The Artist’s Life

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This one-time band geek works his magic onstage and off to create theatrical experiences that immerse audiences in other worlds and, in the process, open their minds.

Michael Raiford is a rarity. Deeply passionate about his work in the arts, devoted in the most endearing way to the love of his life of almost 30 years, his husband Todd Logan, forthright in his belief that arts education is a key to a better society, and completely invested in squeezing joy out of every moment, Raiford is the consummate modern-day working artist.

“I was always a goofy, creative kid. Being raised in the deep south without a lot of culture around me, it never would have dawned on me that this is something you did,” said Michael Raiford, a set designer locally and nationally for two decades. “I would have said, ‘I have no idea, none.’”

Raiford taught graduate students at UT in the master of fine arts program and started out as a band geek (he was a drummer in high school). Growing up in Florida and being raised in a conservative Baptist household, he forged his own path.

Even so, the spark for his chosen creative path was rather surprising. Every year in Jacksonville starting when he was six years old, and continuing for the next six years, the family’s “cultural outing” was a trip to holiday on ice. Another version of the icecapades, each production was a major event. Raiford saved every program and that’s where he fell in love with the showbiz spectacle of theater. “There were these big shows that were a musical review on ice,” Raiford said. “Themed numbers, big costumed shows, and full sets. It was huge and splashy and–gay.”

7-1It was that early-on exposure to and appreciation for over-the-top theatricality that’s allowed him to excel as a set designer for Zach Scott Theatre for almost 20 years. Indeed, Zach Scott’s artistic director Dave Steakley recalled with fondness the first time he worked with Raiford, for the musical Beehive.

“I had this idea about making dresses for a number called “The Beehive dance” out of Twister plastic mats and using the spinner board for hats if that was possible,” Steakley said. “There was silence and then Michael said, ‘I hate you. You really are into this, aren’t you? You’re scaring me!’”

Raiford then let out a huge laugh and their fate was sealed as artistic collaborators. All told, Raiford and Steakley have worked together on no fewer than 77 shows since 1992, forging a bond over a mutual love of drag queens, sequins, John Waters films and all things camp.

Although Raiford said he’s not used to talking about his own role in the creative process, over the course of several conversations he did, touching on his southern roots, his affection for his husband and their surprising wedding adventure, and his philosophy regarding the impact of the arts on society.

Southern Runaway

When Raiford was in band, playing in the pit during musicals, he didn’t make the immediate connection to what would ultimately become his life’s work: set design. His family steered him away from music as a major, so he studied business but still took acting classes. After attending law school at nova southeastern university in Fort Lauderdale for a year, he realized it wasn’t working. He returned to school at the University of South Florida and studied music.

While earning his second degree, he was a choreographer for drum corps, designing costumes for himself and the rest of the group. Michael Cesario, who at the time was the head of the costume department at SUNY Purchase in New York, saw Raiford’s work and was impressed. Cesario became his mentor and, from that moment on, Raiford knew his calling.

“That’s literally when I first thought about it–in that second music degree I started taking design classes and I switched over within a year,” said Raiford, noting that he got into graduate school at the university of Texas through a combination of raw talent and luck. “Three years later, I had my MFA in costume design. I taught [at UT] for 10 years, which just ended a few years ago. I’m mostly self-taught in set design.” Raiford ’s eyes light up when discussing his work in Louisville, Kentucky, clarifying that it is pronounced “Loouville.”

Back in 2001, Jouet, a musical that was developed by Steakley at Zach Scott, was brought to actors Theatre of Louisville for its summer season. Raiford did the set de- sign for the show, which is how he met Sean Daniels, the associate artistic director at actors Theatre. Five years later, Daniels came to Florida to see another production Raiford had designed and invited him to come and design for the annual Humana festival of new American plays.

“For Michael, set design isn’t just ‘what does the set look like?,’ it’s ‘what does the world look like?’ and ‘why are we here?’ I was beyond overjoyed to find another artist who spent as much time thinking about the dramaturgy of the event–how you experience it–as well as just the dramaturgy of the text, or what you experience,” said Daniels.

They’ve worked together on about eight shows over the past four years, and Daniels has nothing but praise for Raiford ’s work ethic. “He is as unafraid as any artist to go to any place as long as we can continually justify how it relates back to the show,” he said. “He’s the perfect mix of a crazy wild imagination with a firmly planted need to connect the dots.”

Connecting the dots–in ways that were emotionally resonant–is precisely what Raiford did for Zach Scott’s production of Rent last year, transforming the theater into something reminiscent of a warehouse that Keith haring would’ve appreciated. The long-running and much-praised rock musical, which has toured the far corners of the planet, depicts a group of starving east village artists living in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Austin production, which drew throngs of theatergoers, was widely praised for its innovative staging and poignant moments.

Cardboard, which lined the floor and portions of the walls, was donated by friends and colleagues–in the spirit of our disposable society, harkening to the homeless. “Haring was the epitome of that era,” Raiford said. “Once I had laid down the texture and started with the cardboard, I just went and [painted] it in the spirit of what Keith haring would have done.”

The set’s focal point, a stove that Raiford painted a bright yellow, was found on eBay and meant to evoke the stove in the scene at the end of La Boheme, the opera that Rent is loosely based on.

Relishing all the intricate details and artistic collaborations, Raiford said the most challenging aspect of his work is negotiating relationships. “It’s getting people to drop their guard, drop their ego and just be honest and sincere and really wanna do the work and have fun.”

“Michael really educated me in contemporary art and gave me a big passion for it,” said Steakley. “He often creates a space for me that feels more like an art installation than a set. He knows that I love that and it inspires good new impulses from me as a director.”

Of course, it helps to have a partner in crime whose own work and beliefs align with yours.

