|Mr. Mark Murphy
Mark Murphy, Executive Director of Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (aka, REDCAT), is an influential leader in the national and international field of contemporary performing arts, with 20 years of experience producing, presenting and developing new audiences for interdisciplinary performances. Murphy has served as Chairman of the Choreographer’s Fellowship Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts, was a founding s member of the National Performance Network (NPN), and an advisor to the National Dance Project.
Before joining REDCAT, he had served as Artistic Director of On the Boards, a contemporary performing arts center in Seattle for the year from 1984 to 2001. There Murphy commissioned or co-produced adventurous new productions from some of the world’s most influential contemporary performing artists, and developed a unique model for combining the disparate acts of producing and presenting – helping emerging and established artists to create and tour new works, and also serving as a leading host of major international and national productions.
Murphy developed an award-winning educational program for youth which combined everything from intensive artist-in-the-schools projects and the creation of rap and hip-hop musicals to the launching of a break-dance academy. Murphy has also been active as a writer, performer and director, having performed his original solo and group projects at multiple venues throughout the U.S., and developed three projects for PBS affiliate KCTS TV. He is the winner of first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for Feature Writing and radio documentary production. He is a graduate of Fairhaven College.
(Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater)
|Mark Murphy is known as one of the founders of the On the Boards theater in Seattle where he served as artistic director from 1988 to 2001. On the Boards was founded in 1978 as a contemporary performing arts group formed by artists from the fields of dance, theater, music and performance. Since then, it has been actively producing and presenting works by young artists and serving as a performance venue for introducing many overseas contemporary performing artists to the American audience. Today it serves as a vital base for the contemporary performing arts in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Murphy now serves as the first executive director of REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), a facility occupying part of the famous Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by architect Frank Gehry. Operating as the downtown center for contemporary arts of California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), REDCAT has a theater space of (650 sq. m.) and gallery space (280 sq. m.). In addition to its role as an interdisciplinary contemporary arts center for innovative visual, performing and media arts for the students and professors of CalArts, REDCAT has also become a new base of the arts in Los Angeles presenting a far-reaching roster of work by globally renowned artists. In this interview Murphy speaks about On the Boards and his new work at REDCAT.
Interviewer: Yoko Shioya
, Artistic Director of the Japan Society
When I visited REDCAT for the first time, it was in the relatively early days after it opened, and you told me an interesting story. You said, “The post-performance scene in Europe is great, where everybody is hanging around, drinking, chatting with the artists and new people until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., and talking about the work they just saw. I want to have that kind of scene here, but nobody stays for post-performance here. So I have “planted” some people in the lobby area with wine glasses in their hands, in order to create a post-performance scene that the audience will join.”
Yes, that’s true. It’s very important that we encourage our audience to stay and have a drink to meet the artists after the performance. But it was unusual in Los Angeles to have a bar open after the show. So, we turned on the music and all of our ushers and staff members had a drink in the lobby – looking like we are having fun.
Did that “planting” device work? Has your audience adopted the habit of hanging around after the show these days?
Yes, they caught on quite quickly. And now it is one of the keys toward success because it is so important to build a sense of community around the space, in conjunction with both Gallery exhibitions as well as theater events.
One of the reasons that I am involved in presenting when I was at On the Boards – though I was then a performing artist – was to expose the local artists to important developments in the arts – especially performing arts – around the world, so that it might allow them to be part of the larger international conversation about the evolution of contemporary culture. I hoped it might influence their work in some way, and help them to have a more sophisticated view of what’s happening in the field.
Before REDCAT, there had not been an organization in L.A. focused on inter-disciplinary work that we are specialized in now; except at a smaller scale at Highways Performance Space. At that time, the arts center at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) was more than a main-stream presenter. Even after they became more adventurous under the leadership of David Sefton, they still present mostly large-scale work. So REDCAT’s has been the only mid-size ‘niche’ presentation space, with its 277-seat maximum theater.
I found many film/video related programs at REDCAT. But counting only live performances, how many programs do you present during a season?
There are about 100 events each year. In terms of “productions,” maybe 70 or 80. That includes one-night music concerts as well as four-week residencies. But, it also includes work by Los Angeles artists in addition to out-of-town artists. On top of that, in 2011 and again in 2013 we are producing LA Radar, our contemporary theater festival. That is another 15 different productions on top of the full year program.
And, there is mention on the REDCAT website that, “REDCAT continues the tradition of the California Institute of the Arts,...” Would you explain what is referred to as the “tradition” of CalArts, and how REDCAT incorporates the tradition into its programming and activities?
