Ray Dooley will mark his 100th production at PlayMakers Repertory Company with Dairyland (Oct. 16-Nov. 3) — a remarkable feat of longevity by one of the company’s most beloved actors.
In 2015, Indy Week theater critic Byron Woods tweeted this about PlayMakers’ production of Seminar: “Ray Dooley reads a piece of paper. We’re spellbound.”
That pretty much sums up the reaction that actors, students, faculty colleagues, directors and audience members have about Dooley’s work.
Dooley, who has been with PlayMakers for 30 years and has been a teacher and leader in the department of dramatic art, will mark his 100th production with Dairyland. He said he feels gratitude — for so many things — but primarily for PlayMakers and everything it represents.
“Those things include a remarkable cast of personnel, going back to when I first came here in 1989,” Dooley said. “It’s significant, I think, that several of my colleagues — McKay Coble, Michael Rolleri, David Adamson, Adam Versenyi and Bobbi Owen — were here when I got here and are still here.”
Maybe it’s a cliché to say that company members become like family. But Dooley embraces that cliché.
He cites Julie Fishell’s last performance in Chapel Hill in My Fair Lady in spring 2017 as an example. Fishell is now at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“When Julie came here for her first show, Tartuffe, in 1993, she was pregnant and the costume shop had to let out her costume a little bit during the course of the run,” Dooley said. “When Julie did her final show at PlayMakers, we read the names of the 53 plays she had been in, and it was terribly moving. And then her daughter, Abigail, walked on stage and stood next to her mother. There she was, the physical representation of the 23 years that Julie had been with us.”
“That really encapsulates the kind of experiences we have had with each other.”
Fishell said probably her favorite PlayMakers collaboration with Dooley was 2011’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (They played the dysfunctional couple George and Martha).
“I’ll never forget those final moments on stage with him in that play for which there are no words — only an indelible memory of deep listening and love,” she said.
“Ray is an actor and educator who embodies commitment to beauty and truth and the important callings of our profession — to inspire, increase sensitivity and empathy, champion the mind and lift the human spirit.”
In his long career, Dooley has portrayed a stunning array of memorable characters — Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac, Astrov in Uncle Vanya, Salieri in Amadeus, the Fool in King Lear, the Cardinal Inquisitor in Life of Galileo and Orgon in Tartuffe — to name a few.
Vivienne Benesch has directed Dooley in four previous productions, but she said Dairyland offers a unique opportunity to see him in a new light.
“He is the quintessential actor’s actor. … I think when people think about Ray, he’s often cast as these intellectual aesthetes — he’s played so many religious figures and kings or king makers. In the classical canon, there’s nothing he can’t do,” said Benesch, who is PlayMakers’ producing artistic director. “But in Dairyland, he gets to play [Henry], a Wisconsin dairy farmer and a father. And it’s just been incredible to watch him find this ‘everyman’ inside of him.”
Benesch said it’s next to impossible to name her favorite Ray Dooley moment, but one that immediately comes to mind is a performance from last season’s Life of Galileo.
“He was very sick. He had practically no voice … but for that two hours that he was performing, you would never have known it,” she added. “That was the most incredible exhibition of craft, of will and of professionalism I have ever seen. It was really remarkable.”
Life’s a stage and a classroom
Over three decades, Dooley has also been a beloved professor and leader in the department of dramatic art. He served as chair of the department from 1999 to 2005, interim chair from 1999 to 2000 and as head of the Professional Actor Training Program from 2005 to 2018. He’s taught countless graduate and undergraduate students, and he’s acted alongside them in many PlayMakers productions.
On a recent Tuesday morning, undergraduate students in “Acting for the Camera” rehearsed brief scenes in a studio classroom in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art. A large camera was mounted on a rolling chair, which served as a makeshift dolly. In between takes, Dooley walked around, quietly coaching a student filmmaker.
“As he walks into the frame, keep it nice and smooth as he’s moving to get a good shot,” Dooley said. “This is a close-up, so we want to see what kind of day he’s having.”
In the class, through both acting and filmmaking, students learn the process of acting and its relationship to the technical and artistic demands of television production. They address challenges of concentration, continuity in shooting scenes and out-of-sequence filming.
Third-year MFA candidate Dan Toot, who has worked with Dooley on Sense and Sensibility, Leaving Eden, She Loves Me, Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood and now Dairyland, is grateful for the chance to gush about someone he calls “the embodiment of a mentor and a phenomenal teacher.”
“He believes in the work, and he believes in his students,” Toot said. “He will tell you he approaches the work as a ‘senior colleague,’ here to help you clear a little ground as you find your way, and he does exactly that. But in doing so, he instills a trust and empowerment in the next generation of actors in a way that keeps the art form alive and thriving.”
Dooley’s contributions as a leader in the department have been “profound and multifaceted,” said longtime colleague Adam Versényi, current chair of dramatic art and PlayMakers dramaturg. The first production they worked on together was Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in 1989.
“When he became chair of the department, he created a sense of community that we have been able to build on ever since,” Versényi said.