Bureaucratic embrace

“We met over a drag queen! We both loved this drag queen called Gilda Golden in Tampa,” exclaimed Todd Logan, noting that Golden was a pat Benatar lookalike. “She had way over-collagened lips. Part of her schtick, drunk off her ass, barely sitting on the stool, she would read children’s nursery rhymes–it wasn’t a traditional reading.”

They’d each seen her show separately, but one night Raiford , who was new to Tampa, was handing her a shot and Logan noticed him; after talking to a friend of Logan’s, they connected. “part of meeting Todd in there, too, was having someone who totally encouraged me,” said Raiford , noting that they met when they were both studying at the University of South Florida. Logan was also undecided about his career path, but ended up in sociology. They both relocated to Austin for graduate work at UT.

Raiford and Logan had always been part of the ‘we don’t want to get married, don’t want to be assimilationist’ crowd. all that changed on their 25th anniversary in 2006 when they decided to tie the knot in Toronto. “It’s been more about sharing our love and the foreverness of it, that feeling of coming together and celebrating,” Logan said.

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“It was like, let’s get married! Let’s just go to Toronto and do it,” Raiford said, noting that once their friends got wind of the plan, everything snowballed with party plans, flowers, registries. “Our anniversary was actually on a Wednesday. So the previous weekend, we went to Toronto and got married. The following weekend was the reception here in Austin.”

Their wedding took place amidst what Raiford calls the “gay trifecta.” Within the space of one year, his 76-year-old mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer only five months after her diagnosis, Raiford turned 50 and he married Logan. Then Raiford ’s father, a stern, non-emotional World War II veteran, gave a speech at the reception that blew everyone away, tapping into his own feelings, publicly in front of a hundred or so people, in ways Raiford would never have imagined.

“He talked about how my mom had always, before she died, wished there was a way or a place where Todd and I could get married,” said Raiford, adding that he was rendered speechless. “When it came time for Todd and I to say something, it was like, ‘let’s cut the cake.’ ”

After celebrating privately over dinner at Wink, they were joined by friends downstairs in the Colorado room of their building, Cambridge Towers. With the rock ‘n’ roll music, the traditional tiered cake, a keg upstairs in their condo, a scrumptious red velvet cake, a big table full of photographs from every stage of their relationship, and the well wishes of friends and colleagues, they were ultimately comforted by the bureaucratic formalities of marriage.

“Suddenly, it’s like, oh wait, we’re included and there’s not even a big deal about it,” Raiford said. “It was empowering in some little way.”

Both men work to empower the people around them. For Raiford, it’s through the medium of theater; for Logan, it’s through health and public policy initiatives as a social worker. He works for the HIV prevention and care branch of the department of state health services.

“One project I’m working on is that our city and county jails are doing a very inconsistent job of caring for HIV positive inmates,” Logan said, noting that he’s been a project manager in his cur- rent role for about three years; prior to that, he worked for the city’s main welfare office. “I like affecting a system

and a lot of people.” “That’s where our jobs maybe overlap. it’s about thinking– what would this person’s world be like? I’m doing a play right now about rich people in Martha’s vineyard and we’re having a hell of a time right now,” Raiford

said, laughing. “I would never do it! But I will make it look perfect. Brooks Brothers makes sofas now, and I’m gonna have one!”

despite the fact that they both maintain rigorous professional and social schedules, and that Raiford  travels often for work, they stay connected with certain traditions. “We’ve always tried to a do a Friday night date night and lately it’s been pizza and wine,” said Raiford , adding that they will skip bigger social events to have their one-on-one time. “The week before we went and saw Harry Potter.”

Pink flamingos

in hindsight, the signs–environmental or otherwise–of Raiford ’s burgeoning sexuality were there. Tucked away beneath a veil of conservatism and religion, they appeared in myriad ways. “I was raised in a pink house, flamingo pink,” Raiford said, amused all these years later. “My nursery was pink and green and the bathroom had pink poodles in it. Kinda did it, huh? But it just happened to be the 1950s in Florida.”

Always obedient, a good kid and a stellar student, with the requisite extracurricular activities, Raiford  struggled with the decision to come out for fear of how his family would react. “it was hard for [Todd], though. We had two bedrooms. I knew they knew, and I knew they knew I knew. The only reason I told them was because we were moving here and leaving Florida.”

The night he told his parents, his mother, a pioneer in her own right as one of the first female executives at AT&T in the 1970s, was upset. His father sat up on the couch, looked over at Raiford and said, ‘Tell me something I don’t know.’ Then, as if on cue, he laid back down and continued watching television. Even though that coming out scene didn’t produce the drama he thought it could, Raiford is still hard at work on a number of boundary-pushing theatrical projects.

3For instance, he’s excited about his first collaboration with Stephen Mills and Ballet Austin on The Magic Flute; Raiford designed the set and it opens in May. Beyond that, the couple will mark their thirtieth anniversary, coming up in September, in appropriately spectacular fashion.

Although Raiford said he’ll likely go back to teaching (he’s taken three years off), he clearly cherishes his role in the transformative power of theater. While visiting Colorado in June, he saw a modern opera called Three Decembers, which is based on a Terence Mcnally short play. The theme is family in all its messy, brawling dysfunction. In it, a brother and sister have a mother who’s a Broadway diva. The brother’s partner is dying of aids, and it touches on how the mother can’t deal with the son and therefore created a whole lie built around their lives.

“These people who probably never in their life get to embrace stories about a gay couple and have to experience that pain for the one character whose partner has died and they are crying for him, they experience that for someone they didn’t think they could–that’s the power of art, that it takes you beyond what you would expect, takes you beyond your own means, and allows you that moment of personal reflection and growth.”

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