One of the unique things about CalArts is that it was one of the first colleges of the arts to include performing arts, visual arts, and film and all the art forms under one roof of one giant building, to encourage artists to collaborate across the disciplines and learn more than just their own crafts. And that is also a very important part of what REDCAT does. We consider our theater to be a sort of creative laboratory where collaborations are often combining different disciplines, and artists are experimenting with new technologies.
And that’s an important resource for artists, I think, and important to me personally because, as I will explain later, it is the roots of On the Boards, too. When I first started to work for On the Boards, it was a field where artists from dance, theater and music were trying to find new forms or expression – going beyond what the traditional structured play is and beyond just dancing to perform pure dance. We at REDCAT present some “plays” and some dance that is just dance – but what we really appreciate is the work combining forms and developing new ways to tell us a story.
We try to establish a relationship with our audience that encourages them to take a risk on unknown artists. They understand that by buying tickets they are participating in a creative process, and perhaps discovering something completely new. That is why it’s so important to have a chance to drink afterwards to talk about what they saw.
Each year in your season brochure, I find some international artists whom I know about and I could tell their appearance at REDCAT is part of their U.S. tours including venues that I know well. At the same time I also find many artists who look interesting but I have no idea who they are. I assume they are the local L.A. artists?
Yes. We collaborate with many partners locally. And we co-present their projects. Also, we collaborate with our colleagues at CalArts. They are people who know emerging composers, for example, that I am not familiar with. I love contemporary music but my primary area of expertise is theater and dance. But they may have a composer in residence, developing a new project, and then we premiere it at REDCAT. So working collaboratively with the colleagues especially in the school of music as well as visual art, and film and video and animation, is very exciting, and every day brings the opportunity for something new.
Usually “artists in residence” means “visiting artists” from other cities and other countries. There is a long tradition at CalArts of having these artists as guest faculty and guest teachers. Their faculty and students are all considered to be members of the community of working artists. Sometimes it’s just an international exchange or some sort through which the artist stays at CalArts for developing a new project specifically, but they also do workshops for students. Often the students and faculty are involved in a new presentation especially when the students are musicians and dancers.
What is the demography of the REDCAT audience? Is it mainly CalArts students?
It’s a real mix. One of our unique things about the situation with CalArts is that the school is 30 miles away from REDCAT. The audiences are also made up of people who are from many different disciplines. For theater and dance events we may also have audience with backgrounds in film or animation, or music or visual arts. Our audiences are quite young – a lot of students from other schools and a lot of young artists. We try to encourage them by keeping ticket prices affordable and having student discounts.
Recently when we had a Wooster Group, which we have an ongoing relationship, their founding member and its director Elizabeth LeCompte said she likes LA audiences because they don’t seem to care too much about theater or know how to watch theater even, she said. Of course what she meant is that they are open to new ideas and not necessarily confined to traditional expectations. I think it’s because – unlike New York, where there is a much larger commercial theater industry – creative industry in Los Angeles is very diverse, such as music industry, film industry, animation industry, etc. (although many are commercial) – so there are perhaps less clear lines between disciplines.
It is quite often said that the strength of New York’s arts community is that it is very easy to meet people – on the street, in the theater, in a bar. On the other hand, Los Angeles is often referred to as a car-oriented city where it is impossible to run into someone on a street. How do you manage the “disadvantage” of the car-oriented lifestyle in Los Angeles?
When I first moved here, I was nervous about how this would be possible. When weather was so beautiful and it was so difficult to get across town – I wasn’t sure whether people even go to see performances. But I found that because they are so isolated in their cars and in their homes, there was a craving for social interaction especially around cultural activities. And these days so many people are using the social network platform to let people know where they are going. The events we present at REDCAT are important social opportunities for people to interact.
I used to go to a lot of other events when I first moved here. But now our Associate Director, George Lugg, oversees a lot of our local artists’ programs. Other people in our staff are also involved in arts themselves, either as performers, actors or musicians – therefore they are active participants in cultural life – so there are ongoing discussions about interesting things and what people have seen and what is happening.
So these days, how frequently do you go out to see performances at other venues?
At the beginning it was maybe four or five, but these days one or two – (laughs) – because I have to be here so much. But, I am able to sort of keep tracking what’s happening. Still we can’t see everything, and that is one of the reasons we use artists as guest curators for our STUDIO program, and involve artists as selection panel members to help review proposals for our NEW ORIGINAL WORKS festival. For both of those programs we do an “open call,” so anyone can apply.
