Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 1998
The woman stepped gingerly from the wagon she had built herself sixteen years ago, and handed over the reins to the young man who eagerly climbed aboard.
The young man is Sean Murray, the ‘wagon’ is North Coast Repertory Theatre, and the woman is Olive Blakistone, the theater’s founder/artistic director, who directed 50 of the 111 plays she produced, including 37 San Diego premieres, four West coast premieres and two world premieres. In April, Blakistone retired, and from an impressive group of competitors, Murray was chosen unanimously as her successor.
“I admire his creativity, originality and intelligence,” said Blakistone. “I don’t think he’ll turn the company to extreme theater…. that needs to be done, but maybe not in Solana Beach.”
What “has” been done successfully in Solana Beach is Blakistone’s masterful mix of easy comedies and ambitious dramas (see sidebar).
“Our mission will continue to be challenging, exciting works that speak to a contemporary audience,” says Murray, 37, a straightforward guy with a twinkle in his eye. “That’s why we’re doing theater, after all. To shake ‘em up.”
Murray, raised in San Diego (graduated from Poway High School), has done plenty of theater work to shake people up. No one could forget his “sweet transvestite,” Frank N. Furter, in the San Diego Rep production of “The Rocky Horror Show” (“It took me years to live that show down”).
Following training at SDSU and the North Carolina School for the Arts, he inhabited a wide range of musical and dramatic roles. But when, in 1990, he applied for his Actors Equity card, he was told someone else already had his name, Tom Murray.
“I’m fifth generation Thomas,” Murray says ruefully. “But my mother said if she could’ve chosen a name, it would’ve been Sean. So that’s who I became.”
Murray put in some nightmarish years in New York. “It was beyond rejection; it was so demeaning it was almost humorous. Like the time my agent sent me out to audition for “Angels in America” — for Louis, a little, neurotic Jewish New Yorker. And here I am, a six-foot tall Irish guy from California!”
So he moved back to San Diego, and after at stint as a waiter and a graphics designer, he made his directing debut with “The Tempest on the Beach”, one of San Diego’s most drop-dead gorgeous productions.
Directing brought together all of Murray’s interests and talents: acting, design, drawing, painting, lighting, dance and music (he plays violin, piano and trombone). Other acclaimed directing gigs included a spectacular “Love! Valour! Compassion!” at Diversionary. Murray continued acting, too — in the San Diego Rep’s “Cabaret” and “Imaginary Invalid”.
He was hellbent on getting the North Coast Rep job (“they said send a resume; I sent an 8-page ‘dream season’”). But now, faced with “a bit of a deficit,” he’s laid out “a financially successful season, perhaps not as challenging as we’d do normally.”
That means a lot of “name plays”: “Auntie Mame” (June 11-July 26) and “Come Blow Your Horn”, which Murray directs; Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly”; “The Elephant Man”; Beth Henley’s “Abundance”; and the San Diego premiere of Ron Campbell’s one-man tour-de force, “The Thousandth Night”.
Murray’s first-year objective is simple: “I’m trying to get people to come in and see new theater, new directors and new energy. To put down their Starbucks coffee and listen!”
Ode to Olive: A Play-full Tribute
from Pat Launer**
Here’s a toast to Olive, that erstwhile colleen
Whose theater’s turning Sweet 16 —
As for an adolescent who needs room to grow,
She poured in her money, and now lets it go.
Her hopes and dreams were proudly unfurled
When she brought this baby into the world.
She took some chances, she raised her chalice
to ‘Aunt Dan and Lemon’ and ‘Tiny Alice.’
And yes, to Neil Simon — but that’s box office smart
She still had ‘M. Butterfly’ in her stomach and a pounding ‘Normal
She said ‘I Hate Hamlet’ – as her ‘Memorandum’ showed;
There was ‘Someone To Watch’ while she was ‘Breaking the Code.’
She came in from the ‘Shadowlands’ for ‘the Lisbon Traviata’
And I bet she Never Sang for her Faddah.
But time after time, she explored ‘Terra Nova,’
With ‘Earls’ and ‘Angels — while a ‘Seagull’ flew ovah.
When she was ‘Speaking in Tongues,’ she had ‘Translations’ galore,
And ‘Intimate Exchanges’ with ‘The Boys Next Door.’
‘The Woolgatherer’ got the ‘Loot’ in the afternoon
While ‘the Lion in Winter’ played ‘Claire de Lune.’
‘The Vikings’ and ‘The Immigrant’ formed a ‘Road Company’ together,
While ‘Strange Snow’ made for some weird local weather….
Fifteen years, 50 productions:
Dramatic and tragic and comic seductions.
To direct is heaven, ‘To Forgive, Divine’;
It’s really not curtains; it’s ‘Greetings!’ one more time.
‘Nuts!’ to those who say she’s through;
She’s just beginning ‘Chapter Two.’
** This poem was written for, and presented at “A Tribute to Olive Blakistone,” a gala retirement party held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds on April 6, 1998.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.