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‘Great art wins’: Talking with American Stage’s new leader

Bill DeYoung

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Helen R. Murray is the new American Stage Producing Artistic Director. Photos provided.

Although she’s still physically in Colorado, American Stage’s new Producing Artistic Director Helen R. Murray went on the clock in St. Petersburg last month, working remotely. She’ll move into her downtown office, up the hall from the rehearsal rooms and the theater itself, mid-October.

A native of California, Murray comes to St. Pete from the Aurora Fox Arts Center, a state-owned facility, where she spent the last four years as the creative driver, a.k.a. Executive Producer.

Before that, she was the co-founder and 10-year Artistic Director of The Hub Theater in Fairfax, Virginia.

Also an accomplished playwright and director, Murray is known as a champion of new writers and a passionate supporter of diverse, challenging onstage storytelling.

She follows Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, who had in turn replaced longtime Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte, in 2021.

Murray’s new role at American Stage gives her a large nonprofit operating budget (nearly $3 million) and double the staff she worked with at the Aurora Fox.

 

St. Pete Catalyst: St. Pete and Tampa have a robust professional theater community. I don’t think the nation at large really knows that. Did you?

Helen R. Murray: I’m going to be honest, I didn’t. But I’ve worked all over the country, so I immediately looked for crossover – I looked for artists that crossed over into those spaces. And there were a few that I know, and they all said St. Pete is great. They had very kind words for American Stage, and they loved staying in St. Pete: ‘Oh, it’s just so great to work in that city. You’re not that far from the beach at all,’ and they said the city has got so much to offer … these are actors who work all over the country. And it would not have even been a place I would have interviewed if I could not make a really good life, and enjoy the time that I would be working at this theater.

 

You had a pretty nice gig in Aurora. Why would you want to uproot and come out here?

I don’t know that I was looking to … I was brought an opportunity that the more I investigated, the more attractive it looked. After meeting the board and learning about how passionate they were about American Stage, and their excitement about the ways in which American Stage could keep growing, that was exciting. And when I met the staff, that to me was the big deciding factor. I felt a high level of ally-ship in their work culture there, and the work that they’re excited about. So I knew that if I went to work with them I’d be working with this group of people every single day who are going to help me champion really exciting theatrical work. And there is a receptive audience for it! Those things are really exciting to think about. The more I got to know them, the more I wanted to make that move.

 

American Stage is coming off a rather bumpy season. Reportedly, ticket sales were off, even by post-pandemic standards, and there were some unhappy internal issues. What are you going to do to make sure all of that turns around?

There is no day in leadership that is easy. There’s never a day. And there’s no person who’s going to take on the mantle who’s not going to have some misses. I only have a huge amount of respect for anybody who came before me, because their endeavor was in the service of an arts organization, and in the service of a community. Even if they had ones that didn’t sell well, it still pushed the conversation and it still made a difference.

All I can say is, moving forward I’ve made it very clear about the kind of programming I do to the board and the staff, and I think there is a harmony there, but I also think that what you’re going to see from me is not what’s currently being programmed. It’s just not my style. Even though, quite frankly there’s  some really good shows on the docket.

If anybody is curious about what I am as an artist, you just have to look at the theaters I’ve run. It’s not like it’s an unknown factor. I definitely choose things that have high theatrical quality, I am very into having audiences laugh together. I feel like audiences who laugh together can also go to much bigger conversations and harder places. If we’ve put together that harmony first.

When I was really little, I started off in musical theater, and I moved into plays, and then new play development, and all of those things have come together to make me the artist I am. So you’re going to see a good mix.

I’m a very diversity-forward artist, but diversity for me is not just the tokenization of color onstage, to make sure we sort of check the box of what’s going on. Diversity speaks to the way in which we tell stories, and the way in which a narrative is heard. I always say I’m here to put voices onstage that are not my own. It’s easy for me to tell my story; let’s tell a lot of different ones.

And my diversity does include young people. We need to make sure that we’re bringing in our next generation of theater-goers. Theater has become a niche art form in America, and so it’s up to us as artistic leaders to help build the next generation up. And frankly, some of the very best theater that I have seen in my time doing this has been theater that included young people in its audience view, and kept them in mind. Because kids believe in magic, and the theater is magic.

 

It seems to me the fine line that someone in your position walks, always, is wanting to re-define what the envelope is and then pushing it, and also keeping butts in the seats with “safe” plays … you can’t please everybody.

(Laughing) You are correct, it is exactly that. But I will also say this: Great art wins. And this is something that I have to remind myself all the time, so that I don’t try to make decisions based on what will sell. I have to believe in my gut that something should move forward. What I have found, over and over again, is that when I trust my gut on a show, the payoff is there in the audience as well – because people love great art. And great art wins.

We should always remember that as theater programmers, and as leaders in any community. It shouldn’t be pushing the boundaries, it should be serving the community. And I’ve always seen my role as one of service. And I’m not going to hold back from the community really great art because I think they can’t handle it. That’s totally unfair, and it’s lowballing a community.

RELATED READING: American Stage readying its highenergy ‘Idiot’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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