You must receive a lot of proposals for these programs.
Yes, a lot. STUDIO is a showcase program to introduce new works and works-in-progress of new artists, giving an opportunity to hone their skills. It also offers established artists a chance to test new material and works-in-progress before audience. A revolving panel of working artists curates each edition, selecting artists through a live showing process. For this program, we actually do live showings for fifteen minutes of work in progress of the curator of the program.
For this STUDIO Program, which we do three times a year, we usually receive at least 50 proposals. Out of the 50-60 proposals for each STUDIO program, we do showing of 12-15 for curators in order to select 5 to 6 pieces to present in the program.
For our NEW ORIGINAL WORKS festival, each summer we receive anywhere from 120 to 150 proposals. This festival is a three-week interdisciplinary program of a variety of short works and some longer projects in their Los Angeles premieres. The artists are given development support, from rehearsal space, technical assistance and access to equipment to an honorarium. Our panel, which is mostly artists and colleagues, narrow those proposals down to 20. And George and I further narrow them down to select 8 to 10 projects that will be featured in the festival.
Sometimes those open-call programs become a sort of stepping stone – STUDIO program is a way for new artists to be introduced, and they may then apply for NEW ORIGINAL WORKS festival, and have a chance to develop the idea further. And, then some projects from our NEW ORIGINAL WORKS festival each year will also be given a later opportunity to be fully developed. And sometimes they are able to build a commission or co-commission, and will eventually be able to have a possible tour.
How many does REDCAT commissioning each year?
In most of the years, there may be three to five performing arts projects that we are involved in commissioning or co-commissioning. In addition, another three or four are commissioned for our gallery. And if we are able to build a larger co-commissioning consortium – perhaps funds become available through the National Performance Network, the National Dance Project or the National Theater Project, or any special resource.
Most of the new projects that we fully present through our NEW ORIGINAL WORKS festival or some smaller projects may not get a lot of cash as a commission. So, we apply some rehearsal time, expertise and space for a premiere piece. The amount of financial support we can provide is really not much more than they might need as a fee, but sometimes the performance opportunity allows them to raise some money on their own.
From what point did you recognize yourself as a person who would be deeply involved in the performing arts industry?
It was at a very young age because my family has a very long history of being involved in the theater, in one form or the other. My grandfather was a playwright and director, and a Shakespeare scholar; my uncle is a playwright and director; my father was an actor and a television host; my mother is an artist, a painter. So arts were always part of our life as I grew up.
I was born in Idaho, and when I was three, we moved to New York. So I lived in New York City and took tap dancing class (laugh). But the whole family was in Washington State so we moved when I was 13 to a small town in Washington called Walla Walla. My grandfather was the head of the English Department of Walla Walla University, and a founder of a little armature theater company. My first professional job was when I was 15; I played many parts in theater plays, including musical pageants. But, my singing was not very good, so I pretended (laugh). I continued to be very involved in theater and some dance. All of my siblings were involved in the theater or dance, either professionally or as amateurs. It’s sort of “in the blood.”
I went to Fairhaven College, a small college connected to Western Washington University, located in Bellingham – mid-way between Seattle and Vancouver. They had an alternative college program – so you could design your own “concentration” as they called it, rather than a “major.” The school was started in 1968, so it had a sort of hippy vive, and was progressive politically and socially conscious. My concentration was called “Communicative Arts As A Catalyst For Social Change,” which included training in theater. Also I took English as a major and Communication as a minor, which included radio and TV. In fact I was producing radio documentaries and radio theater.
Oh yes, your bio on the REDCAT website says, “….the winner of first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for Feature Writing and radio documentary production.”
Yes, that’s right. It was in 1980s. I worked as a radio DJ as a side job. In college I was very involved in theater, but I was also involved in a presenting program, putting on concerts and lectures. The student government was involved in student affairs with an arts and lecture program, organizing special events. Among those, we presented Meredith Monk, who was not very well-known at that time, at least in Bellingham, Washington.
After that, I lived in Olympia, the Washington State capital, working as a lobbyist for the president of the college in the state legislature, being an advocator for low tuition and higher education in general. I thought lobbying was a form of acting, actually (laughs). While doing that I realized the important thing for me was to work in and around creative people. So, I was working as an actor in Seattle when I applied for the job at On the Boards and started working there in 1984.
