Q & A: Chris Murray against boring theater

Chris Murray, foreground, and Joe Bolenbaugh in "Animals and Plants"

By Devin McCarthy

Recently, I saw the show “Animals and Plants” by Adam Rapp at Coho Productions, a show that is by turns hilarious and strange (especially in the second act).

Chris Murray plays Burris, a man with far to much energy for the cramped motel room trying to contain him. Joe Bolenbaugh plays Dantley, Burris’ partner, who seems more comfortable  stretched out on the bed waiting for something to happen. The smart dialog between the two is one of the highlights of  Rapp’s script. As they talk, Burris works out, using nunchucks, a shake weight, and a thighmaster (among other things), either to release some of his pent up energy or  to prepare for the event to come — a little drug deal.

Burris and Dantley seem totally stuck in this place, until Burris leaves for a bit while Dantley sleeps. And when he awakes, in the second half of the play, he finds he’s been joined by Cassandra, played by Nikki Weaver, a woman with her own strange sensibilities and a homicidal boyfriend. The show asks its audience to take a bizarre and hilarious journey, cramped inside that shabby motel room, where words and images and stories are flying almost as fast as the blizzard outside the door.

After seeing the show, I wanted to find out more about the production. “Animals and Plants” was co-produced by CoHo Productions and Chris Murray (last year they also collaborated on a trimmed down adaptation of “Hamlet”). CoHo is a unique  production company that invites local theater artists to propose projects to co-produce. Co-producers are responsible for all the artistic and technical aspects of a show, while CoHo supplies the theater itself and administrative,  marketing and revenue support.

Murray is a Portland-based actor. He is a member of Actor’s Equity (the theater actors guild) and a company member of Third Rail Repertory Theatre. He has performed in theaters throughout Portland and won a Drammy Award in 2006 for his portrayal of Shane in Artist Repertory Theatre’s Take Me Out.  Murray acts professionally full-time (though he supplements his downtime by teaching theater to teens).

I sat down with him to talk about “Animals and Plants,” theater in Portland and how he finds working as an actor here.

You have worked as an actor all over Portland: Artist Repertory Theatre, Portland Center Stage, Profile and you are a company member at Third Rail. How is producing a show different from acting? What’s drawing you to producing rather than just acting in other people’s shows?

The reason that I am producing is because Portland is a small market. It is hard to be dependent on casting directors for my livelihood and for my artistic creativity. Basically, there are just not enough roles for me as a union guy in town (though I have been really fortunate to get a bunch). I think there comes a point in time when you just have to start taking matters into your own hands and making theater happen, as opposed to waiting for the phone to ring, because as an actor that is what if feels like a lot.

Last year you produced, adapted and started in “Hamlet” at Coho. What was that experience like for you? It seems like quite a risk to take, but I really enjoyed the show.

Thank you. I don’t think it was that big of a risk because I’ve always wanted to play Hamlet. Honestly, the only reason I started working on it was because I wasn’t working as an actor for a couple of months. When that happens, you have to have something to occupy you. So I just adapted the script [for a smaller cast] and I thought it would be fun to do it. I didn’t think it would actually happen but Coho Productions said, “Yes.” That was really cool.

What is involved in producing at Coho?

Mostly it is keeping track of the budget. Making sure that your crew is not going over. For an actor it is weird because it means going to all the technical rehearsals. I figure out what people need and how much it is going to cost. I fill in the cracks. As an actor, if you show up and have the wrong shirt, you say, “I have the wrong shirt, someone fix this.”  As the producer, I have to make the shirt happen. If someone falls down on the job, I step in. I’m responsible for the show opening.

What drew you to your current show, “Animals and Plants”?

“Animals and Plants” was given to me by Scott Yarbrough, at Third Rail, 3 years ago — before I joined the company. He said that he had found this show and a role he thought I would be perfect for. I was super flattered and I read the script. I fell in love with the characters and the fact that it is a messy show. Also, the intelligent, naturalistic back and forth dialog was a big draw. I found out that Mike O’Connell (also a Third Rail company member) also loved the show and wanted to direct it.

