Rupert Murray arrived in Manhattan in mid-January just in time for the city's first significant snowstorm in four years. As a resident of the more temperate Dublin, Ireland, he was caught totally unprepared for the onslaught of winter weather. Yet once he had shaken off the snowflakes and settled down for lunch at a restaurant on the Upper West Side, it became apparent that there is little that could cool his enthusiasm for his work.
This particular visit centered on the LD's redesign for Riverdance on Broadway, which opens at the Gershwin Theatre this month. Working with LD Ken Billington and his staff at their offices next door, Murray explained how this show will expand on the wildly successful touring productions.
"The main differences between this new staging and the current touring productions of Riverdance are that we've amalgamated the best of both scenic designs," Murray says. "The original show was primarily driven by rear projection. We then constructed another show that toured the US, and that was all done in a more theatrical style with scenic gauzes and flying pieces. For Broadway, we've put the two together and really brought the best of both worlds to it."
Murray plans to merge the best of his previous lighting designs for the show as well. "This is essentially the fourth production that we've put out, and we put it out to bid every time," Murray explains. "In terms of lighting, we've got a Morpheus version, a Vari-Lite version, and a High End Systems version. For this show, we're running with primarily a High End package again. We're using a number of Studio Colors(R) and Studio Spots(R) and we're putting it all together on a WYSIWYG program. Ben Pearcy at Ken Billington's offices is the lighting supervisor for me and he's been great. He's a pillar of strength, especially as I'm not as technically well-versed as some lighting designers."
While Murray may prefer simple design statements, he's hardly oblivious to the advantage of new lighting technology. "ETC's Source Four has been a terrific addition to the lighting industry, and the flexibility of color changers and faders is so much greater than when I started out. It really has made me think differently in terms of color. Control boards are amazing as well. Riverdance is controlled by a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog, and I'm continually amazed by its flexibility. It is astounding to me all the technological advancements that have been made.
"We put a lot of moving lights into the new design, but it's mainly for the speed of loading in and focusing," continues the LD. "I'm not really using them as a moving light rig. But we can get them in quickly and get the washes programmed really fast. It's worked very well for us. I am a big fan of moving lights, but they are hard work. That may be me, because I've never gotten quite on top of them and I'm old fashioned. Sometimes you can have too many choices and it can really confuse you. I like simple looks in everything: film, sports, music, etc. When it's done by a genius, amazing feats make you think you could do it yourself. Riverdance also has great moments of genius in its concept. So to play any part in something like it makes me feel lucky."
This new Riverdance includes several completely new numbers. "There are new dances and new songs that are currently being written and rehearsed," Murray says. "We're all looking forward to that. Plus, the new costumes are fantastic, and they obviously offer me a whole new opportunity to let rip with the lighting. They're much more colorful than the previous ones. Anyone who has seen Riverdance will recognize parts of the show, but it will look quite different."
Riverdance producer Julian Erskine recalls that when the show made its move from a TV show to a theatrical production, Murray was the first choice to take over the lighting. "I've worked side by side with Rupert on many occasions," Erskine says. "He lit many of the shows that I produced, and even earlier, we supplied packages for corporate events. I was producing the shows and Rupert was lighting them. He is the most respected LD in this country and his work goes right across the spectrum from corporate launches to heavy drama--he's been from Nissan to Ibsen.
"What makes Rupert very easy to work with is that he has also produced a lot of work and he's been the director of the St. Patrick's Day festival here in Dublin for the last few years," Erskine continues (see "Monster ceili," page 36). So he knows there are times when you've got to cut your cloth to suit the measure, and you can't always have all the toys in the shop. He's very practical and he understands the necessity to work within a budget."
Having racked up hundreds of design credits during his 25-year career, Murray has honed a fairly uncomplicated design technique. "My approach to lighting is not effects-driven; it is much more picture-driven," Murray explains. "A PAR lamp is very simple and beautiful and gives a great look. I like simple lighting statements. I do also love the fun and flexibility you get out of moving lights and especially the speed of focus. But I have a more classical theatre background. I don't actually like to have too many choices. My lighting is driven by the story. No matter what the subject, theatre, when it works, is intrinsically beautiful. I want to contribute to the whole by creating a series of pictures to drive it along."
Raised in London by his two Irish parents, Murray attended Trinity College in Dublin, where he originally majored in psychology. "I had no theatre background at all, and I didn't get into it until my senior year," he says. "As a distraction from finals, I helped out a friend who was in the Dublin University Players. I also met my future wife there. So I stayed in Ireland and was then asked to light Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe, and directed by Michael Sheridan for Metamorphix Productions. There was a lot of creative opportunity there and it turned out quite well. Also, a lot of important people saw it, including Jim Sheridan, who was then running the Project Arts Centre with his brother Peter. It was a very dynamic place--film and visual arts were done there as well. Jim had written a play called Mobile Homes, so I lit that."
