March 18 2013 12:00 AM

'Distracted' star shares her thoughts on theater and the inspiration of Gilda Radner


Abby Murphy has performed in over 50 theater productions in
Lansing, from studio shows at Lansing Community College to the Peppermint Creek
Theatre Co. main stage. Audiences may remember her as Elizabeth Bennett in Lansing
Community College’s “Pride and Prejudice,” Salome in LCC’s “Salome” and, more
recently, as Ophelia in Riverwalk’s “Fortinbras.” She has worked under notable
local directors such as Mary Job, Lela Ivey and Kristine Thatcher. Currently, Murphy plays the mother of a child diagnosed with
Attention Deficit Disorder in the Peppermint Creek production “Distracted,”
directed by Lynn Lammers.

She spoke this past week about the joys and
challenges of live theater, her process of discovering her character and
dealing with criticism whether from directors, fellow actors, or critics in

When did you first get involved in theater? How old were

AM: I did a commercial when I was 4 or 5 for Santa for the
Meridian Mall and loved it and knew that I wanted to do that for the rest of my
life. I saw Gilda Radner on “Saturday Night Live“ when I wasn’t supposed to be
up and knew that I wanted to play pretend like her.

The first time I did theater, I was in 7th grade and my
sisters went to Lansing Catholic Central. I went in to go pick them up (from
rehearsal) — my dad sent me in. I got in there and (the director) thought I was
a high school student. So the woman who was (directing) “South Pacific” yelled
at me that I wasn’t sitting down and learning the song. So I sat down and
learned the song and they let me be in the play. That was my first show. I did
it 7th and 8th grade and then I did it all throughout high
school at Catholic Central, which was fun. I really liked acting there.

What do you love about acting?

AM: I love playing pretend. It’s my absolute favorite thing
in the world. When you play a role, you have to understand the character, and
it really forces you to make decisions and it shows you a lot about yourself.
I’ve played women who have cheated on their significant others, and (cheating)
disgusts me in everyday life. But to try to understand that really makes me
face my anger and what my holdups are against people that do that. So it’s such
a life lesson.

I always feel like I learn so much more about myself through
every character I play because it teaches me about people and being empathetic
and understanding others. It’s my first love.

The performing part is terrifying. When I first go on, I’m
shaking like a leaf. It’s so intimidating. You get warmed up to having people
watching you, but it’s scary.

What are some of the favorite shows you have performed in?

AM: Definitely “Pride and Prejudice,” because that was such
a challenge memorizing that whole book pretty much. I was the narrator and the
lead. That was really challenging because I was always the ham (in previous
shows), so I was used to doing more comedy. (‘Pride and Prejudice”) made me
rethink the way I approach things and I couldn’t be just hammy and (using) facial

I think one of the most challenging roles I ever had was Salome,
because trying to play… just that role: her angst and anger and being a spoiled
little brat who fell in love with someone that denied her and that was the
first time she was ever told “no” in her life and trying to play this 13-year-old
that was having those emotions.

Is there an important lesson a director told you that you always

AM: I think I was not going to go into acting when I went to
LCC. I was going to be an artist and I was just going to do massage and art.
And I took the studio class just to see if it really something that I wanted to
do, and I had Lela Ivey. She was just so passionate. She would have you sit
down with the script and you had to write all the subtext and you had to put
all of the emotional color into it. She taught this one thing to put “MSG” into
it. You should always have “Mad, Sad and Glad,” striving to always make sure
that you have different approaches to reach your objective. There are so many
different levels of that. But that’s such a great way to approach a monologue
or anything to make sure you aren’t just angry — because anger doesn’t just
come out as yelling. It can come around as you laughing about it, or trying to
con somebody in a way. Having Lela just say “put ‘MSG” into any cold-read or
anything, and make sure that you show different ways of achieving your
objective — that was probably one of the best things I’ve ever had a director
tell me.

Can you tell me a little bit more about developing a
character in a show?

AM: I like to sit with my character. I read the script tons
of times and then I’ll find songs and certain pieces of clothing that make me
think of my character. I use a lot of other actors, too, and imagine I’m being
them or thinking, “Well, how would they respond in this situation?” Sometimes I
just walk around with a pair of shoes on that make me feel like the character
and I’ll try to have a certain gesture that makes me feel like them.

