, risk with, and be wrong with. People who know your heart and your artist and will not judge you by your worst day and will hold up your best days as the true measure of who you are. Greatness can come out of those relationships.
ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?
MRW: A couple made out and fondled each other in the front row of a 250-seat house.
ASR: Do you have a “day job?”
MRW: Film/television and radio acting. I had my own show in the early days of DIY television. I have freelanced directing corporate films and live shows. I’ve coached people on public speaking and have taught acting and been a guest lecturer at several colleges. Acting and directing in the theatre have been my focus for over thirty years now. I’ve been a fortunate man.
ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?
MRW: Travel, sailing, film making, photography, building, weightlifting, tennis, motorcycles, cooking, surfing and I’ve dabbled in hang gliding, and autocross racing.
ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from theater?
MRW: I do when I can. If you’re lucky enough to be working show to show (and that is what you need to do if you want to make a living) it can be difficult. When I’m not working, I’m at the theatre. I love seeing new talent and having my colleagues surprise me. As far as the other arts, I love photography and making films. I’m often in pursuit of one or the other and a lot of it just for me and my friends.
ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?
MRW: Root canal or colonoscopy.
ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?
MRW: Got into a fist-fight defending someone who needed help.
ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?
MRW: I’ve done most of the ones listed and have also been hang-gliding. But shark diving? Absolutely not. Two ways I’d rather not die—one is as a predator’s dinner and the other is in a plane full of screaming people. Now, I do surf and fly, so I guess it’s up to fate. I’d really like a long life and, other than dying surrounded by loved ones, I think it would be great to die on stage or at rehearsal, maybe in an actual death scene.
Coda: I also don’t want to die stepping out into the street and being hit by a bus because you’d have to be thinking to yourself: “Ohhhh, F#*k, this is such a stupid way to die.”
ASR: If you had to play one role you’ve already done for a year, what would it be?
MRW: I’ve played both Bluntchli and Petkoff in Arms and the Man and Petkoff is one of those perfect comic characters. The world of the play acts on him instead of the other way around. He’s lovable, bombastic, and has some of the greatest comic bits where everyone knows what’s happening but him. It’s great fun and there’s great possibility for rolling laughs. He also carries no real weight, so it’s all the fun with very little responsibility. I love carrying a play, and getting the girl sometimes, but, it’s also nice to just be the guy who gets the laughs.
ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?
MRW: I get a new favorite every play. Like most actors, I also often find lines that are problematic from first rehearsal to the final curtain. That’s the joy and the curse of being in the theatre. There are a thousand that I wish I could say again in front of an audience. Recently, I remember taking joy in a line of Iago’s: “And what’s he then that says I play the villain?” after which the audience would often burst out in laughter. When it first happened, it surprised me.
They were laughing at the horrible way I had just manipulated Cassio. There were others that jeered and hissed. It’s magic and you and the audience both know it and feel it. As I finished the speech, they unwittingly became accomplices in the undoing of Othello and the eventual murder of Desdemona. That’s the power of words and language. It should never be underestimated