Michael Fields: The affable, whiskey and cigar-involved brilliance of Timmy Gray

GENIUS AT WORK Tim Gray at the helm during the 2018 Mad River Festival. KLH | Union


This was a greeting that I heard from Timmy at least a million times over the 30-plus years that I knew him. “Laddie!” It was his signature greeting and one that I will deeply miss for as long as I walk this earth.

I met Timmy in the early ’90s when he came on to compose and sound design Dell’Arte’s production of MAD LOVE. We could have met before that, but MAD LOVE that was the beginning of the life long connection. I played a doctor who had to cut off Donald’s hands (actually the character Donald played or it would have been a very short run). The action of the hand cutting was in shadow so we wanted sound effects to amplify the moment. 

I went to Timmy’s old studio in Loleta. Somewhere he had procured a hacksaw and a big cow bone. He recorded as I tried like hell to cut that bone in half. We laughed a lot. And yes… there were whiskey and cigars involved. The subsequent sound effect made audiences squirm, scream, and laugh, often all at the same time. And that was exactly what we were going for. For Timmy and I that was the “Casablanca moment,” the beginning of a “beautiful friendship.”

AT THE CREAMERY Timmy Gray at the first Creamery Festival in 2013. Bob Doran | Union

Timmy and I have collaborated on over 40 productions. He had a unique way of designing sound and composing. It was one I loved. He would sit up in the back of the theatre and watch the actors work as the scenes and characters developed. He would then compose and create in tandem with the actors. It was an organic process that deepened it all, because it was done together, “on the floor” as we say, and with a keen, present, understanding of the moment being sought. He was an actors composer. We would then go outside to the picnic tables in the amphitheater and hash out a cue list. And …yes…whiskey and cigars were involved. 

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His work was simply amazing. His song writing was legendary. His song arrangements were virtuosic. I have a misplaced love of musical theatre and at the end of shows, would always look for, what is called, the “11 o’clock number.” The one that sends us home and that you can’t get out of your head. I called it “the pop.” It became a running joke between us. But there was always a “pop” with Timmy. And yes…there were whiskey and cigars involved.

The outside booth at the Mad River Festival shows was the place to be. From the ritual of micing of the actors, to the sound check, to the pre-show warm ups, Timmy was in his element. Then it was time for him to play his delicious pre-show mix of music, light up a cigar and pour small shots of amazing whiskeys for whoever stopped by. 

Then it was the moment to mix that sound into a tapestry of beauty for all who come to the lawn in Blue Lake to experience the work. His sound artistry was an essential part of the experience. And often he was also the drummer in the onstage band making a plethora of slapstick punctuations to accompany the action.

 What many do not know was that Timmy also worked nationally and internationally. He was the first sound design recipient of the prestigious TCG/Pew Trust grant. This is a national award. And he came with me to Stockholm, Sweden to compose and sound design a Grand Guignol production that eventually moved to the National Theatre there. The company gave him a room on a hotel boat in the Stockholm harbor. At the end of the days we would sit on the deck and talk about the beauty of it all (yes – W&C were involved). For Tim, beauty was everywhere and was always to be deeply appreciated wherever you find it.

 Timmy passed on a Saturday this month after a three year journey with a rare and incurable brain disease. It was expected, but no less hard for all of those who loved him. His caregivers were extra-ordinary. His friends were legion. And they all helped, gently, compassionately, and with great generosity, guide him to the gate. I find myself at a loss, but also striving for the generosity and Buddha-ness of Timmy in all. 

Hey “Laddie” can you make sure there will be whiskey, cigars and lots of laughter when I join you… “flights of angels” my dear friend…

Michael Fields is a founding member and producing artistic director of the Dell’Arte Company.


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