Chapel Hill is home
In 2014, Dooley received one of UNC-Chapel Hill’s highest honors, the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award. Service is at the core of Dooley’s approach to his work — service to students and colleagues, to the audience and to the Chapel Hill community.
He often performs at local retirement communities or does readings of war-themed poetry on Memorial Day at Chapel of the Cross. He entertained students at Southwest Elementary School in Durham with scenes from the 2018 one-man show, A Christmas Carol. In 2007, WCHL Radio presented him with a “Hometown Hero” award for professional and community service.
In the early years of his career, he was based in New York, but constantly on the road. PlayMakers has given him the opportunity to make a living and a life in Chapel Hill, and Dooley said he is eternally grateful for that, too.
“I meet people at the gym, my church, the book club, the running club, all of whom are PlayMakers subscribers,” he said. “To experience that and to be a part of the fabric of this community in this way while practicing the craft that I studied is rare in my field.”
With “Legacy Now” as the theme of PlayMakers’ current season, Benesch paused to reflect on the legacy that Dooley has created.
“No one creates a sacred space in the theater like he does. That sacred space is not only in the rehearsal halls and classrooms, but also the sacredness he feels for the work, given as a gift for the community,” she said.
Five Fan-tastic Questions for Ray Dooley
Biggest on-stage snafu?
“The time my wig caught fire in A Perfect Ganesh in 1995. As I was placing the candles down, I recall hearing a kind of rushing noise. It took me a moment to realize the wig was burning. My wife tells the story better than I do — she was actually sitting in the audience with my mother. And apparently my mother turned to her and said, ‘Raymond’s on fire.’ So I got off stage and put it out very quickly and we went on with the play.”
“I’ve twice played a woman, so that was very instructive — Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and Mrs. Jennings in Sense and Sensibility. I learned an awful lot from that. When I was a very young actor playing the part of Ariel in The Tempest in Stratford, Connecticut, I wore a body suit, with ribs that expanded as my arms expanded, and it had a hood on it. That was a memorable costume for sure.”
Best piece of fan mail?
“It’s not about me, but it’s from a community member that I have a fairly regular correspondence with by email. He was saying how he was sitting in the audience watching Cabaret with his wife of many years who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Watching Julie Fishell and Jeffrey Blair Cornell (as Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider) perform the song ‘Married’ was meaningful to the two of them. So that comes to mind.”
Role you’d still like to play?
“I have been so fortunate to have played most everything — sometimes twice — that I’ve wanted to play. There’s a play by Brian Friel called Faith Healer in four monologues, and the character Frank Hardy is one that I may still be able to do. There are great older characters in Shakespeare, like John of Gaunt in Richard II. For all of the wonderful characters who are now dealing with an older person’s point of view, Shakespeare writes those characters beautifully.”
Go-to pre-show warmups?
“Well, the answer is it depends on the play. There’s this famous story about baseball player Wade Boggs from the Boston Red Sox who always ate chicken every time before the game. And I’m a creature of habit. With A Christmas Carol, I was down in the Kenan Theatre dressing room, and every night was identical. There was a can of seltzer involved, there was a certain calisthenics routine, done in the exactly the same place, in exactly the same way. I got dressed in exactly the same order. If it’s a real evening’s work, then that develops organically from the ground up, depending on what is needed.”
More from the Fan Mailbag
“Ray is one of the country’s finest actors by any measure you care to apply. More tools in his belt than any actor I know: prepared, professional, collegial. He can be superb in any genre, any time period, any text. He could have made his professional life anywhere, and I spent nine years at PlayMakers/UNC grateful every day that he chose to devote his artistic life to us. My respect and admiration are unbounded. He’s as good as they come.” — Joe Haj, artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and former PlayMakers producing artistic director
“In many ways, Ray is my template. We bring a similar life story to the job of theater professor (although I’d say his is a much fancier version.) He’s been an invaluable role model for me. By example, Ray has taught me that my life as a professional actor gives me a unique authority in a university classroom. It is the foundation of my life as educator and mentor — and I’m indebted to Ray for that lesson.” — Tim Altmeyer, (MFA ’92), associate professor at the University of Florida, who was in Ray’s first MFA acting class
“In fittings I remember him as always polite, never expecting us to conform the costume to his wishes, but instead looking for what the costume could do to inform his character.” — Kerri Martinsen (MFA costume production ’00), now costume director for the Carolina Ballet
“At the end of the seven-hour marathon, his character was to hang himself in a big dramatic scene. One performance of the run … the platform didn’t come down. Ray never lost his cool or his focus, and he held us together with his eyes and energy. He simply put the noose in his hand around his neck and lifted up the loose end and he ‘died.’ Though we lost the biggest technical spectacle of the show, the climactic resolve held together because of Ray’s quick thinking and talent and also because of his ability to lead our ensemble through an unexpected live improv. We all trusted him so. How could you not?” — Justin Adams, guest actor, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (2009)
By Kim Weaver Spurr. Video by Kristen Chavez.