By ANTHONY CHASE
Cover photo by CHERYL GORSKI
In August, the Board of Trustees of Shea’s Performing Arts Center announced that they had finally hired a new President of the organization to succeed Tony Conte. After a seven-month national search, dozens of applications, and interviews with numerous local and out of town candidates, their choice: Michael G. Murphy, managing director of The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, California.
Murphy reported to work on Monday. Conte will continue for a period of time, in a part-time capacity, to ensure a smooth transition.
At the time of the announcement, news reports took great pains to mention that Murphy is a native Western New Yorker. True enough, he grew up in Gowanda, and his mother still lives there. For the past 37 years, however, since he graduated from Gowanda Central High School in 1979, Murphy has spent his entire adulthood and professional life elsewhere.
Reports of the hire have created the impression that Murphy will continue Conte’s vision without any change. Given the remarkably different backgrounds of the men, however, this seems highly unlikely. It is far more probable that the transition between Conte and Murphy actually represents the beginning of a brand new era in the history of Shea’s.
To sum up the difference between the men succinctly, Murphy is a man of the theater; Conte is not.
Conte, a former banker and businessman, is the first to agree.
“That’s completely true!” says Conte, by telephone. “Michael brings something very different to the job than I did. He has the tools and background to guide us to the next level. He knows the business side. He knows the production side. He knows musicals, and he knows plays. He knows operational management. He can bring new ideas to the 710 Main project. He has a great wealth of experience and knowledge, and that bodes well for his potential. That’s what’s important; that we continue to find ways to build, and grow, and do things better.”
Conte was the right man at the right time for Shea’s. His business acumen guided the institution toward the retirement of $5.2 million in debt. His leadership saw the meticulous restoration of the historic building, the increase of the subscription audience from about 5,000 to more than 13,000, and brought the former Studio Arena Theatre building and the Smith Theatre under the Shea’s umbrella.
Many in the arts community, however, viewed Conte with a kind of wonder. They liked him personally and admired his administrative skill, but often viewed him as a philosophical alien in their midst. Many winced, for instance, when he was quoted by The New York Times as saying that he had given his 2007 Tony Award vote to Disney’s mediocre Mary Poppins over landmark Spring Awakening, because the former would hold greater appeal with his Shea’s subscribers. He’s all business. (Spring Awakening won the Tony Award).
By contrast, Murphy earned a BFA in Stage Management from Webster University in St. Louis, an MFA in Performing Arts Management from Brooklyn College, and has spent his entire professional life in arts management. He joined The Old Globe in 2003, and for the past five years has served that institution as managing director. Before that, he was managing director of Austin Lyric Opera, director of administration at San Diego Opera, and general manager of San Diego Repertory Theatre. He held similar jobs in New York City at Theatre for a New Audience and the Joyce Theatre Foundation’s American Theatre Exchange. He has served on the executive committees of the National Alliance of Musical Theatre, League of Resident Theatres, and the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, as well as on the Boards of the National Corporate Theatre Fund and San Diego County Theatrical Trusts.
Actually, based on his resume, it seems sort of odd that a man like Michael Murphy would consider the job at Shea’s at all. Shea’s is a presenting house – or a theater that books shows that have been created by others. Murphy has spent the last 13 years in a high profile producing house – a theater that creates its own productions of plays.
In the national press, the news was not that Murphy had been hired by Shea’s. Instead, the story was that he was leaving San Diego.
Nationally, The Old Globe is a far more prominent cultural institution than Shea’s. Indeed, The Old Globe is one of the most prominent producing theaters in the nation, and one of the most important in the world.
Founded in 1935, today The Old Globe boasts three vibrant spaces: a 600-seat flagship theater, modeled after Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre; an intimate 250-seat theater in the round; and a 615-seat outdoor theater. In 1984, the theater was honored with the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater.
In cooperation with the University at San Diego, The Old Globe is home to one of the nation’s most highly regarded and competitive graduate programs in acting. Founded in 1987, its graduates include Jim Parsons of television’s Big Bang Theory.
