Since taking over as artistic director at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre, Joe Murphy has had to suspend his first full season due to the Covid-19 crisis. He tells Nicholas Davies how the venue is planning for its eventual reopening, while reaching out to the community and striving to support artists in the meantime
Meeting Joe Murphy, the new artistic director of Sherman Theatre, seven weeks ago over coffee in the venue’s vibrant foyer, he was a man brimming with excitement. His first full season as artistic director was underway and he was about to begin rehearsals for his first play as director since taking over.
With writer Brad Birch, Murphy was about to reimagine Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in a post-industrial South Wales landscape, telling a story that was still “very alive, very exciting and of the moment… but a real challenge for us as an artistic team”. He was very evidently relishing that challenge.
Less than two months on, we talk again, this time on a video call, all too aware that An Enemy of the People had been due to open this week but is instead mothballed until next year – yet another theatrical casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. Murphy could be forgiven for betraying some understandable disappointment, and yet his zeal for what he can achieve as a director, and as leader of a producing theatre, remains remarkably undimmed. Even over video, he is animated and passionate as we discuss his theatre’s role in a markedly different world.
“The Sherman exists to help people flourish through artistic engagement,” he says. “So when lockdown happened, we agreed we needed to do just that, even though it has to be in a different way.” From the first day the Sherman building was forced to close its doors, Murphy and his team set about creating a new kind of theatre – a genuine resource for its community as well as the professional sector. “We have two missions which form our basis for connecting: to serve audiences, and to support our artists. So, for audiences, that’s through new content, such as the new writing we’re known for, and then for our artists, we asked ourselves how we can make this crisis work for us as a sector.”
Halfway through his inaugural season, the global crisis meant he had to put together an altogether different slate of work, and all without a theatre space in which to do it. A new season, titled Interval, was launched.
“The first project of Interval is called Ten, inspired by Papatango’s initiative,” he says, referencing the London-based new-writing company. “We wanted to select 10 Welsh or Wales-based writers to create short monologues to be performed and self-filmed by actors. The response to this was extraordinary, with more than 80 submissions from writers we knew and writers we’d never heard of. It’s a great way of platforming new talent along with more familiar writers – and we’ll be rolling out two of these plays a week on digital platforms.”
Murphy has also used this period to collaborate with other companies in Wales. “We’ve got a series of play readings co-produced with National Theatre Wales [which is also under new leadership with Lorne Campbell having recently taken over]. It’s about hearing great plays but produced by companies that are not regularly funded, offering our audiences thrilling new artists taking on sometimes well-known works. It’s going to be really interesting to hear what these rebel companies do with plays we know well as well as some newer, less familiar pieces.”
Importantly for the Sherman, it allows the company to engage more deeply with talent that often may remain on the fringe, even more so during the current crisis. “We can’t pretend we can do what we normally do. For artists at the moment, there’s loneliness, there’s isolation, anxiety, the sense of being cut off from your creativity… and we thought those are things we can do something about – with our time being one of our main resources, as well as our capacity to connect with a number of people.”
What was your first professional theatre job?
Cleaning dishes in a local care home.
What was your first non-theatre job?
The summer I graduated from drama school, I helped move some furniture around for a friend to earn some money. It turns out the first one I did was helping to move Josie Rourke into her new flat, just as she took up her post as artistic director of the Bush Theatre. I cheekily asked her for a job and she brought me on as an assistant director on a new Mike Bartlett play the Bush was doing. Without Josie’s support and lugging some furniture, I would never have got that first job.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
You can’t control your career or how ‘successful’ you will be, so don’t try. Instead, focus on what you can control: how hard you work, the integrity you bring to your practice, the people you work with and, most importantly, your reasons for wanting to make theatre in the first place.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I know this is corny, but it’s the people I get to work with: each one of them inspires and challenges me and makes me think about who I am and what work I want to make.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Meet the people auditioning you as equals. You both need each other, although the power dynamic feels very one-sided. You are of value and what you have to offer is of value. So trust in that.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I’m not sure I can do anything else. But I would have loved to have gone into politics.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Too many to mention.
Time With is an initiative that opens the door to artists who want to engage with Murphy himself or with his creative team, offering one-to-one meetings for emerging theatre professionals. Some of Wales’ finest practitioners, including Gary Owen, Dafydd James and Suzanne Packer, have joined the Sherman’s impressive roster of experienced talent espousing advice and support to the rest of the theatrical community. “The response has been incredible,” says Murphy. “I think I’ve already met almost 50 people I might not have had the chance to previously.”
Other initiatives include Your Platform, in which theatre practitioners’ work is showcased by the Sherman online, offering them up for either lockdown projects or future bookings, while Murphy has also made a commitment to acting students at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, watching the graduates’ monologues and providing notes and careers advice.
The Sherman is well-known locally for its outreach and youth theatre activity – is it more challenging to sustain this part of its work during this period of isolation? “Tim Howe, our creative engagement manager, is doing some really exciting things… We noticed that a lot of young people’s work around the UK at the moment is focused on what the current situation and lockdown means, but we felt that as young people, the big question isn’t about what’s happening now, but what’s going to happen next?”
The Roaring Twenties is the youth theatre’s response to that question, the participants pondering what revolution might look like in the next decade, once we finally emerge from our present situation. “They’ll be designing their own reopening party, they’ll be writing their own TED Talks on how they want the world to evolve, challenging all of us to rise to the issues we’ll face once we’re out of this crisis.”
So, how does Murphy foresee the Sherman emerging from this time in history? “What we’re trying to not do is predict the scenarios,” he says. “We need to make sure we’re responsive and proactive to any scenario. But we are definitely committed to postponing, not cancelling, all the projects we had scheduled.”
Not least Murphy’s own version of An Enemy of the People, which was due to run from the end of April and through much of May. “It was gutting as I love that project and we were so close to putting it on, but it pales in comparison to what the world is going through,” he says philosophically. “But it’s made me more determined; I want to work even harder to counter-balance the bad things that are going on. Rather than a disappointment – which it definitely was – it turned into a commitment and a conviction to put the show on when I can.”
The production’s run has been put back to 2021, but there is much for Murphy to do before then. “The job in front of me right now is ensuring the Sherman’s future as well as hopefully contributing to the survival of the sector, and keeping the connection with our audience. It’s felt like a gauntlet being thrown down to me and the team.”
And with Murphy’s infectious enthusiasm and a brain fizzing with new ideas, it’s a challenge one fully expects his team to overcome, ensuring theatre continues to thrive even when its auditoriums remain dark.
Training: University of Exeter; postgraduate directing training at Mountview
• Incognito, Bush Theatre, London; Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne (2014)
• Blink, Soho Theatre, London; Off-Broadway (2013)
• Bunny, Edinburgh Fringe (2010); Soho Theatre; Off-Broadway (2011)
• The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s Globe and world tour (2013)
• The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Chichester Festival Theatre (2015)
• What I Learned from Johnny Bevan, Soho Theatre, London (2015)
• Woyzeck, Old Vic, London (2017)
• Fringe First award for Bunny (2010)
• Two Fringe First awards for What I Learned from Johnny Bevan (2015)
Agent: Curtis Brown
Details of the Sherman Theatre’s Interval programme: shermantheatre.co.uk