Wednesday, December 29,
by Jane Horwitz
to downtown, a theatrical life with a national impact:
out at 80, Donn B. Murphy earns a standing ovation
by Jane Horwitz
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Those
paying tribute to Donn B. Murphy at his 80th birthday celebration
at Georgetown included his former students Stephanie Kurz Madden,
Tom Semler and Jack Hofsiss, a Tony Award-winning director. (Photos
By Chuck Fazio)
By Jane Horwitz
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
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
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
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
Horwitz is a freelance writer.