Michael Ray Wisely. Photo: courtesy Alter Theater
Michael Ray Wisely. Photo: courtesy AlterTheater

Known in local theater circles as a deep-thinking actor’s actor—and by fans of the DIY Network as host of the ever-practical Home Transformations—Michael Ray Wisely has built himself a DIY career.

Wisely is inaugurating the Aurora Theatre Company’s new second stage performance space, Harry’s UpStage, as the predatory “Director” in a fully staged production of John W. Lowell’s The Letters, which opened on April 17 and runs through June 1.

The 51-year-old veteran of stage, film and television has always gravitated to grand dramas on everyday life stages.

Wisely’s first theatrical platform was the town he grew up in: Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, a deep South tobacco and bible-belt town of barely 4,000 people. His hometown’s fancy French name labeled a rural location named after a white man who co-opted native American Indian land and bewitchingly adopted a local woman’s nickname to complete the hyphenated moniker. “We weren’t very poor, but we were close,” Wisely said in an interview.

His first job was as a nine-year-old, harvesting tobacco and soon earning the same wages as a grown man.

“My dad quit his job with a pipe-fitting company by the time I was twelve and formed his own business,” Wisely said.

His father was a gregarious, hard-working inventor, whose business soon expanded from making utility trailers to designing entire heating units for homes. He taught his son how to weld metal and the memory causes Wisely to smile, then work to control his subsequent emotions.

Wisely said a seventh grade teacher saw Huck Finn in his outspoken manner. (”It’s always a teacher, isn’t it?” he says.) She cast him in the play based on Mark Twain’s classic book and, although he enjoyed the experience, he didn’t see a career in the arts in his future. Instead, he chose broadcast journalism. After two years at a technical college, he landed a job at a radio station in the middle of two cornfields.

The Director (Michael Ray Wisely*) admonishes his employee, Anna (Beth Wilmurt), in Aurora Theatre Company’s Professional Bay Area Premiere of The Letters
Michael Ray Wisely and Beth Wilmurt in Aurora Theatre’s The Letters, playing through June 1,2014. Photo: Sarah Roland

“I joined the Air Force,” Wisely said, about his fourth career choice. “I hated radio and I was good at electronics. Plus, I thought a girl I knew might marry me.”

Requesting an East Coast, southern placement, the Air Force sent him to the state of Washington.

“One day, I knocked on the door of the Lakewood Washington Theater,” he said. “I asked if there was a role. There wasn’t, but a guy heard me ask and said there was someone out and would I do a read-in.” Several plays later, Wisely decided he’d “found his people.” He asked to be let out of the Air Force (“We weren’t at war and they were shutting bases all over the west coast, so they let me go,” he says), and entered Western Stage’s one-year, professional training program in Salinas, CA.

“Once I got in, I decided I was never going to do anything else again,” Wisely said of embarking on life as an actor.

He worked in live theater as a founding member of Marin-based AlterTheater, then explored film and television during a stint in Los Angeles, before returning to the Bay Area to live on a boat in the Oakland Estuary. Along the way, he appeared in films and on television and at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, TheatreWorks, Magic Theatre, Shotgun Players, Aurora and others. Now part of a new independent production company, 31/2 Egos, it’s fair to say Wisely has compiled a regular archipelago of career islands.

The Aurora’s production of The Letters — brilliantly researched and directed with customary bravado by Mark Jackson — places Wisely opposite Beth Wilmurt, another Bay Area actor familiar to Berkeley audiences. Engaged in a two-person battle of wits as a Stalin-era officer attempting to pry under his subordinate’s “archivist” activities, Wisely says his character is a pragmatic soldier with a hidden agenda. “He’s organized and literate, but because he comes from humble beginnings and is put in the position of shepherding literate minds, he has a chip on his shoulder.”

The 50-seat theater might soon become Wisely’s second-most favorite place to perform. “The main stage at Aurora is intimate and I think it’s charmed,” Wisely says. “It’s literate, surprising theater; peers I respect—and surrounded by the audience, it’s impossible to lie. The audience sees everything: they see your thought process.”

Wisely sees Harry’s UpStage as an incarnation of the same principles, and a venue where he can focus on language and play with deep ideas.

Harry’s UpStage, where The Letters is being shown, is Aurora’s second stage performance space, named after longtime Aurora subscriber and supporter Harry Weininger, who passed away in May 2010. Harry’s UpStage is used for live cabaret and second stage events. The Letters the first fully staged production to be held in the space.

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