The rehearsal process is really just trying to empathize and
understand the characters. I usually don’t end up understanding my character
fully until tech week (the final week before performances).

I try to come to the table with quite a bit. And then I like
it when the director manhandles the part.

What type of directing do you prefer?

AM: I like notes. If a director doesn’t give me a note, I
feel like I did something wrong. Because I feel like if you give them something
and make choices, then (the director) can tweak those choices and work with
you. I like having to figure out how you go about having the same message when
you thought you were going to take it this
way. I love it when they put me down. That’s great. Now I know I can’t do that. I don’t take it personally because
there are so many different ways to communicate. I’m their paint.

For instance (in “Distracted” Lynn Lammers) had me do this
monologue and I was really angry and frustrated with having a child with ADD
and trying to figure it out. And she said, “No, I want you to express how much
you love your child.” And it totally
changed it. And it was so much fun to have to figure out “well, how do I say
this line now?”

Do other actors criticize each other during the rehearsal
process? How do you respond?

AM: Usually, if another actor has a problem with what I’m
doing, like if I’m not giving them something that they need in a scene, then
you take it to the director and say, “This isn’t working for both of us.”
Because you have to be partners with that person and if they’re not comfortable
or if you’re doing something that’s not working for them, you have to find a
middle ground.

But I’ve had a situation where another actor told me that
they didn’t think that I was doing something the way that I should be. So I
said, “Well, let’s talk to the director about it.” And the director yelled at
the other actor for giving notes to another actor. That’s pretty clich. That’s
not (the actor’s) place. You’re an actor and the director is the director. I
think it’s unprofessional to give notes to other actors, but if you’re
uncomfortable in a scene with someone and it’s not working for you, you have to
communicate that (to the director).

How do you handle criticism from a written review?

AM: I feel like bad reviews are good because if people want to
see the show, then you have to prove to them or show them that it’s worth their
time. You have to work that much harder. But bad reviews aren’t bad. They’re
just that person’s opinion. And a lot of times it’s helpful. Like “Oh, this is
how it’s coming across. OK, well, maybe we should talk about it.” Or maybe they
just didn’t like the show, and that’s totally fine, too.

Do you ever let written reviews influence your performance?

AM: No. If the director has OK’d the show and you open, you
should not change it because that is rude to the other actors and also to the
audience. If you come and see a show on a Thursday night, you should see the
same show the next Friday. Even if there is a bad review, you shouldn’t change
it. That’s just the show. So the show may be a flop? Fine. It’s just that’s how
it is.

You’ve played a number of leading roles. How do you find the
stamina to maintain energy through a long show?

AM: Well, physically, I have to take really good care of
myself during the rehearsal process and during the shows. When you’re in a show
with a group of people, it’s like they’re your family for that amount of time
and they’re the most support you’ve ever had in your entire life. A lot of it
is just the energy that comes off of other people. And when you’re on stage,
it’s the audience. The audience is really such a drug. It’s like being on speed
or something when the audience is there because it just makes your endorphins
go like crazy. I think during the rehearsal process, that’s always exhausting.
But everybody’s going through it with you and so that makes it a lot easier
because you have people to lean on. Once you get up there (on performance
nights), it’s definitely the audience fueling it.

Say you have an off night, what do you do to try to keep the
audience moving or prod the audience along?

AM: If you are bored on stage, or if you are not listening
to another actor’s every word and really being engaged, then you can’t expect
the audience to be. I’ve had people sleep in the front row in shows that I’ve
been the lead in where I’m pouring my heart out, crying my eyes out — and
there’s someone snoring right in front of me. So it’s distracting, but you just
have to push harder and it just makes you try harder and it makes you more
engaged and more connected with everybody and it drives you more when you have
a bad night. There are bad nights.

Is there an actor/director in the area that you’ve always
wanted to work with but were never able?

AM: I’ve loved every director that I’ve worked with. I’ve
been really blessed. I auditioned for Williamston, but I didn’t have the right
monologue for the play. But I would love to work with Williamston at some
point. I got to work with Kristine Thatcher.

Carmen (Decker) would be really fun to work with. I’ve always really
just admired her. I think if you’re an actor in this town and you don’t admire
Carmen Decker, then you shouldn’t be acting.