Shakespeare was right, thanks to Michael Buckley all the world is a stage.
Buckley, SWC college’s gifted Professor of Theater, has designed stunning sets and lights for every major theatre company in San Diego County. His sets have been giant mechanical wonders and brilliant splashes of understatement. He has explored the tropics of Mexico, traversed enchanted forests and navigated the urban landscape of New York City.
Buckley’s singular talent often leaves his colleagues in awe. By building sets Buckley has built a prodigious reputation as a leading force in San Diego County theatre.
Buckley has worked on nearly 300 theatre set designs. He was recruited as an instructor at SWC in the spring of 2011 following the unexpected death of Professor Gary Larsen, another regional theatre legend.
SWC theater adjunct Ruff Yeager called Buckley “a gifted and visionary artist.”
“The art of what he does not only elevates a set, his sets are in themselves works of art when combined with his lighting,” said Yeager. “He creates sculptures on stage, he creates shapes, texture and movement.”
Before Buckley emerged as theatre royalty, he spent his childhood immersed in suburban tedium, entertained by his vivid imagination. A school field trip to a local television station sparked his interest in the magic of theatrical deception.
“I remember as a kid, I think I was in junior high, we got to tour a local news TV station and they were showing us around the studio,” he said. “A guy pulled out a book from a bookshelf and showed us how it was a book cover wrapped around a piece of Styrofoam.”
Buckley said he was delighted knowing that people were fooled into thinking Styrofoam in a dust jacket was a book on a shelf.
“That’s what attracted me to design, the ability to create the artifice of it all,” he said. “The slight of the hand, it’s almost like a magic trick.”
Buckley said he learned about the different roles of a theatre company at a young age. He started acting in elementary school, but did not do any serious acting until he was a teenager in his church’s youth group.
“We had a drama troupe within the youth group,” he said. “We were writing all of our own scripts and performing them every week. It was kind of like being in a repertory company. I was kind of self taught before I went away to college.”
Buckley attended UCLA to pursue a degree in acting, but took a course in set design and fell madly in love with the medium. He earned a Bachelor’s in theatre arts and a Master of Fine Arts in theatre scenic design.
Buckley’s love for set and lighting design grew while continuing to pursue his original passion, acting.
“The first big show I was in at (UCLA) was a show called ‘A Cry of Players,’” he said. “They had a role for a 12-year-old boy and they were going to cast a child for the part.”
His boyish looks and mature commitment won him the role, he said.
Sylvia Lugo, SWC performing arts coordinator, said the theatre department is lucky to have Buckley because of his vast experience and talent as a set designer.
A good set is essential for a good production, she said.
“You need to visually see the doors, the colors, the furniture,” she said. “All those elements come together so you can put this image together in your head and become a part of it.”
Buckley said he strives to let the audience inside his imagination to see where the characters live in their realm. Audiences, however, should let their imaginations do some work.
“The best kinds of sets are not always spoon feeding you the information,” he said. “Designers take a location and tweak it a bit, so you still understand where you are, but the audience has to engage in the imagination process to feel like they are there.”
Keeping it loose is Buckley’s preference, he said.
“If you’re going to do realism, you have to have it right,” he said. “All the details have to be right in order to sell that as realistic rather than if you’re going to do stylized you can make a stair railing out of a big piece of salami.”
Buckley groans and laughs when talking about the Ghosts of Bad Sets Past, but serious when he talks about giving students the best education possible.
“I think it gives a lot more validity to what I’m saying if I can use an example of a show I’m currently working on,” he said. “I think students appreciate a teacher who is still actively engaged in the professional world and plying their craft.”
Buckley works at professional theatre and takes many of his students with him. The next generation of set designers, can meet potential future employers.
“I still have a foot in the theatre world, so I still have contacts around town,” he said. “If I have promising students I can connect them with companies.”
Robert Smyth, the artistic director of the Lamb’s Players Theatre, said Buckley possesses great versatility.
“He’s been one of the pillars that this company is built on, it’s because he can take on so many different styles,” Smyth said. “Unlike Mike, some people have to leave an imprint on it so you know it’s their set. He will play in so many fields and do so well, he’s an ambidextrous designer.”
Buckley, a humble chameleon with a tart sense of humor, is also a working singer, actor and playwright. He brought down the house at Lamb’s as the Pharaoh who channels Elvis in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and earned standing ovations for his comedy “The Hit.” He has been the featured singer in public performances around the region. He has also appeared in a number of commercials that ran on regional television.
He prefers, however, to talk about his students and his classes. Backstage, tools in hand, in dim lights with no audience, it is show time.