On the Boards was then an “artists-run” contemporary performing arts organization started by independent artists in dance, theater, music, performance arts, and literary arts, in 1978. I was doing all of the organizing for local artists programs – such as producing and presenting; also doing all of the publicity and marketing. I became Artistic Director officially in 1988. I was mostly helping artists in Seattle area to produce and develop their new work through informal programs, our annual festival, and some co-commissioning for larger projects. I was producing especially inter-disciplinary work, like mix of dance, theater, music and a lot of collaborations and helping artists to clarify what they wanted to say, and help them figure out how to develop new works,.
Was there any moment when you thought you would probably be active more on the producer and presenter side than on the artist/performer side of things?
I was also working as an artist as much as possible. I did solo performances. Also, I had a small ensemble theater company and made short-format theater works. I also made some independent film projects. There was a little bit of touring as a solo performer. Although I did act and perform in others’ works, too, I was mostly working on my own in short format, like 15-minute theater pieces, and put together in On the Boards’ programs.
When I was working for On the Boards, it was a day job. It didn’t pay well but it was a real job. Of course in the United States, almost all performing artists, dancers, actors, and writers have some other jobs. Up until I moved here in L.A., I had a rule that I would do some sort of performing or some sort of creative work for myself at least once every six months. And I had continued to do so, though after I moved to L.A. and the opening of REDCAT, it became difficult. But I still write for myself. Some day I would like to be a performer again. It’s so important to keep creative ways of thinking open. It requires the use of a different part of your brain.
You had spent a lot of time in the state of Washington. What was your motivation to move out of Washington to live in L.A?
In Seattle we had quite a bit of success both with producing and presenting, and began to do more international work including works from Asia. For some time we were the only place in the United States presenting some of the Japanese performing artists who came to the States. We did many different projects – everyone from Kazuo Ohno and Sankai Juku
to dumb type
, Kim Itoh
, Akira Kasai
, Butoh-sha Tenkei, etc. We opened the new theater for On the Boards in 1998, and at that time I had been there for 15 years already. When it finally opened, I thought, “I have been here for 15 years. After some time, and when it is stable, what am I going to do next?”
In 2001, I was called by the president of CalArts, Steven Lavine. They were planning to create REDCAT in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. He asked me to come down to speak to them about On the Boards. Then he asked me to move to California to help to start REDCAT. After having done a big capitol campaign, raising money, construction, dealing with architects, and building two-theater complex for On the Boards, all of which were so hard, I swore that I would never get involved in any project like that again. But, next thing I knew, a few years later I was having a tour in a construction site in downtown Los Angeles (laughs). I started working first as a consultant for REDCAT in 2001, and moved here to L.A. in January 2002. And REDCAT opened in the autumn of 2003.
So after a lot of sweat and tears to create a new theater for On the Boards, you spent only three more years there. Didn’t you want to indulge yourself in the new facilities?
Yeah, I did. And we did some great work for the three years. But after the organization went through the capital campaign and got a new building, there were some changes in the new organization and Boards came up with some different ideas about what they might want to do, etc., It became somewhat complex. And when an opportunity to do something new in a larger city showed up, I saw it was a great opportunity and I was very glad. I like Los Angeles very much. And, the connection with CalArts makes REDCAT a very unique organization.
Looking back on your days at On The Boards, what do you think was your biggest accomplishment as a presenter?
I am especially proud of the way that we were able to find a strong balance of both presenting and producing. And we also were very involved in doing a lot of international presenting and building international networks. We presented some of the first United States appearances by very interesting international artists. I found it very gratifying. We had success with many projects we developed locally that toured in the U.S. and abroad.
Talking about tours and international artists, I now remember that you are one of the founding members of the National Performance Network (NPN).
Yes, On the Boards was the one of the first five or six organizations of the NPN. In 1985 we hosted one of the first larger meetings of NPN in Seattle. NPN’s Suitcase Fund allowed us to be more involved in international projects and was very exciting. In those days, there was no Internet and no e-mail. Communication was only through fax, and we even physically mailed letters and contracts. It was costly sending big, bulky video tapes; traveling whenever possible. Seattle was a very isolated area to me in those days. Even traveling to New York was a big deal; travel internationally could be done only once or twice a year, at most. When I think about it, compared to now it is a big difference – it was difficult to obtain information about international artists’ work. That’s why NPN was so important, because it was a chance where all of us could be in a room together and show video tapes and talk about great scenes. NPN sometimes invited international guests to attend its conferences and meetings, so we would meet them there for the first time. That was very valuable.
Let’s return to talking about REDCAT. How much are the performing arts program’s yearly presenting costs, excluding staff salary?
Including fees for the artists, it’s approximately $700,000 for the performing arts program – not necessarily counting film and video programs.