Numerous Broadway shows got their start at The Old Globe, including Sondheim’s Into the Woods. The Tony Award winning Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which will tour to Shea’s this season, originated at The Old Globe. The Full Monty may be set in Buffalo, but it had its world premiere at The Old Globe. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels had its world premiere at The Old Globe. So did the stage version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and this year’s Broadway productions of Allegiance and Bright Star.
Over the years, the leadership at The Old Globe has been impressive, and Murphy’s colleagues at that institution have been a Who’s Who of American Theater luminaries. Its former Artistic Director, Jack O’Brien, won three Tony Awards and was nominated for an additional seven. Its current artistic director, with whom Murphy has enjoyed a famously warm and successful professional partnership, Barry Edelstein, is one of the nation’s most prominent directors of the works of William Shakespeare.
The Old Globe is a LORT theater, or a member of the League of Resident Theatres. The old Studio Arena Theatre was also a LORT theater, but bore little resemblance to The Old Globe. One might say that The Old Globe is the sort of theater that Studio Arena once dreamed of becoming. It has an annual budget of about $20 million and hosts more than 250,000 audience members each year at its approximately 15 productions.
So, the immediate question is, “Why in the world would anyone leave such a place?”
What interested Michael Murphy in coming back to a region he left when he was a teenager? Has he actually retired to Shea’s? Was he simply interested to be closer to family? Or is it something else?
“While family is definitely important to me, that is not the reason I [took the job in] Buffalo,” says Murphy, speaking from his office at The Old Globe. “The truth is, I never thought I would leave San Diego. I thought I would be at The Old Globe until I retired, and that I would retire in San Diego.”
“It is true,” he agrees, “that Shea’s is a very different place from The Globe. But when I was chatting with friends, and they mentioned Shea’s and Tony [Conte], I knew that Shea’s had the other two spaces, in addition to the very successful touring house, I thought, ‘Let me check that out. I want to find out what’s going on there.’
“I told my mom, ‘I’m looking at Shea’s, but there is nothing serious at this point. Don’t get excited. It’s not going to happen. I’m just exploring.’ I was very clear, and she was very good about that.”
Then something happened that Murphy didn’t expect.
“The more I looked at it,” he recalls, “the more I was fascinated by what’s going on in Buffalo. I know, since I was a kid, that it’s been a really good place for theater. There is so much in the area, between what is in Western New York, and what is in the southern tier with Chautauqua, and then going up into Canada with the Shaw Festival and Stratford Festival. I just thought, ‘You know, every time I fly into Buffalo, I kind of feel at home. I feel welcomed. I feel comfortable there.’ Not that I wasn’t also feeling that in San Diego, but I noticed that I also felt that way in Buffalo. So that pulled me in a little more.”
It is intriguing to hear Murphy’s assessment of the Western New York theater scene. While he is a Gowanda native, he’s been gone a long time. We are, for all practical purposes, hearing an appraisal of ourselves through the eyes of an outsider. His swift inventory of the region’s theaters extends from Chautauqua, to downtown, to the Shaw, to Stratford. While he begins by talking about existing initiatives, he quickly adds the possibility of new initiatives.
“I really enjoyed meeting Tony [Conte],” says Murphy. “I think he and I see things very similarly. Community is very important to him, and to me as well. That was something he really believes in and strives for, and I do too. I can help continue that. I don’t know in what ways that will play out. I don’t have a grand agenda or grand scheme. My intention is to come into the community, meet with people, learn what people need and want. I want to learn what kind of relationships can be built upon, and what relationships can be created. There are a lot of possibilities. The possibilities are what really excited me.”
As he talks, the ways in which Murphy’s past link to his future at Shea’s become more apparent. He sees himself as leaving an institution that has three theater spaces, to assume leadership of another institution that also has three theater spaces, two of which are far from realizing their potential. Again and again, he mentions Shea’s three theater spaces.
