'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 print.
When did you first get involved in theater? How old were you?
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 expressions.
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 use?
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.