Friday, August 10, 2012

Saying Goodbye

I don't usually talk too much about myself on this blog -- I learned long ago that I was a "reporter," not a "revealer" when it came to writing style -- and so I'm confronted with a bit of a dilemma. How do I talk about Michael Pullin?

Michael was an actor, scenic designer, painter, writer, cooking expert, costumer and vivid, larger-than-life presence in the lives of anyone who has anything to do with theater or the arts around here. He passed away on Tuesday. It was very sudden and shocking, and those of us who knew Michael have been reeling.

As I said on his Facebook page, where people have been posting their thoughts as a way to cope with this terrible news, there are some people so vital and so full of energy that it seems impossible they can leave us. Michael was one of those. He had immense talents in so very many areas, and he was incredibly generous in sharing them, whether that meant offering cooking lessons at the Garlic Press or OSF, mentoring younger actors, working with kids at his church, singing in the choir, writing a play about a middle-aged, cigar-chomping tooth fairy, sewing a huge, bright-colored elephant onto the back of a cape, making a life-size puppet to dance with at the Discovery Walk, or designing countless sets for theatrical productions.

As resident scenic designer for Heartland Theatre, Michael created absolutely beautiful sets. I told him at the time that the atmospheric, leaf-strewn back porch set he did for "Proof" was better than the Broadway set for that show, and I marveled at the way he had managed to fit two complete houses and a tree into the tiny space at Heartland for "Morning's at Seven." Amazing.

Michael Pullin, actor and scenic designer for "Superior Donuts"

If the mark he left as a designer was indelible, his work as an actor was equally unforgettable. We all know, I think, that theater is only here in the moment. Designers design, directors direct, actors act, and the performance unfolds. But each performance is unique, because the actors change just slightly, the audience reacts differently, something goes wrong, something goes right, it's hotter or colder or darker or lighter in the theater that day. Each performance is a thing of its own, here in the moment, gone too fast. And that really describes Michael Pullin, doesn't it?  A person of his own, here in the moment, gone too fast...

Still, all the different characters Michael played live on in the memories of those of us who saw the shows. Last season alone at Heartland, he gave us kindly old Basil Bennett in "The Diviners;" menacing Sterling in "Mauritius," so elegant and so scary in his beautifully tailored clothes; and then Arthur Przybyszewski in "Superior Donuts," a leftover hippy running a doughnut shop that time has left behind. Before that, he was Crumpet the Elf in "The Santaland Diaries," a show where Michael did a solo act on stage, designed, built and painted the set, made his own costume, and publicized the heck out of it to make sure the house was packed for every show.

He was also a vibrant presence in the annual Discovery Walk, writing and performing as real citizens from Bloomington's past, like William Horine, who got a little sentimental over letters from home, and Christoph Mandler, a cigar-maker who danced with a doll named Mathilda, which seemed to especially appeal to the children who took the Walk. Michael built the bench Mandler rolled his cigars on, and built Mathilda from the ground up.

Michael Pullin dancing with Mathilda in the 2010 Discovery Walk

I'm glad I got to see those performances. I'm glad I got to experience his remarkable sets. I'm glad I got to work with him on "Superior Donuts." And I'm sorry that we won't get to see what he had in mind for "These Shining Lives" or "Red," where I think Michael hoped to play artist Mark Rothko and show off his painting skills on stage.

Mostly, I'm sorry Michael is gone. Godspeed, Michael Pullin. You are already missed.


  1. Thank you so much, Julie, for revealing your thoughts on Michael, and on theatre, here.

  2. Thanks, Kathleen. I enjoyed reading your thoughts, as well, on your blog. It's hard, isn't it?

  3. It seems like only yesterday that he was slamming me against a wall and grabbing my goolies, for the entertainment of strangers. It was February. If I'd said this to his face (and I would have, it wouldn't have been the strangest conversation we'd had) he would have had an equally weird comeback. Our back-and-forth would have unsettled all who heard it.

    I miss him.

  4. You're welcome, Judy. It's hard to try to capture Michael. He was unique. And it seems wrong, even typing that "was."

  5. Great blog Julie. I'm sure Michael is already building the set for the next play with a "heavenly" cast and planning the menu for the preview party!
    Deanna Frautschi