Christopher J. Murphy
November 21, 2013
Christopher J. Murphy is one of the area’s most prolific and reliable actors, directors and producers. With well over 200 productions to his credit (he lost track several years ago when his computer crashed and he lost his database) he is, perhaps, the hardest working man in Fort Wayne show business.
“I spend more hours of my week than I even want to count up working in the theatre,” he says.
During the day he is the director of theater at Blackhawk Middle School, where he has been for 10 years, directing two Broadway-style musicals and one play every season. By night he can be found onstage or behind the scenes in one production or another almost nonstop. He is usually working on multiple projects simultaneously.
He recently finished producing ARCH’s haunted tours, selecting, rehearsing and organizing the tour guides and serving as a tour guide himself. He also freelances as a director at various community theaters, most recently First Presbyterian Theater where he directed The Fox on the Fairway. Just for fun, he is starring (for the third time) in The Man Who Came to Dinner for the University of Saint Francis while he rehearses his students in It’s a Wonderful Life which opens a week after the USF show closes.
Then comes his next major gig, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s Holiday Pops, which he has produced/directed for the past three years.
“I help program and stage the chorus, children’s choir, four super talented Cincinnati Conservatory performers, even Santa,” he says. “I have a hand in structuring, writing and staging the entire show.”
One of the CCM cast members, Christine Cornish-Smith, will be choreographing the dance numbers based on general concepts from Murphy. The cast rehearses in Cincinnati with frequent communication from Murphy in Fort Wayne. “The rest of the cast definitely plays a role in it too,” he says, “as we want them to show off their best skills. They work very hard to get as much of their choreography down as possible before arriving in Fort Wayne so that we can spend their time here staging the rest of the show as quickly as possible.”
Following that he will produce (and narrate) two family series concerts for The Phil, bringing him to Blackhawk’s spring musical and directing Company at Arena Dinner Theatre. In the summer he will direct another musical at Blackhawk and will travel the country teaching at fine arts camps from Kendallville to Texas.
“I’m tired just reading this schedule!” he says.
His career would seem to leave little time for a personal life. Fortunately, he has an understanding wife. He met Emilie Henry during a production of Peter Pan at the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre. He was Captain Hook; she was Wendy. They stayed in contact through theater connections (he taught her younger siblings, who were involved in theater at Blackhawk). She left Fort Wayne to attend Columbia College in Chicago, then worked professionally in regional theaters in Florida. They lost touch until she moved back to Fort Wayne in 2010.
“I sent her a random e-mail inviting her to audition for my Christmas production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Arena Dinner Theatre,” he recalls. “At the very last minute, she walked through the door, gave a great audition and was cast.”
During the rehearsal process, he says, “we somehow and unexpectedly found ourselves mutually smitten.”
They began dating, became engaged a year later and married the following year (a year ago December, in fact).
They had a mildly theater-inspired wedding, which included playbill-themed programs. “Our theatrical backgrounds and creativity definitely came in handy in the organization and planning of the whole thing,” he says. “I very much approached it the same way I would producing a show.”
They have continued to work together, both as fellow actors (she plays his long-suffering secretary in The Man Who Came to Dinner) and he has directed her in numerous productions (The 39 Steps and Boeing-Boeing at Arena).
“I’m lucky to have an ‘in’ to get such a wonderful actress to audition for me pretty regularly,” he says.
His wife isn’t the only actor who regularly works with him. His professionalism, organization, creativity and experience draws Fort Wayne’s most talented to auditions, and he routinely wins directing and acting awards at Arena Dinner Theatre.
But for all his experience and influence, he doesn’t have a theatre degree.
His interest in theater began when he was a toddler. “When my parents divorced and my mother went back to work,” he explains, “I spent my days with my grandparents. With no other kids around with whom to play, role-playing – running my own little store or restaurant out of grandma’s kitchen – was my escape, my entertainment, and my fun.”
He parlayed that interest into theater when he was a middle schooler at Blackhawk where he now teaches. “[Our theater program is] very advanced for a middle school,” he says. “Elaine Nickell-Fabyanic ran the program when I was a student, and she first inspired and taught me my craft. I am honored to carry on that tradition and continue teaching these young artists the art of theater.”
But he was the first in his family to perform onstage. However, he says, “I come from a very funny family, and I learned at their feet. My maternal grandfather, in particular, was what I call a great ‘living room entertainer.’”
Directing happened by accident for Murphy. As a high school student at Snider, he was in an acting class that led a children’s theater troupe. They voted on one student to be the director, but that person lacked the necessary leadership skills. “I just kind of naturally filled the void,” he says. “I didn’t try to take over – I didn’t even want to take over. It just seemed that my skill set suited me to do so.”
He says it not only allowed him to use the best parts of his left and right brains, but it appealed to his “control freak nature.” But most of all, he says, “there is nothing I find more satisfying than collaborating and giving a really great actor the tools and the environment in which to do their thing and shine.”
Not content to simply direct, Murphy found himself asked to produce as well. This allows him control and final say of all aspects of the production, including staff, sets, costumes, casting and so on.
Murphy credits his attention to detail for his success both as an actor and as a producer/director. “I really believe that the devil is in the details and that those little elements of creating a character – a tiny flick of the hand, or selecting a costume, just the right cufflinks, or designing a set (putting that knickknack at just the right angle) – are what make an audience believe in what they are seeing.”
He says the audience may only be subconsciously aware of these details, but they add to the realism of the production.
On the flip side, his attention to every detail and his meticulous perfectionism can lead to frustration, both for him and those working with him.
But that’s a small price to pay to achieve consistently great art.