Classic rock 'n' roll plays in the background of the timeworn shop. Sawdust covers the floor and planks of wood adorn the walls.
The sound of a table saw cuts through the music.
With a long piece of wood in his hands, Michael Walker stands over the machine. His process is methodical — easily executed with years of experience. Walker pushes the piece of wood into the blade; there is a screeching sound that sends tiny chips of wood and sawdust flying around the room.
Walker is the scene shop supervisor at the University of Oregon’s University Theatre. His job is part of the important, but often forgotten, backstage work that occurs for productions. He contributes to the theatre by taking the floor plans for shows and transforming them into fully functioning sets; every day there is either a set to build or a set to take down. Theatre, for Walker, is part of a greater quest to learn and improve himself each day.
Walker grew up in Elgin, a small, rural town in Oregon where theatre wasn’t readily accessible. He sought creative outlets in books, music and movies that opened him up to new ideas.
“And you don’t talk about ideas where I come from; you talk about huntin’, fishin’, workin’,” he said.
Walker first came to Eugene in 1981 to get his undergraduate degree in telecommunications and film studies from UO. One Friday, Walker and his friend, who was also his writing 122 teacher, were getting beers at a local bar. His friend was directing a play at the Very Little Theatre and encouraged him to audition.
After Walker auditioned, his friend pulled him into the hallway and bluntly told him ”you stink, I’m not going to cast you."
There were no hard feelings between the two and because the experience was so fun for Walker, he asked if there was anything he could do to be a part of the process. This is when he began doing behind-the-scenes work for shows.
“I really enjoyed it and just never stopped,” he said.
Walker completed his degree and continued to volunteer building and designing sets for local theatres. He didn’t think about making the activity his career until 2012 when he found himself unemployed and decided to enroll at UO to receive his masters degree in scenic and lighting design.
“I realized that I absolutely loved building sets,” Walker said.
Around the time Walker completed his MFA in 2016, John Elliott — his friend and scene shop supervisor — was getting ready to retire.
Elliott asked Walker if he would be interested in the job. According to Walker, within 12 hours, Bradley Braham, professor and technical director of University Theatre, also approached him about the job.
For Walker, taking a position as the scene shop supervisor was a no-brainer.
One of Walker’s responsibilities is working with students who need to complete scene shop hours for class. He said this part of the job is the most fulfilling.
He teaches people at all different levels of knowledge — from students who have never held a power tool, to those that’ve been working in scene shops for years. Walker loves working with students.
“I like sharing my joy of what I do backstage,” Walker said. “Letting them find within themselves the confidence to take on something they may not be comfortable with.”
Walker occasionally acts and directs around Eugene, but his passion continues to be building sets. He said out of all the things he loves about theatre, building sets always brings something new and is where he can learn and improve his skills the most.
“I can’t act every day, I can’t direct every day, but I can build sets every day,” Walker said.
Theatre provides Walker the creative outlet that he’s always sought. Every day is new and unexpected, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. If he knew what his day-to-day would be like, he wouldn’t be doing this work.
That’s the beauty of theatre for Walker. You come together to build a project, tear it down and start over again.
“What can be a better symbol of life, death and resurrection than theatre? You’re always going to be doing something new,” Walker said.