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Honing the cutting edge

At REDCAT, CalArts' high-tech theater inside Disney Hall, director Mark Murphy has ambitious plans for new programming.

December 08, 2002|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

But no matter what the balance of CalArts versus non-CalArts programming, the work REDCAT stages may well be less flashy than its recent high-profile productions. Works like its unconventional and much publicized June production of "King Lear" -- delivered with video cameras and an audience that roamed through a warehouse space -- will be difficult for REDCAT to mount. The budget for that production was $450,000 -- a sizable chunk of REDCAT's entire annual budget, which Murphy says will be at least $1 million and perhaps as much as $2 million.

Murphy says that REDCAT's fare will be smaller in scale than most of what's offered at UCLA Performing Arts' Theater Festival -- chamber music, he says, to UCLA's symphonies. "The space is designed for intimacy and for a high-impact relationship with the performers," Murphy says, stressing also the room's flexible technology. And competition he says, can be healthy.

Village theater over 'Star Wars'

"There's a certain enzyme that gets released when you're experiencing a live performance," says Murphy, the son of an actor/TV personality, Cullen Murphy, and a painter, Jeannette Murphy, who sometimes designed for the stage. "I also try to be really open and vulnerable to subconscious impact. I think it's the obviousness of most movies that frustrates me."

Murphy describes a childhood in Staten Island and Walla Walla, Wash., that was uncommonly distanced from pop culture: He remembers feeling guilty for preferring the plays he saw in Greenwich Village theaters to the Disney films his friends knew. While other kids in the pre-punk '70s bought Emerson, Lake & Palmer, he was hung up on jazz and "Jesus Christ Superstar." The teenage Murphy fell asleep at "Star Wars" when it came out in 1977.

He acted locally, doing work onstage as well as on public television throughout high school and college.

After dabbling in radio -- his first job was at a country station in Washington -- and local politics, he leapt back into theater at On the Boards, hungry to be back with creative people.

He started as a PR and marketing director, and in less than four years he'd become artistic director. "On the Boards was an artist-founded organization that was first and foremost designed to serve artists in the development of their work," he says. "The reason we began to do so much presenting was to expose the artists' community to what was happening around the world. I found myself alternately playing the role of dramaturge, producer, hand-holder and at times, almost the booking manager."

Stretching an annual budget that grew from $325,000 to $1.2 million by the time he left in 2001, Murphy found Seattle artists, many of them with little experience, and developed them through programs like monthly 12 Minutes Max nights -- informal curated evenings where artists presented short pieces -- into mature, touring groups. An average of two groups a year toured internationally, and some of his finds, like dance theater group 33 Fainting Spells or "garage orchestra" the Degenerate Art Ensemble, ended up winning awards in Europe. Murphy's success with this, Lavine says, was a major reason for CalArts' interest.

REDCAT's plans to build local talent are what Murphy seems most excited about. Such programs already exist in Los Angeles, some of them long-standing and with a track record of success. The Mark Taper Forum, for instance, runs an annual New Work Festival, as well as Taper, Too, for what the Taper calls "fully staged productions for cutting-edge theater works." Its laboratory programs develop work by Latino, black, Asian American and disabled playwrights. South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa has a development program called Collaboration Laboratory with a national reputation.

But REDCAT's programs would differ, Murphy says, by being more interdisciplinary. "A majority of what they develop could be classified as plays," says Murphy; his projects would be less dependent on text, with strong elements of dance, visual art, video and architecture. Murphy envisions a year-round presence, with an evening based on 12 Minutes Max offered quarterly, then every four to six weeks, and an Interdisciplinary Festival annually. "So there could be a 17-year-old hip-hop dance theater group alongside a veteran writer or choreographer," he says.

"Mark has a vision that's not just about the box office, but about process and development," says Luis Alfaro, the L.A. playwright and performer, who helps develop the work of emerging artists at the Taper. "That's a very important agenda these days, because there's not a lot of people doing it." Alfaro has known Murphy since he performed at On the Boards in the mid-1980s as part of 12 Minutes Max. "Everybody [in the performance world] knows Mark. He's got a reputation for consistency as an administrator," in a world with very high turnover.

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