Bravo Ad Infinitum: Spotlight on Ray McFarland

Authored by Marty Kelly

Though my colleague and friend now, Ray McFarland was once my high school advisor who let my graduating class of seniors have a lock-in at the then brand new CPA. Talk about cool. He was also the actor that my family and I loved to watch at New Stage Theatre in Forever Plaid and The Foreigner and Hairspray and so many others. Talk about talent. As his colleague, I have been lucky enough to be equal parts hiding-behind-my-hands terrified by Ray’s performance as Krampus at the band concert and jaw-droppingly mesmerized by his singing of “Amazing Grace” in chapel. Talk about range. And for 23 years, this gem, who is both a premier do-er and teacher of his craft, has belonged to us at St. Andrew’s.

When Ray returned home to Jackson in 1998, St. Andrew’s lucked into convincing this law-degreed professional New York actor and self-professed “Sondheim freak” into helping out with coaching speech and debate (thank you Randy Patterson and his happenstance run in with Ray at a movie!). And then the next year Dave Wood hired him on an hourly basis (can you even imagine?) and then the rest is history. The opening of the CPA a few years later in 2002 made the decision for Ray about staying at St. Andrew’s for the long term. Having directed plays in the Commons for the years up to the CPA’s opening and having intimate knowledge of New Stage Theatre, Ray knew the CPA was something special. As is he. Ray is wholly responsible for the reputation of excellence that surrounds our theater: the physical space, the programming, and the productions.

Now that we have lived with the CPA for 20 years, “we often take this building for granted,” Ray said, especially because it is easy to forget how special it is and how unparalleled it is for a school in our state. When guests come from out of town to New Stage, Ray says, “I always bring them to the CPA and show them around.” Ray’s care and devotion for this unique building as well as the programs that are housed within it have made our St. Andrew’s theater department the icon it is today. Besides developing the tech program and growing acting classes across his 23 years here, I also cannot count the number of times I have watched him vacuuming the carpet in the CPA or mopping the stage or moving furniture or working lights or doing any number of tasks simply because he cares and they needed to be done. His desire for the longevity of the building and the program was clear when I asked Ray what he desires for his legacy here. Pretty simply, he said, “I want the theater program to continue. Because it’s not just me. It’s this facility and it’s the students.” 

When I asked Ray why theater is so important, without hesitation he said, “It’s vital. Entertainment is a basic human need, and theater involves total communication. Everyone needs a diversion.” Especially with the backdrop of a pandemic, Ray said he always reminds his students before a performance: “For two hours, we’ve got their minds in the palm of our hands.” For those hours, people do not have to think about anything else and can devote their attention to one thing only; for that reason, theater can even become a “religious experience.” As my Classics friends know, Horace says the aim of any poetic endeavor is “to teach and to delight”; performance is no exception. One of the reasons that Ray says “without a doubt” Sondheim’s Side by Side is his favorite musical (besides the music) is that the lyrics are always a story and through them we are always learning something about a character (and then often about ourselves). 

Besides Side by Side, his personal favorite musical to watch, I asked Ray which performance he directed here was his favorite or most memorable. Apparently, this question is somewhat akin to asking a parent who their favorite child is. Ray said he could name so many, but the first one he recalled, Into the Woods, had 32 “amazingly talented kids” in it. Ray also went on to say he loved the “spectacle” of Sweeney Todd. Reminiscing on building the elaborate set for that show, he said one day he brought some materials in for his tech class and, with little instruction, told them that the set needed a barber’s chair under which a trap door opened. His tech class ran with it, designing and creating the perfect chair for Sweeney Todd’s victims to fall through; the chair was apparently so perfect that it apparently lived in the McRaes’ house for several years after! 

And, of course, earning a well-deserved and sentimental spot in his top three is the most recent, and Ray’s final act, Little Women. In talking about what the students were able to do with this production, Ray called it both “magical” and “astounding.” What created this magic? Besides individual talent, Ray says, “They bought into what I preach: it’s about the group.” From his perch in the tech booth, Ray said, “I missed cues because I was so wound up in it.” Imagine those of us seeing it for the first time in the audience. I saw it only on dress rehearsal night and was blown away, and my mother wept all the way through it next to me. 

As expected, Ray had an elevated element of sentimentality as this was his final production. On the day of the last performance, Ray said he mopped the stage for the final time and cried all while mopping. Then he said he cried all the way through that Saturday night performance. At the end, he heard chatter on the headset saying, “turn the lights back on,” and then heard Anna Johnson say, “He’s going to be so mad,” anticipating Ray’s resistance to being recognized one last time. However, Burkitt Anderson, next to Ray in the tech booth, looked over and said into his headset mic, “Nah, he’s already crying.” So when I asked Ray if he was pleased with his last production, he said immediately, “It couldn’t have ended better.” No, it could not, Ray; it certainly could not have ended better. And for that and a million other things, we thank you, Ray McFarland.

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