Colleen Murphy was Edmonton’s unofficial playwright-in-residence before the University of Alberta declared her Edmonton’s official playwright-in-residence last June. Five years ago, Brian Dooley, the Citadel Theatre’s director of play development, wanted to launch a new program and thought Murphy was the perfect writer with whom to run it.
The old friends decided not to let a little thing like the two provinces between Murphy’s downtown Toronto home address and 101A Avenue get in the way. Says Dooley: “I wanted to give the Citadel initiative the seriousness and rigour that I was convinced Colleen could bring and insist on.”
Murphy’s approach to the Citadel program – which has worked with writers like Beth Graham, Colin Doyle, Jason Chinn and Nicole Moeller – was to hop on a plane a few times a year and submit her scripts to the same process as everyone else. “I’m not a guru. I know nothing. I just facilitate it,” says Murphy. “I’m just another playwright.”
OK, so she’s just another playwright – one who happens to be arguably the hottest in Canada, with a Governor General’s Award for playwriting, several Canadian Screen Award nominations for screenwriting, a passel of other prizes and nominations, commissions for plays, screenplays and operas, and a theatre in London, England, that regularly produces her work.
So when the University of Alberta named the 60-year-old dynamo its latest Lee Playwright in Residence last summer, the appointment allowed her to spend more time nurturing a theatre scene for which she’d already fallen. “I really like Edmonton because there’s a working class, blue-collar edge to it, which is very familiar to me because I grew up in a mining town in northern Ontario, so I feel very at home in that.”
Named for the Clifford E. Lee Foundation that funds it, “the Lee” may be the most generous residency available to a writer in Canada. The U of A offers the playwright a staff salary for 16 months over three years and, if he or she agrees to create a new script for the program, a substantial commission. Murphy says that, in the first year, she’ll be based in Edmonton. For her second year, she’ll likely return home to Toronto. And in 2016-2017, she’ll be at the University of Alberta to help stage her show.
Murphy’s commission is a 12-person drama inspired by a news story that caught her eye a year ago. “Young disenfranchised people break into a mansion and party… It explores the rage of young people, particularly the young unemployed class.”
Murphy is the University’s fourth Lee playwright, following Don Hannah, Kevin Kerr and Greg MacArthur.
Asked about her early career dreams, Murphy confesses, “I only ever wanted to be one thing.” Her official website describes her as a “playwright, filmmaker [and] librettist,” so what was that one thing? “I wanted to be an Olympic downhill racer.”
At 15, she was racing with the Lake Superior Ski Division in Thunder Bay when an accident left her with an injured leg, shattered confidence and a broken dream. She never skied again, but Murphy leapt into the theatre world instead – a world that features a lot of Edmontonians.
As for why the province’s playwrights are such a force on the national and international scene, Murphy spreads the kudos around. She credits the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival for instilling – or at least reinforcing – the Albertan can-do attitude, theatre writer Liz Nicholls for supporting the artists and her current employer, the University of Alberta. “Every second person I run into in my theatre life has gone to school at the University of Alberta: Directors, actors, playwrights. So you have a tremendous amount of nurturing and development of drama and people who go out across the country and into the States. So it’s a beautiful fit with the community.”
Clearly, Murphy is also a beautiful fit.