An interview with the Bluecoats’ Michael Gray

by Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher

Michael Gray is an acclaimed Impressionist painter with representation in six galleries throughout the United States. His paintings can be found in government, corporate and private collections throughout the world, including: Axis Worldwide Financial, The Orvis Corporation, General Electric, Arista Records, The Sisters of Mercy Hospitals, Winter Guard International, Delta Airlines, The California Water Conservancy and Liberty Mutual Insurance as well as at

Gray was a charter member of the South Carolina Governor’s “Canvas the Arts” committee and is a founding member of the Daedelus Workshop Theater and On Stage Theater.

His career as a judge, designer and clinician covers over 25 years in the activity and includes numerous awards and accolades. He has served as designer and clinician for award-winning marching bands and winter guards throughout the country. He served three years as the Ensemble Analysis Facilitator and caption head for WGI and has been an Ensemble Visual, General Effect and Color Guard judge for DCI and a Visual Effect judge for BOA.

He also had the honor of judging the DCI World Championships and the Japanese Drum Corps Championships on several occasions. He has served as a clinician for the BOA Summer Symposium and is an active judge for that organization, including serving as a Grand National Finals judge.

Gray’s most recent endeavor has seen him become a highly-sought motivational speaker. He served as the keynote speaker for the Klein School District in Houston, TX, and the Cobb County School District in Atlanta, GA, in 2009.

Michael is a resident of Charleston, SC, and   is in his fifth year as Visual Coordinator at Wando HS and his second season with the Bluecoats.

Steve Vickers: You’ve been involved in design and judging for winter guard and marching bands. Did you march in a drum and bugle corps or how did you become involved in the activity?

Michael Gray: I came to the drum corps activity accidentally via friends who were aware of and participated in it. Once I saw my first DCI show, I was hooked. The artist and kid in me was obsessed with how to do that.

I became a real student of the activity and found that it had so many components that are found in any active and many static art forms. That was and still is so appealing.
I had the good fortune in my early career to meet and be influenced by so many talented people. I was not an active participant so my presence was on the periphery of the design community.

I was able to have conversations, especially in the winter, with people like George Zingali, Steven Covitz and Jay Murphy, all of whom were active on the East Coast, primarily in the Boston area.

Their energy and true genius was an incredible force. I often think of Boston in those days as the equivalent of the Café Guerbois for the late 19th Century French Impressionists. In one room you could see many of the major players in the pageantry activity . . . all different, all similar and all extremely passionate. One just knew that this was an important place at an important time.

The echoes and continued influence of those people and their work still informs the activity today. Amazing when you think about it.

SV: You are one of only a small number of people who have moved from judging to successfully designing for a top-ranked drum corps. What prompted you to make the change?

MG: I was approached by Dave Glasgow, the director of the Bluecoats. I had always admired the Bluecoats and felt this was a place where I could contribute in an effective way. They have always been masters of thematic shows and a perennial crowd favorite. They felt familiar and exciting and I loved their horn line.

Such a positive energy.

I had entertained offers from other corps in previous years, but none ever felt completely correct for me. I found myself always filtering my decision through one question, “What can I bring to their table that is not already there?”

I never had a definitive answer until the Bluecoats’ offer came along.

This offer had good timing and represented an exciting opportunity for me as a teacher and designer. It had a “now or never” feel to it in my heart and I followed that impulse.
SV: Do you miss judging DCI? Do you anticipate moving back into that role in the future?

MG: I do miss it. Judging provided me with an amazing opportunity to define my observation skills and helped me relate to the wide variety of design processes we find in DCI. You always have to bring your “A” game to the judging seat. I love that pressure.

Each performance represents a great deal of adjustment, correction and experimentation on the part of the corps and recognizing those efforts is paramount to being a good judge.

I have really learned how important it is to see judges who aren’t afraid to dig into the process with you and guide you to being the best you can be, or at least challenge you to defend your concept, performance and process.

I miss that form of “archeology.”

I do see myself returning to judging eventually, but my focus is entirely on the Bluecoats at present.

SV: How did you come to work with the Bluecoats, a group that has been one of DCI”s most consistent-placing corps in the past two decades?

MG: I felt like the Bluecoats and I would be a good match. I thought the corps had done a good job of establishing themselves in the upper ranks of the activity and had some substantial success.

I felt that the corps was in a very unique place in its history and in the larger picture of DCI, and that perhaps this would be the best place for me to work.

After my initial meetings with Dave Glasgow and the design team, I was convinced that I could learn so much from these guys and perhaps contribute along the way.

I was — and am — well aware of the corps’ reputation and standards. That is something that keeps me grounded, focused and obligated. That weight is constant and not a bad thing, I think.

SV: The Bluecoats have had some very interesting productions the last several seasons, the most recent of which you were involved in. What is your role with show concept and production theme?

MG: I like to get my hands dirty. I am keenly interested in helping to develop our thematic direction and working through the concept is something I do constantly as I paint, so the exercise is familiar and exciting.

We operate in an open forum at the Bluecoats. It is not unusual that the ideas become so intertwined that it would be impossible to isolate where any particular thread came from. I am comfortable with taking those ideas and exploring their possibilities while not allowing the concept to get too off point.

Managing artists is a skill I have developed through my early corporate life as an art director. I try to bring that experience to the process and direct, while not over-controlling, the creative process.

SV: I’ve admired the Canton corps since they first showed up on the national scene after Ted Swaldo took over the program back in the 1970s. What’s it like coming into a nationally-ranked corps? And, when you put together the 2009 program, was one of your top priorities connecting with the audience?

