Tribute from Victor Bumbalo

Mr. Gray—director, writer, possibly the most aggressively bad pun artist in the English language, but most importantly teacher and mentor. My teacher and mentor. It’s only been in recent years that I allowed myself to call him Paul. But today I want to call him Mr. Gray again. Out of respect. He has been a part of my life since I was 17 years old. And that’s been many, many years.

I met him at Plattsburgh University when I was a freshman and joined the Footlighters, the school’s theatre group. It became neither a club nor an extracurricular activity to me. It became the path to my entire life.
Mr. Gray was like no other person I had ever met. I found him strange, exotic, frightening, bohemian, exciting, intimidatingly smart, and the keeper of the key that would open the door to the world of art. Where I have been lucky enough to spend my life. Equipped with and still using the tools Mr. Gray gave me so many years ago.
While in Plattsburgh I spent more time doing theatre than I did studying anything else. I remember the night I met Gretchen. I was new to the school, had a small part—and I was so happy—in his production of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. I played the paper boy. He invited me for coffee at his home. He put on a record by Joan Biaz—who I had never heard of. And there was Gretchen. To me, they were people from a foreign world. The world of theatre and art. Well, I was transfixed. They ignited in me something I never had—a dream of the future.

At Plattsburgh I was in play after play directed by Mr. Gray. Some of the plays were controversial—like those from the theatre of the absurd. These productions were a bit out of the comfort zone for Plattsburgh. He loved us being renegades. Putting on those plays was exhausting, exhilarating, and amazing. It was my life. And then I took a directing course from Mr. Gray that was thrilling. Followed by a writing course that was truly brilliant. And that’s what I’ve been doing my entire life—writing, directing, and like Mr. Gray—teaching. The lessons I learned in those courses have sustained me, worked for me, gave me confidence, and the ability to live a life in art. How can you ever repay that?

Mr. Gray went on to head the theatre program at Bennington College. I graduated from Plattsburgh and went to San Francisco to become an apprentice at what is now A.C.T. I was 21, and more or less starving. Working, for nothing, every evening at the theatre and having a string of part-time jobs during the day. Mr. Gray came to San Francisco and offered me a scholarship to Bennington in the graduate program. A program he created. I jumped at the opportunity. I am still so grateful for it. And grateful for the degree it gave me.
I loved Bennington. We did great work. I remember the wonderful and at times grueling rehearsals, the chances we took, and tons of laughter. As part of my scholarship I was Mr. Gray’s assistant. It became a constant learning experience. But not only that—a friendship developed.

I worked with him during the day, but when we were not rehearsing in the evenings, I very, very often knocked on the door to his home to sit down to dinner with Gretchen and the family—having already had my dinner at school. The nerve of me. I was not invited, but I was always, always welcomed. I would just appear. They were my family. And I would be super excited if Gretchen had made her chocolate cake. A cake I’ve never had the likes of since.

Gretchen—a wonderful actor, acting teacher, and artist. And a prominent influence in my life. Although 100% gay, I think I had a crush on her. One couldn’t help it.
Also, while at Bennington I met the man I have been spending my life with—Tom O’Connor. Mr. Gray had a bit of trouble with my public coming out at the school—this was 1967. But dear Gretchen smoothed the waters for me.

What mentor and teacher have you ever heard of who gives you both a career and a husband.
What can one really say about a person who has been such a powerful and ongoing influence in one’s life? As a writer, I love words. But one of the great lessons I learned from Mr. Gray is that in drama and life it’s not the words of a character or person that define them—it’s their actions. And in his ongoing generosity as a teacher, Mr. Gray’s actions defined him.

I am spending my life as a playwright, television writer, director, and teacher thanks to this man. When I graduated from Plattsburgh, Mr. Gray gave me an anthology of the world’s greatest plays. The message he wrote was—“this is the stuff that dreams are made of.” I want to thank you again Mr. Gray, but those words can’t express the depth of gratitude I have for you. But thank you—dear Paul—for making it possible for me to live a life where dreams are made.

My love to dear Gretchen and the family.