From Georgetown to downtown, a theatrical life with a national impact

By Jane Horwitz
Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Donn B. Murphy is a man of the theater in every sense. As the National Theatre's president and executive director since the early 1980s, he has hobnobbed with such stars as Helen Hayes and Cherry Jones. Katharine Hepburn offered to paint the National's ceiling, he says.

Murphy also taught theater to five decades of Georgetown University students before retiring in 1999. Two alumni, director Jack Hofsiss and playwright John Guare, went on to win Tony Awards. At the end of the month, Murphy, who turned 80 in July, will step down from his posts at the National, though he'll remain on the theater's board.

For many years at Georgetown, Murphy was the theater department, and there was no such thing as a theater major. "I remember a friend of mine once called and asked for the theater department, and the operator said, 'All we have is Mr. Murphy.' So as a result of that, I really taught everything," Murphy says. That meant scenic design, acting, oral interpretation, improvisation and directing.

Former students celebrated his birthday with a weekend of tributes at Georgetown in October, including panel discussions looking back his teaching career.

The tributes, viewable on YouTube, show a common thread: Murphy encouraged students to try the impossible. "Astonish me," he would say when they worried that they'd taken on too big a challenge. How to create a battering ram for a play at the last minute? Just hold three students up horizontally, and make them the battering ram.

Frank Tobin, a Chicago publicist and 1973 Georgetown grad, was a key organizer of the tribute.

"There was something in the air during his years," Tobin says. "Someone who started in a basement, with no budget, no title really . . . finally at the end of his tenure, they had a theater department. . . . That was his dream, to have a theater department recognized at Georgetown as a full major."

After graduating from Georgetown, Hofsiss went on to win a Tony at age 26 for directing "The Elephant Man" in its 1979 Broadway debut. At Georgetown, he says, Murphy was "fearless" and taught students to be, as well. "There was nothing that couldn't be done, and so, for me in particular, who wanted a career in theater but didn't have the guts to act on it quite yet, he really . . . implied that you could do it. If you want it, you can do it. That's a good life lesson as well as an academic one," Hofsiss says.

A show Hofsiss wrote while at Georgetown, a high school musical called "Senior Prom," went off-campus in 1972 and ran for nearly a year at the now-defunct O Street Theatre. Now Hofsiss and Tobin are talking about reviving the show regionally with the hope of taking it off-Broadway.

Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation," "The House of Blue Leaves") won a Tony in 1972 for writing the book for the musical "Two Gentleman of Verona." In a letter he sent to October's Georgetown tribute, he wrote, "Dear Donn, you taught me that the joy one had putting on plays was not some extracurricular hobby. It could be the very reason for a life."

Susan Lynskey, a visiting assistant professor of theater at Georgetown, didn't study with Murphy, but she called him when she first came to town, on the advice of a former student. In an e-mail, she described her first timid phone conversation with Murphy, who was in his National Theatre office. "I'm seeking a little advice about how to get started as an actor in D.C.," she asked him. He shot back, "How's this afternoon? Come to the National." When she hesitated at the sudden invitation, Lynskey remembers, Murphy said, "Well, you have to get started."

It was, Lynskey writes, "just like that. I will never forget it. He cut through all the trepidation and went straight for the dream. . . . He gives you permission to give yourself permission. That is an extraordinary gift."

Six years after Hofsiss won his Tony, he had a swimming accident and has used a wheelchair ever since. Murphy has never ceased to be a mentor, Hofsiss says. After the accident, Murphy "was again more helpful than I think he might have known . . . great spirit and incredibly enthusiastic, but not hollow."

Looking back at his career, toggling between Georgetown and the National, Murphy feels he had the best of both worlds.

"I was in this mid-position between really seeing something of the backstage life of professional Broadway shows, and on the other hand, seeing people who just began with an interest in theater and it developed somehow. . . . I love having a hand in both sides of that divide."

And Murphy is keeping a hand in: He recently caught a preview of the troubled "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" musical on Broadway and says he sent director Julie Taymor 10 pages of unsolicited notes.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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