How much do you have to involve yourself in fundraising?
A lot. Sometimes I would say that I spend almost 70% of my time for fundraising. And, then 40% is for program, and another 40% is for being administrator. And I think it adds up to 150% (laughs). Each year we need to raise between $1.2 and 1.5 million depending on whether it’s a large program year or a small year. Anyway, $1.2 million is approximately one half of REDCAT’s budget. We rely a lot on earned income, and we have an endowment, which is very modest, just over $5 million. It was a little larger at one point, and now approaching between five and six million. It generates some income each year, approximately a quarter of a million dollars. This year we will celebrate 10th anniversary. I am hoping that perhaps ten years after we opened, some foundations and individuals who contributed to creating REDCAT might be open to discussion about reinvesting in our second decade.
REDCAT occupies part of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Is the Disney family continuing their support?
Yes. Roy Disney, who was a member of the Disney family, made the largest single contribution to create REDCAT. And in fact, it was named after his parents – REDCAT stands for Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theater. He passed away two years ago, but his son, Tim – whose great uncle is Walt Disney, is now the chair of our REDCAT council and advisory Boards, and quite involved. He is a very smart and passionate man, and an artist himself – an independent filmmaker. Disney Company continues to be involved in CalArts, and therefore in REDCAT as well.
CalArts was founded by Walt Disney, and its inter-disciplinary mission was originally the dream of Walt Disney. He thought that animators should understand about telling stories so that they would understand the basic concept of theater; they should also understand the concepts of choreography and how the body moves in space. Therefore they need to know about dance and music. He really thought that a community of artists would result in innovation. He aimed to create a place where they could invent as-yet-unheard-of art forms.
Last topic I want to ask about is performing arts in Japan.
Since I rotated out from the panel for The Japan Foundation’s Performing Arts Japan program, I have missed the opportunity to keep informed about important developments in Japanese performing arts. I would like to follow things and want to do research, but I can’t. I am way overdue – it’s almost 10 years since I traveled to Japan last time. I definitely have to fix that soon, because I definitely want to keep presenting Japanese artists.
Los Angeles has a large Japanese-American community. Is that one of the motivations for you to keep presenting Japanese artists?
Los Angeles, being located in southwestern United States, has culture that is influenced as much by Asian cultures and Latin American cultures as by European cultures. This is a very important aspect of the culture in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is in a school district where more than 200 different languages are spoken. So it’s a very, very diverse city. But, we found that there is a strong interest in performing arts from Asia, especially Japan. And it’s not just with the Asian audience but in general. I hope we can put more and more Japanese artists in our program.
The next presentation we have planned is Hiroaki Umeda
in two weeks. As you know we had Toshiki Okada
. I can send you a list but I can quickly tell you some. In contemporary dance, we had Akaji Maro
, Kan Katsura, dumb type
– who was one of the first artists presented when we opened the theater. We also did music programs, including Yasunao Tone, and recently a collaboration between Gozo Yoshimasu and Yoshihide Otomo. For the traditional art forms, we worked together with the Japan Society to bring Awaji Puppet Theater.
What is your view of the influence of Japanese pop culture?
We certainly see Japanese influence in pop culture in the Los Angeles area. For instance, one of our supporters and close friends is the editor of Giant Robot magazine? Are you familiar with that? Its focus is pretty much on contemporary U.S.-Asian culture, with an emphasis on hybrid popular culture in music, fashion, and visual art. There is a lot of interest in Japanese fashion and certainly anime. Last year, as part of the Platform International Animation Festival, we did a huge program last October including Katsuhiro Otomo, who is famous for “Akira
.” We showed his brand-new short film.
Have you found any unique aspects in Japanese artists and/or in forms of Japanese performing arts? Is there anything that inspires you?
It is difficult to articulate because there has been such a wide range of artists from Japan that I have worked with. But I am very impressed overall by the very deeply felt sense of commitment to unique forms of movement or theatrical expression. I don’t know why, but just as the ancient traditional performing arts in Japan especially, in contemporary performance it seems to have resulted in very strong discipline, through an almost ritualistic approach to creating a unique voice in the arts. I found this certainly in the practitioners of the Butoh form. Even in contemporary funny writers and theater makers like Okada, somehow there is a poet’s sensibility. I see more present in much of the work I most admire from Japan than in that from some other cultures. I don’t know why–or it may be completely inaccurate – but in a way perhaps, it’s almost a form for them to have a deep honor for the arts and practice.
Thank you very much for sparing us time today from you busy schedule for this interview.