Afterwards, Murray became the Centre's LD/stage manager/technician. "Neil Jordan was involved in the center's film section, as were Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, and Johnny Murphy--there was a phenomenal amount of talent there, so I ended up staying. But I found it quite difficult to rent the equipment that I needed. So my colleague Andrew Leonard and I started a company called Stage and Location Lighting Services Ltd. In 1979-80, we were doing lots of corporate parties and fashion shows to survive, but we also did a lot of theatre."
The owners merged the company with its only real competitor, Bourke Strand Electric Ltd., in 1983, and formed Lighting Dimensions Ltd. "It was a pretty substantial company, but I left in 1986, and sold my shares," Murray says. "It was very good security, but I didn't find it very satisfying."
He returned to the theatre. "I had enough of a reputation in the business that I was able to get work from the Gate Theatre," Murray says. "I met Michael Colgan, who runs the theatre, for the first time in 1984. He found the money and placed a lot of importance on the design aspects of the productions there. He gave all the lighting designers the time they needed to show what lighting can contribute. And Hilton Edwards, who was one of the founders of the Gate Theatre as well as a director and actor, was also a lighting design pioneer in Ireland. He really showed me what lighting could do."
One of the Gate Theatre's most memorable experiences was the 1985 production I'll Go On, an adaptation of three Samuel Beckett novels into a one-man play with Barry McGovern. "He is, in my opinion, the greatest playwright who ever lived," Murray says. "It really opened people's eyes to Beckett. It's not all black humor--much of it is really very funny."
The production also marked the LD's first collaboration with set designer Robert Ballagh. "Both Rupert and myself were nominated for a design award because the set design and the lighting were so intertwined," he says. "I have lost count of the amount of times I have worked with Rupert since, although Riverdance is probably the best known example. At this stage we're pretty good at guessing what one another needs and should do in terms of helping the other when pulling a design together. It's almost a truism that good lighting is a crucial part of stage design, but so often, unfortunately, people don't consider that. Bad sets can be made to look half-decent with good lighting, whereas a good set can be absolutely destroyed by bad lighting. I've always worked very sympathetically with Rupert, and he with me."
Director Joe Dowling (now with the Guthrie Theatre) also has great respect for Murray. "I've known him for 20 years," Dowling says. "When I first met him he was this long-haired, ex-Trinity College Dublin student, who was really much more into alternative theatre than I was, and I thought at that time that our paths would never cross professionally. But then I was doing a couple of shows at the Gate and he came in to do a show, so Michael Colgan asked me to meet with him. Blithe Spirit was the first show we did together--anything less alternative you can't imagine. We got on like a house on fire and remain very good friends.
"I've enormous admiration for him," Dowling continues. "Lighting design is only one part of him--his work as a production manager and a producer is extraordinary. So often people like Rupert are the backbone of a theatre community, and yet they never get the recognition they deserve. A lot of people in Ireland wouldn't even know his name, but he's been central to so much of what's happened in Irish theatre over the past 20 years. He's truly an unsung hero."
The biggest show Murray collaborated on with Dowling was a Gate Production of Juno and the Paycock at Dublin's Olympia Theatre. "He totally understood what we were trying to get at, the harshness of it, and how we refused to allow the piece to wallow in any kind of sentimentality," Dowling says. "So much of what he did, particularly in Acts I and III in that play, defined the production--no question about that. He had a moment toward the end of the play, where the character of Juno is alone onstage and her whole life has been destroyed, and she stands there uttering a final, hopeless prayer: It's one of the great moments in Irish drama. On our opening night in New York, the actress didn't actually hit her spot--and when she didn't, the whole effect was lost. Rupert showed such bravery in the way that he found to talk to her about the lighting and persuade her to do it. Her concerns were obviously not on where the lights were, but on the emotions of the piece, yet he helped her understand why she had to hit that spot, as opposed to just saying to an actor, 'Hit that spot, otherwise my light doesn't come on.' That inspiring moment really defined the production in so many ways."
Dowling also found inspiration in Murray's fearlessness. "The most important thing about Rupert is that he never, ever gives up," Dowling concludes. "He's the best improviser I've ever seen in lighting. He always manages to make it look terrific, even if he's working against impossible odds. I've seen that happen on a number of occasions, particularly at the Gate, where there was, to put it mildly, a limited amount of instruments available to him to do the magic he can create--but he always does. If a show has fallen into chaos and he isn't given proper focus time, he'll show up at 3am or whenever he can get the time. What he does is magical, and against insuperable odds. I only wish he had a green card, because then I'd be working with him today."
