Everybody knows Austin in one artsy town, but when was the last time you met a theatre designer? We believe they are Austin’s best kept secret. Each quarter, come here to meet a costume, scenic, or lighting designer. They help to make Austin a beautiful theatre city.
Meet Michael B. Raiford, Designer & More
Michael B. Raiford is a scenic designer, costume designer, show creator and director based in Austin, Texas. Locally, his work has been seen at Ballet Austin, ZACH Theatre, Austin Lyric Opera, Hyde Park Theatre and The Rude Mechanicals. Michael has also had the pleasure of creating for many artistic companies including: South Coast Repertory, The Alliance Theatre (GA), City Theatre (PA), Arizona Theatre Company (AZ), Cleveland Playhouse (OH), Geva Theatre Center (NY), Playmakers Repertory Theatre (NC), Kansas City Repertory Theatre (MO), Maltz Jupiter Theatre (FL), Ford’s Theatre (D.C.), New Victory Theatre (NY), Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MA), The Lyric Theatre (OK), The Antaeus Company (CA) and 20 productions, including twelve world premieres, for Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville (KY). Additional Ballet and Opera: Kansas City Ballet, Colorado Ballet, The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Opera Boston and Central City Opera (CO). Michael was also the Director of Blast: The Music of Disney, Tokyo and National Tour of Japan. He is a creative consultant in architecture, advertising, and yes; marching band!
Michael’s M.F.A. is from The University of Texas at Austin, where he taught for 10 years.
An Interview with Michael
Michael, as an Austin-based international designer, do you prefer to work in town or out of town?
Both! As much as I prefer to be home these days and love to make art in Austin, the opportunities I have had away from home have been amazing. I like bringing the perspective and objectivity home.
All the things you do besides theatrical design — did those professions come before your theatre design career or grow out of it naturally?
As a freelance artist, you have to have a “diversified portfolio.” That’s why I travel for work. I just have to if it’s going to be a full-time job. I started my career in the “Pageantry Arts,” which is a fancy term for Marching Band and Drum Corps International. From there, I was mentored to go into theatrical design — costume design, specifically. Along the way I have also done consulting for architecture, advertising and anything else that needs a visual story told. Actually, I’m very lucky that I still do Drum Corps and Marching Band. During the Covid times, I have been on a total pivot to that world since theatres have been closed. My work with the fabulous Bluecoats Drum Corps has been at the top of the list. (See Session 44 in online Portfolio).
You design both sets and costumes. Do you usually do both together? Or either/or? If one is your favorite, why?
Just like actors, designers get type cast! I mostly do set design because it was the first thing I did outside of Austin, so I became known for that. But my MFA is actually in costume design! I love both and I love to do both together. I don’t get to often. I would love to do more projects again where I do both! (Hint, hint, producers reading this.)
What was your hardest job ever?
Directing “Blast: The Music of Disney.” It was a new version of a Tony-winning show. It was in Japan. We rehearsed it in Nashville, but did the technical aspects in Japan. It had new producers... Working with Disney was actually the easy part...
What was your most fabulous/fave job ever?
That would be a tie: I was thrilled to do Belle Redux for Ballet Austin because I got to do all the things I love: set design, costume design, and video direction of a new production — all with the amazing Stephen Mills. But then: The Wizard of Oz ballet by Septime Webre was an equally divine experience. There were multiple companies in the USA and Canada doing that show, and it’s slated to come back strong next year, hopefully, with productions in Hong Kong and Australia. It also received multiple nominations for the “Prix Benois de la Danse,” the ballet world’s version of the Tony Awards. I was flown to Moscow for an awards ceremony at the Bolshoi. What a dream come true!
You and your husband Todd decided to make your home in Austin rather than any of the zillion cool places you've worked. What about Austin holds you here?
Todd and I moved here in 1987 to go to Grad School at UT. I finished mine first and then he proceeded to work on his Masters in Social Work. By that time, I had started to work around town as well as teach a few classes at UT. Well… we just forgot to leave! This is where I grew up artistically. I cut my teeth at Capitol City Playhouse and then really started working on my craft at ZACH. It was collaborations with Dave Steakley that really formed my future. Last count, I designed about 100 shows at ZACH! At some point, you just know where home is.
If you could pick how the rest of your career would go, what would that be? More travel or a home company where you get to design everything year-round?
Honestly, I just want to get back to work on stage. I want to get back “in the room.” I miss my colleagues! I'll admit that I've always fantasized about winning the lottery and opening my own theatre. And the COVID times have made me appreciate being home again much more! But I’ve also found it really important to experience other artists by chance, which would not happen if I ran every aspect of the show. Growth doesn’t happen if we stagnate or create such a safety zone that we are never challenged. I'm grateful for my variety-filled career.
As someone who has witnessed 30-ish years of the Austin theatre world, what would you wish for it in the next 5 years of growth?
More theatre with more people seeing it and more people making it. MORE!
A podcast in which Michael discusses his journey to becoming a designer: Creating New Worlds: A Conversation with Michael Raiford
See Michael’s complete, gorgeous online portfolio: http://www.michaelraiford.myportfolio.com
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