Patrick Murphy has finally fallen into the life's work he always wanted. After leading the acting program at the renowned Goodman School of Drama in Chicago for 25 years, Murphy retired. Since then he's been steadily treading the boards at theaters all around Sacramento.
He opens California Stage's 20th anniversary season tonight in "Medal of Honor Rag."
The Vietnam-era drama, directed by Janis Stevens, features Murphy as an attending psychotherapist with Isaac Williams as a disturbed soldier in his care and Robert Bogue as a military policeman. The play deals with post-traumatic stress syndrome, but the work was written and set before that condition had become specifically identified or widely known.
Murphy has come full circle from his years studying theater at California State University, Sacramento, with the likes of Gerry Larsen and Carl Thomas, and he's soaking in all of it.
"In a sense, it's an opportunity to revive a dream I had years ago, to pursue acting," Murphy said. "I had decided against it, I decided to pursue teaching."
Murphy followed CSUS with graduate work at the University of Washington, then a 13-year teaching stint at the University of West Virginia before getting a big-time call to work at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, later called The Theatre School at DePaul University. He is now a professor emeritus.
"It was so busy, and the job was so intense I wasn't able to keep acting," Murphy said. "I hadn't acted for years when I came back here."
After returning to Sacramento in 2005, Murphy made up for his "lost" time by snapping up a variety of roles. He has been seen in "A Christmas Carol," "Treasure Island" and "Noises Off" at Sacramento Theatre Company; "Proof" and "Dancing at Lughnasa" at Big Idea Theatre; and "Death of A Salesman" at the Woodland Opera House.
Murphy has also had fruitful reunions with two former Goodman students now shaping the regional theater landscape. Kelley Ogden, co-founder of KOLT Run productions, and Peter Mohrmann, co-founder of Capital Stage, both studied under Murphy in Chicago.
"In teaching, there is nothing quite like seeing your students stand at the end of the nest a little bit wet-winged, then suddenly burst into flight," Murphy said. "That's one of the glories of teaching to see people take off, blossom and redefine themselves."
Murphy has become an associate artist with KOLT Run performing with Ogden in their productions of "Escape From Happiness" and "Antigone" while winning an Elly Award for his performance in "Crime and Punishment."
He worked with Morhmann in "Boy Gets Girl" at Capital Stage, and the former student said working with Murphy in college always resulted in growth.
"All the students wanted to be in his productions," Mohrmann said. "He brought out wonderful performances from the actors. Now seeing him put into practice the things he was leading us toward that doesn't happen often."
Murphy taught all first-year acting students using the Spolin method of improv to open them up. Chicago-based theater teacher Viola Spolin created "theater games" to unlock creative self-expression.
"The task there was to get them to release the genie within and act from the true sense of themselves," Murphy said.
"One of the most important things I think there is for a young actor to do is to find themselves and find the freedom to be themselves," Murphy said.
Once that happens, the students' presence on stage and work there becomes much deeper.
"That tends to be the most essential thing, and quite frankly I find that to be the most essential thing in my own work as an actor," Murphy said. "Trying to come from the truest sense of myself. It ain't easy!"
Murphy finds himself working now with Stevens, and the director appreciates his heady background.
"Our work together has a lot of shorthand," Stevens said. "Everything I'm talking about, he already knows what I'm talking about, but ten times as much."
Despite Murphy's experience, she said, he brings a wide-open approach to the rehearsals. Some actors, sometimes younger, others older, will resist direction, perhaps feeling they know a little bit more than the director, Stevens explained.
"He's so fresh and eager. Everything I say to him he receives," Stevens said. "Here's a man who really does know more, but he just embraces it, so it's a total pleasure to be working with the guy."
Stevens is an acting guru, having earned a 2006 Drama Desk Award nomination for her Off Broadway portrayal of Vivien Leigh in "Vivien" and a 2010 Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle nomination for her lead performance in "Becoming Julia Morgan." Murphy leaped at the opportunity to work with Stevens and now finds the collaboration stimulating.
"She thinks and talks in terms of verbs and actions and energy exchanges between people," Murphy said. "She also has an enormously attractive and sophisticated sense of the architecture of storytelling, of an event, of a moment on stage."
Murphy has found a theater world in Sacramento that didn't exist when he left 40 years ago.
"I was astonished at the amount of theater there is," he said. "There's nothing better for a city than an audience in a high state of advocacy."
Even though Murphy has a studied understanding of his art and craft, he explains his renaissance quite simply.
"The whole idea is to have a good time," he said. "If I'm not having fun, you're not going to be having fun watching me."