Mark Murphy, the recently appointed executive director of REDCAT, the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, looks too refined to be wearing a hardhat. Slim, with delicate features and wearing an Oxford shirt, he's standing in the REDCAT construction space inside Walt Disney Concert Hall; workers hoist Sheetrock, and circular saws roar through metal behind him. "Frank Gehry has described Disney Hall as a living room for Los Angeles," Murphy says. "I think of us as the basement laboratory or rec room."
It would be hard to find a rec room this ambitious. The walls are still unfinished, revealing the dense network of ventilation, optical cable and wiring that makes the high-ceilinged room, which will seat between 180 and 266, look like something out of "Blade Runner." With sophisticated acoustics and extensive wiring for video and film projection, the walls are seismically balanced so precisely that simply drilling a hole in the wall requires X-raying the concrete for structural soundness.
Today, with a kind of boyish exhilaration, Murphy, 42, is discussing his plans for this $21-million gallery and performance space, which he envisions as informal, flexible, technologically sophisticated. He promises to bring important international groups to town, and to make REDCAT a lab for edgy new programming produced here. Both are skills he honed in his 17 years at Seattle's On the Boards, an alternative performance space that's hosted the Wooster Group, Laurie Anderson and Bill T. Jones and nurtured local talent.
As he attempts the mix in L.A, he'll be fighting a war on two fronts: trying to offer Los Angeles fresh, interdisciplinary performances from all over and to satisfy the educational mission of his CalArts masters in Valencia. Murphy, who arrived in January to consult for CalArts and was named to his current post in October, is an unpretentious guy who seems to thrive on getting people to agree. He'll probably need his enthusiasm and steady temper in the months ahead as he tries to create a venue that's one part Brooklyn Academy of Music, one part high-end student recital.
University President Steve Lavine has been seeking a space in the city for 15 years -- a pedagogical version of New York's the Kitchen -- to bring the school's artists to a larger audience and to bolster L.A.'s arts community. "It's hard here to have a career in contemporary-minded performance; dance is almost impossible. And there's a whole new kind of media art, as well as new-music theater, that are really rich forms in our time but meagerly represented here.
"Our focus is nurturing artists' careers; that's what CalArts is about."
Though there's some suspicion that CalArts' brass may see the space as an outlet for projects by students and faculty, not a resource for the city, "The thing it will not be is any kind of vanity showplace for CalArts," says Lavine.
"The term I often use is that we're an annex for CalArts in the city," Murphy says, adding that the setting can benefit the city and the school. "I think more interaction with the harsh realities of the real world can be useful for students and faculty."
Murphy sees REDCAT's programs as being one-third artists from CalArts, one-third from the L.A. area and one-third by touring companies. In addition to major residencies by theater and performance groups, the season will include new music, an authors and poets series, and film, video and animation.
He's still nailing down the rest of the season, but he's ready to announce some of next year's programs, which will begin with Dumb Type, a Japanese octet whose performance is based on movement and electronics. Residencies by groups like this will feature performances, discussions, master classes and workshops for artists in the community and students at CalArts.
The artists, says Murphy, will shape the futuristic space. REDCAT will have almost 500 light circuits, more than many Broadway houses, as well as two parallel sound systems, one for film and video, the second for live performance. Signals from the Internet can be projected within the space, and performances in REDCAT can be broadcast over the Internet.
As Murphy puts it: "It's a well-equipped blank canvas."
Just how groovy and nurturing will the place be?
Susan Solt, dean of the school of theater, says she's most interested in making a space for "the imaginative creative artist who's really pushing the envelope," as well as offering "a professional component" for students and faculty. Several CalArts faculty members -- say, playwriting professor Suzan-Lori Parks, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Topdog/Underdog" -- would be a natural for the REDCAT space.