You say you fell in love with the characters. What interested you in the your character in the play?

As an actor, Burris is interesting because he is always in the moment. There is no contemplation. If he sees something strange happening, he is going to say something. He has no subtext. He is not a very sympathetic character, but he has so much energy that it is hard not to like him. He is a dick but a lovable dick. His actions are sometimes repugnant, but he is constantly trying to better himself. He works out. He tries to improve his vocabulary, even thought he doesn’t always know what the words mean. I think we can all identify with a guy like that.

Why should people come see the show?

I think that theater is boring a lot of the time and it shouldn’t be boring any more. Mike  and I have this “take back the night, take back boring theater” mentality. There are plays that are classic, and they are always going to be classics. Those are great when you know what you are getting into, but for a new play I think you should entertained, first and foremost, and then have reactions.

I think this play is entertaining and anyone who sees it will say, “that was a wild ride.” Maybe they will say that they don’t know exactly what it’s about. Someone will say, “I think it is about this” and someone else will say, “I think this is about that” and it will foster conversations and dialog. I love that and the best kind of plays do that. But at the end of the day, at least they won’t be bored…because I am so tired of it.

What do you hope people’s reaction is to “Animals and Plants”?

To be as lofty as possible, I want people to say that this show is an example of what American playwriting will become.

Not as lofty as that…I just hope people are filled with more questions than answers but aren’t so full of questions that they don’t know what the fuck they just sat though. I think it is the responsibility of the playwright, as well as the director, the cast, and the crew to help assuage the minds of the theater goers. To make the audience think, “I know what world I am in” and then if the world changes and things get weird (as it does in this show) to help them understand why it’s changing with out giving all the answers. You want the audience to think and take something away from the play without spelling everything out but, at the same time, you don’t want make it so confusing and full of metaphor that people are just left wondering what is going on.

I think that the playwright Jordan Harrison said it best when he said that in his plays he always wants to lift the audience off the ground a little bit, make them unsteady, make them wonder what is going on, but always, always put their feet back on the ground before the play is done. If you lift them off, you must bring them back down so they are not sort of struggling in the ether the whole time.

What is next for you?

I am look to step up from co-producing (through Coho) to solely producing certain projects. I would have to rent the space, hire everyone, take care of box office, marketing, and all that stuff. Coho has been just absolutely wonderful, but now I am thinking of being a producing agent. I want to have an idea for a show, cast it, get a director, produce it, and hopefully break even if not make some money. That is my next goal. [Laughs] I will, of course, continue to act as well.

There are more than 93 theater companies in Portland and yet it is a small market for audience (compared to Seattle, New York, or San Francisco). Why are so many people doing theater here? What is the draw?

I think the draw is Portland. A lot of the audiences in Portland are really smart. That is one thing I hear at the JAW playwriting festival every year at Portland Center Stage. Playwrights come from New York, listen to the talk backs that our audiences do, and say, “Oh my god they got everything…I was so concerned that people wouldn’t get this and they picked up on everything…in fact they were one step ahead of me.” Portland audiences are really sharp…there’s just not that many of them.

The problem is that Portland Center Stage, Artist Repertory Theatre, and Third Rail have a huge number of subscribers. This weekend, when the show I am producing opens, there are five other shows opening. Nothing against any of those larger companies, but there is only so much audience to go around. It makes it hard. We are all competing for the same smart audience members. Portland theater is similar to the craft brew industry. I think that  if you love a place like the Rogue Brewery then that’s great and you can spend the majority of your time there. But every so often check out the tiny Bailey’s Taproom on Broadway because it may surprise you how good it is.

“Animals and Plants” runs Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 5,  CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh. Tickets: $20-$25.

2 Responses.

  1. Jen says:

    Artist Repository Theatre? 🙂

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