MG: I really wanted to do justice to the corps. I made it a point to familiarize myself with the history of the organization and the players in its past. I was really humbled by the efforts of the Swaldo’s, not just Ted, but his family also. They are so supportive and their energy and enthusiasm is so constant.

The corps has always been a crowd favorite. I did not want to lose that quality. I did see last year as an opportunity to make a show that was entertaining, but had a real message at the same time. The idea of identity is so powerful and to be able to change our identity in the context of our performance was a thrilling prospect.

The kids were amazing in their understanding   of the concept and of the importance of the message. I once held the drill and program notes up in front of the corps and let them drop to the floor. I explained to the kids that no matter how good an idea, a drill and arrangement is, they are all just paper without their efforts to bring it alive. At the end of the day, it is the performer that makes the connection. We are so fortunate to have kids that understand this.

SV: Explain a bit about the Bluecoats’ design process and each of the team members’ roles?

MG: I think we function so well as a team due to the ability to trust one another. The people I work with at BC have an overwhelming focus of making the best art we can make and giving our kids an amazing experience. My job as program coordinator is to set the current in our stream of consciousness. I am an artist and I can’t divorce myself from that process, so my goal is apply those disciplines to the DCI art form.

Doug Thrower and Tom Rarick create the music at the Bluecoats. Their vision and honesty in what they do is amazing. I have never worked with anyone in any aspect of my life who was more open and honest about their fears and passions. The art truly is the thing for those guys and their ability to give us a sound that is uniquely ours is a godsend.

Our visual team is the newest arm of the organization. Dave Meikle, Tim Fairbanks and Andy Mroczek bring an incredible amount of insight and information to our process. When taken individually, these guys have very long and successful careers. Taken collectively, they represent an amazing possibility for not only the Bluecoats, but the activity as a whole.

I prefer to work in the “think tank” style. Inspiration may come from any source or anyone, and if it captures us, we run with it. I think our ability to be open about our passion or hesitation about an idea creates an environment where the artistic nature of the project can really develop. It really comes down to a family-like atmosphere of trust and support.

SV: Your background as an Impressionist artist no doubt has influenced your visual designs for the larger canvas of a football field. Describe how you have brought your painting experiences to the drum corps activity?

MG: I think your question is spot on. I was drawn to the activity by seeing the field as a canvas. That happened in the first minute I saw the Bridgemen. I was just starting my career as a painter and being exposed to DCI totally changed my life’s course.

The idea of making a painting that has a kenetic quality is fascinating.

I was trained as an Impressionist. My technique is a direct descendant of a process that would be familiar to Monet, Degas, Cezanne. The process is one of a loose construction base, an impression of the larger concept. As you layer color, texture and light onto the work, you reach a point of reconstruction. In this phase you redefine the concept. You see if an accident or an idea has developed that may change the emphasis or direction of the work.

With those decisions made, you continue to refine the painting and work toward the combination of effects that ultimately lead to your completed idea.

This is the creative process that works for me every day. It is a part of my DNA. I apply the same process to developing the corps show. With the addition of motion and sound, I can make something that is so far beyond the scope of painting alone that it’s a thrill.

SV: What is your long-term vision for the Bluecoats in terms of creativity, competitively and artistically?

MG: I think that we are starting to plant our feet as a design team and as a staff at the corps. We are all convinced that we have incredible talent in the kids. They are consistent and dedicated. With that base we really want to begin to explore some ideas and techniques that are fresh to the activity.

We are starting that process within ourselves and our corps. There is a Buddhist saying that in changing yourself, you change the world. That is our in-house philosophy. Competitively, we have the potential to be among the best in the world. And while that is a daunting task, we firmly believe that it is a reasonable goal.

Artistically, we want to build an environment where we can play. I do mean that in its most sincere form. We have a playful nature to our staff, we have extremely creative and insightful people, and an environment of freedom and possibility we feel can reinvent the corps from the inside out and perhaps leave an impact on the activity as we do so.

SV: Who, in your eyes, are the top five visual minds in the history of DCI?

MG: What an incredibly difficult question. I can only answer from my own personal experience and while historically I may be doing a disservice to many, I am answering from that perspective.

I think the issue becomes even more complicated because of the true spirit of “creative team” dynamics that exist in our activity, but here goes.

George Zingali inspired us to act on our thoughts, to explore the “next” thing. Maybe it is better said that he taught us to be brave. George had an element of danger about him and an aspect of volatility that made the man and his design process interesting and powerful. His need and willingness to explore has left an indelible impact on our community for now and generations to come.

Shirley Stratton-Dorritie helped us redefine our expectations and possibilities in color guard. She worked with sincerity, a certain naivety and an energy that had and has a tremendous impact on the outdoor activity. I am not sure that designers today realize how her pioneering efforts influences their work and has to some extent made modern color guard possible.

George Oliviero has had a profound impact on design in our activity. As a judge, mentor and teacher, he has led a nation in the exercise of understanding and crediting the results of these incredible design teams and their products. It is through the act and art of criticism that he has taught a generation to not only observe, but to honorably and non-evasively participate in shaping the look and fashion of what DCI is today.

Michael Cesario gave us a visual face and voice. He never lets us forget that this is show business, that our ultimate obligations are to our members and our audience. His sense of style and his understanding of the grandness of our stage has set standards of expectation and possibility that are still the active benchmark for many designers today.

Michael Gaines’ work has always reminded me of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. We often hear about his “math,” but I think he has gone far beyond that in re-establishing the need for clarity and result in design. There is predictability and yet a sense of vulnerability about his work that hints at FLWright. His      angular creations have a unique sense of implied motion and constantly inform the action that takes place within and surrounding the form. His style has impacted The Cavaliers’ process in every way and that influence is interesting and unique to me.

SV: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Good luck with the Bluecoats this season.