Posted on October 15th, 2009
By Emily Hertzler, Weathervane student newspaper
Phil Grayson, adjunct faculty member and resident designer for EMU’s theater department
Being at “the right place at the right time” takes patience, luck, and an incredible amount of preparation. Some people spend their whole lives waiting for fate to deal them a winning hand, only to wind up waiting tables as a career.
Phil Grayson just walked into L.A. and got lucky. He is now a scenery designer for EMU’s theatre program. Before he designed huge rocks to work as a setting for “Women of Lockerbie,” he was making a career with NBC.
“It may have been divine intervention,” he says as he recollects, 36 years later. On that day in 1973, he stepped into an office looking for a job. The man at the desk hung up the phone and turned to see Grayson standing in the doorway.
“They needed a follow-spot operator at NBC for a Democratic Party telethon,” says Grayson. “That’s how I got started in television.”
Phil Grayson, a theatre professor and set designer at Eastern Mennonite University, has an interesting background. Having spent time behind the scenes at ABC and NBC, plus 27 years working backstage and in the classroom at James Madison University, Phil now enjoys his “retirement project” (as he calls it) at EMU.
Although Grayson began his backstage career in 1973, his start in show business was years earlier, when he made training videos for fast food restaurants.
“I developed a skill by doing it,” Grayson says. Most of his trade can only be learned by hands-on work. Before his move to Los Angeles, Calif., Grayson lived with his wife in St. Louis. As she got a degree, he worked at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis as master of properties.
He did four shows a season. He specifically remembers managing props for the production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” During a dream sequence that a character has onstage, the character’s finger needs to extend to three feet right before the audience’s eyes. Taking a glove, an archery arm guard, a fishing sinker and a few other pieces, Grayson constructed an extending finger.
Once Grayson got his foot in the door in Los Angeles, he remained busy throughout 1973. Grayson worked for “The Price is Right” and got involved at CBS on a stage hand crew. He worked with Golden West Broadcasting and Ralph Edwards productions. He helped producers of the resurgence of the show “Name that Tune” as a props developer and built a magic theater in Busch Gardens in L.A. where a young David Copperfield performed.
Despite all this experience, Grayson reveals that television was “artistically unsatisfying.” Interested in theater architecture, Grayson got involved in the Odyssey Theater Ensemble. The first show Grayson designed for was Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt.”
Soon, Grayson was offered a job at Madison College, now James Madison University, as a theatre professor and stage designer. From 1975 to 2002, Grayson helped out with two productions a semester while teaching three or four classes. In 2002 he retired, but then he was offered the same job part-time at EMU.
In the time that Grayson has been at EMU, he helped build a stage in the old EMU gym and designed for numerous shows. Jerry Holsopple, a friend and colleague of Grayson, says, “I find Phil so fascinating. He does so many things and is fun to hang around.” Holsopple goes on to point out that Grayson owns a chicken farm with a barn full of stuff.
“Phil has forgotten more things than I will ever know,” states a smiling Heidi Winters-Vogel, theatre department chair at EMU. Vogel has worked with Grayson on four shows, and is now woking with him on the current show at EMU, “Women of Lockerbie.”