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The Wizard of REDCAT: Mark Murphy presents ... 

The performance curator, with the likes of UCLA Live's David Sefton, makes all the world his stage

Monday, Jul 28 2008
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Los Angeles has two “presenters” for theater operating in larger venues. These are guys whose main job is to bring performances in from other places. David Sefton, director of UCLA Live, programs a bouquet of music, dance, lectures and theater from around the world. Across town, Mark Murphy, executive director of REDCAT (The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) develops local talent and brings in international dancers, actors, musicians and visual artists. REDCAT has administrative ties to CalArts in Valencia, and shares that institution’s artistic leaning toward the experimental. In case you’ve been living on Mars, REDCAT is tucked away in the southwest corner of Disney Hall.

Kevin Scanlon

(Click to enlarge)

click to enlarge KEVIN SCANLON

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Presenters like Murphy and Sefton should not be confused with artistic director-producers, such as Barbara Beckley (Colony Playhouse), Gil Cates (Geffen Playhouse), Sheldon Epps (Pasadena Playhouse) or Michael Ritchie (Center Theatre Group), who hire and/or oversee the hiring of directors and actors to restage hits from other cities, when they’re not taking a risk by staging a new play.

By contrast, Sefton and Murphy put up a show with its original parts intact, for a weekend or two, usually as part of a festival. They’re our curators for the performing arts, who have built a subscriber base on the foundation of their taste. Chances are, you won’t have seen many of their bookings before they appear at REDCAT or UCLA Live, because their shows may have just been flown in from Brussels, or Sheffield, or Warsaw or Nairobi. Unless it’s a performance by Garrison Keillor, Ira Glass or the Royal Shakespeare Company, the reason to go to UCLA Live or REDCAT is largely an act of faith in the sensibilities of Sefton and Murphy, earned over years.

Though equally gracious, the two men’s styles couldn’t be more different. Sefton is a gregarious Englishman who wears his opinions on his sleeve and has often expressed open contempt for most theatrical activity here. Part of his view of public service is to make available to local artists the kind of imported artistic excellence that will serve as a helpful guide for improvement.

Murphy, by contrast, is a soft-spoken, self-effacing fellow. “Someone here said as a joke that I have an anger-management issue,” Murphy says. “I answered that my job is to absorb negative energy.”

Like Sefton, Murphy globetrots, looking for artists to bring to Los Angeles, but if Murphy feels disdain for the local arts community, he keeps it to himself. The evidence, however, makes the case that he admires and is willing to invest time, energy and financial resources in local artists. This year’s New Original Works (NOW) festival has been a potpourri of local choreography and performance, with a different program every week for three weeks. The festival kicked off on July 17 with Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project, Cloud Eye Control (animation and music) and Theatre Movement Bazaar (which specializes in combining synchronized choreography with classical texts, then dancing around the shards of irony that ensue). Last weekend featured choreography by Holly Johnston and Lionel Popkin, plus an absurdist presentation by theater company Poor Dog Group. This coming weekend will feature choreography by Rosanna Garrison, a song cycle with music by Anne LeBaron and writer Doulas Kearny, and a performance by comedian-dancer Kristina Wong.

Murphy says he rarely books a show that he hasn’t seen, the exceptions being new, commissioned works by companies whose work he admires.

Mark Murphy lived on Staten Island until he was 12, with his two brothers and two sisters, who today are all involved in the arts in some capacity. During that time, he took tap dancing for two years in what he describes as the extent of his firsthand dance experience. He did, however, perform as an actor at Fairhaven College in Bellingham, Washington, in Peter Pan and Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane.

“I wanted to be an actor, until I realized I’d have to be doing the same show every day for weeks, and that sounded terribly boring,” Murphy explains in a basement office strewn with printouts. Asked if his college acting experiences had any influence on his aesthetic of what would be his programming at REDCAT, he leans back and smiles wistfully. “Yes, I think so. I learned that traditional musical theater wasn’t for me, partly because I couldn’t sing, and partly because it was so silly.”

His mother, Jeanette Murphy, is a painter and part-time teacher who studied painting in Paris at Sorbonne for a year and deferred her artistic ambitions to rear five children. Meanwhile, in New York, his father, Cullen Murphy, was, at the time, a television host “who interviewed everybody for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York,” with the aim of promoting the burgeoning technology of color television.

The children left New York when their father got a job as the anchor for the CBS affiliate in Fresno.

“We thought we were going to Hollywood,” Murphy says. In fact, he didn’t even make it to California because of his parents’ separation.“He went to Fresno,” Murphy adds, referring to his father with a tone of subtle, mocking envy. Murphy found himself in Walla Walla, Washington, where his parents had first met, and where his his maternal grandfather, a scholar of Shakespeare and Chaucer, ran the English department at nearby Whitman College, and founded the Little Theatre of Walla Walla.

At Fairhaven College, Murphy studied “Communication Arts as a Catalyst for Social Change” — a major he invented, with affiliated minors in theater, journalism, English and social sciences at Western Washington University. After a couple of years at Fairhaven, he knew he wanted lifelong involvement with the theater.

Upon graduating, Murphy took the position of Special Assistant to the President for Governmental Relations, a fancy term for lobbyist for Washington’s state-university system.

Explaining his steady drift toward supporting and presenting theater rather than creating it, he says, there are a few things you never want to see being made: sausages, law, and I think I’d put theater in that category.”

In the mid-’80s, Murphy worked his way up the ranks of On the Boards, a contemporary performing center in Seattle, starting in PR and coordinating local programs, and eventually serving as artistic director from 1984 to 2001. In Seattle, he created the Northwest New Works series and Twelve Minutes Max — new works and works-in-progress festivals, which are the model for REDCAT’s Studio series and the NOW Festival.

He was wooed south to California by CalArts president Steven Levine, and took the job as REDCAT’s executive director a year and half before the venue opened in 2003, while it was still under construction. Among the contributions Murphy is proud of is persuading architect Frank Gehry to install REDCAT’s bar and open lobby, providing a pre- and postshow drinking and mingling space Murphy feels is essential for the solidification of an artistic community.

Among his few regrets are that the work launched at REDCAT hasn’t flown farther around the country and the world, though the institution is still young.

“I always thought that a presenter’s job was to work in service to artists rather than the other way around. The idea of hiring an artist or buying a spectacle or attraction is foreign to me. Over the few years, I think our audience, which changes event to event, feel that their relationship to the art is not as a consumer to a product, but that they’re contributing to and becoming part of the creative process in some way, and that it’s okay for them not to love something. Love it or hate it, just don’t say, ‘that was fine,’ and walk off.”

REDCAT’s NOW Festival closes this weekend with works by Rosanna Gamson, Anne LeBaron/Douglas Kearney and Kristina Wong. Disney Hall, southwest corner, downtown; Thurs.-Sat., July 31-August 2, 8:30 p.m. (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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