“The touring shows are just one part of what Shea’s is doing and will continue to do,” notes Murphy. “If it was just the booking part, that would hold a lot less interest for me. But what can happen with all three spaces is very interesting to me.”
“Shea’s is having such success with the Broadway series,” he continues. “People are clearly enjoying the programming. There is clearly a love of the arts in Buffalo. But every city in America can say that, to some extent. Still, I think there is something special in Buffalo. The rebirth of downtown is encouraging. There is a group of cultural leaders in San Diego, and we get together every two months. We were having lunch, and I was talking about Buffalo. I told them that Buffalo is having a lot of interest in its downtown. It’s not like what San Diego is now, but it is like what San Diego was twenty years ago. There wasn’t a lot happening, but since then, it has built up. I see that potential for Buffalo.”
“I want to sit down with politicians, and business leaders, and find out what they think. What is the potential? What are the pitfalls that we all have to look out for? It’s not just about running the theater. There are so many things that affect the arts. I want to engage in this discussion with colleagues at the other arts institutions and cultural institutions, the museums, the science museum. What does everyone think? How can we work together? What resources are there with the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo? I want to be a part of all that!
“I think about creating more education work, more outreach, working on arts engagement in the community — that is an important term now being used more commonly. And not just with children, but also with adults, all aspects of the community. There is so much potential with the role that Shea’s can play with the other institutions. Shea’s can continue to change, evolve, and develop, and I’m real excited about that.”
Murphy does think about the future of The Old Globe, after his departure.
“The Globe will continue to survive, and change is good,” he insists. “I am so happy with my decision, and I am also happy for the Globe. The Globe is going to have new energy. I do have a sense of loss, leaving my incredible friends, the staff, of [whom I am] incredibly proud. We’ve been through thick and thin together, our donors, our board members. But it’s not about me. It’s about them. I am going to be coming back, because I want to see what Barry and the new managing director do together.”
Shea’s Presenter Albert Nocciolino, who is arguably the most influential presenter in Upstate New York, has met Murphy exactly once, but like Conte, he is notably impressed.
“He asked all of the right questions, and never hesitated to say when he didn’t know something,” observed Nocciolino. “I think that is the best possible attitude. I look forward to working with Michael very much.”
Barry Edelstein, artistic director at The Old Globe, knows Murphy well. He did not hesitate to describe his colleague and close friend.
“First and foremost,” said Edelstein, “Michael is a warm and open person who is approachable and deeply likable. That is an asset to any institution: his warmth becomes the keynote of the personality of the place. It certainly did here. He’s also a careful and deep thinker and planner, who keeps his eye on the future as he deploys initiatives and new ideas strategically. He’s a good boss. People like to work for him. And he loves, loves, loves the theater. He’s a great ambassador for our field and our art form, and his enthusiasm for a great show is a kind of leadership: it inspires others to want to see what it’s all about.”
I surmised from some of Edelstein’s comments in the press that he and Murphy had discussed the possibilities at Shea’s. Specifically, in The Old Globe’s announcement of Murphy’s departure, Edelstein described Shea’s as an institution that is “poised for real growth.” What did he mean?
“We’ve not gotten into huge detail about his plans,” said Edelstein, [but] I know that engaging Shea’s with the community, and with its neighbors, who perhaps have not enjoyed deep connections to it in the past, is a huge priority. I expect that things like sensory-friendly performances, which Michael pioneered here with a special performance of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas for families with members on the autism spectrum and [have] other special needs, are in your future. And I think that with three spaces at his disposal, Michael will do creative things that will make Shea’s mean more, to more and more of Buffalo’s citizens. I’ve been to Buffalo, and I loved it. Wonderful, dynamic city. I would love to come back, and see what my good friend gets up to there, and enjoy watching your city embrace him as San Diego has for so long.”
Welcome home, Michael Murphy. We wish you great success and are eager to know you better.
Anthony, what a really good, in-depth interview/backgrounder on a man who’s going to play an important role in the development of Buffalo’s theatre community. Congratulations, and thank you.