Besides the Gate Theatre, Murray also worked at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, as well as other Irish and London venues. "For the next five or six years I worked as a freelance LD, but I always had the notion that I'd like to be a producer," he says. "When I got an opportunity to do that, I went into production management, where I put together packages for company parties and new launches. They were all very good experiences; I called my company Creative Events."
In 1991, Michael Colgan asked Murray to serve as coordinator of the Beckett Festival for the Gate Theatre, RTE (Radio Television Eireann), and Trinity College. "Before Beckett died, we put together a festival of all 19 of his plays and incorporated all of his work, and the man himself," Murray says. "I handled all aspects, which included audiovisual presentations, art exhibitions, symposiums, radio shows, television, and plays on RTE," Murray explains. "It as all was done in three weeks in Dublin. After that, I concentrated on producing a number of plays myself in Ireland."
That move came as no surprise to Colgan. "Rupert is essentially a producer masquerading as a lighting designer. After he had lit a million shows with me I pulled him off the ladder, so to speak, and asked him to be the production manager at the Gate, which he did superbly well for a number of years. His understanding of the theatre is quite extraordinary because he doesn't come to it from a strictly lighting point of view.
"He is also the easiest person to work with--he is non-theatrical in that way," Colgan continues. "He never throws a tantrum and he works very hard. Whenever there is a problem with a show, Rupert's accuracy in terms of what needs to be done is absolutely extraordinary. It's impossible to describe lighting with words, but Rupert can create a moment where you might think the actors are responsible, but it's actually the lighting. His type of intelligence is truly rare. So people are happy to work with him and for him. Certainly, he'll fight his corner and try to get more hours for programming and more spaces for lamps, but ultimately, everything Rupert does is for the good of the show. He's one of the best friends this theatre has ever had. He's always there to put the show right."
In November 1995, Colgan could think of no one better to help set the St. Patrick's Festival right, so he offered Murray the job of festival director. "The Arts Council, the Tourist Board, the Chamber of Commerce, and a group of independent people got together to discuss reinventing St. Patrick's Day, and Michael Colgan was the board chairman," Murray says. "The consensus was that it was worth doing if people were willing to put the money and effort into it. Ireland has undergone major changes in the past 10 years--plus, we're quite good at throwing parties. We've produced Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan, Brian Friel, U2, and a winning Irish football team--and Riverdance has become a much-copied international sensation. Suddenly there was a great generation of confidence. While it's very political because everyone wants to have a say and be involved, it's been a great success."
Last month Murray lit a beautiful production of Shakespeare's As You Like It, with a set designed by Bruno Schwengl, and directed by Jonathan Miller for the Gate Theatre. After Riverdance is settled in on Broadway, he'll head over to check on his design for the Irish Pavilion in Hannover, Germany, for Expo 2000, which opens to the public in June. "It has to be completed by the beginning of May, and it's interesting because it's both culturally and scientifically driven. Obviously, the pavilion is supposed to be an expression of Ireland. So there is a lot of art in it, but there's also an audiovisual area. It's a piece that's derived from the weather patterns over Ireland that were photographed over a year. Music has been written to that and a whole series of images have been shot on film and are currently being cut together into one big piece. For that, I'm adding a lighting dimension (if you'll pardon the expression) because visitors to the pavilion are invited to walk through it.
"In a way, you're supposed to get an overall experience of Ireland from that," he continues. "It's good fun and I'm enjoying it. It's quite interesting to create something like this which is both permanent and temporary. There is also a sensory wall that is made out of black polished limestone and there are openings in it where you can put your hand in and feel rain or wind or listen to the sea or birds. Others are sort of panoramic vistas so you can look in and see different parts of the country and so on."
The Expo runs in Hannover until the end of October, after which the pavilion may be shipped to Ireland for public viewing there. "We are also proposing to take one of the productions from last year's St. Patrick's Festival to Hannover as part of an Irish entertainment package. Ulysses, from the Irish theatre company Macnas and a group from Barcelona called Els Comediants, is a great production (see sidebar, page 36). That's what's keeping me off the streets nowadays.
"I'm very lucky to have met the people I've worked with and to live in Ireland," Murray concludes. "Theatre people are very interesting and it's a privileged position to work with them all. Plus, it's fun to go from something small like I'll Go On to Riverdance, the second biggest-selling show in the world. Going from one extreme to the other is great."
A rguably, it is the one national holiday that is celebrated in more countries around the world than any other--everyone wants to be Irish on St. Patrick's Day. Ironically, the celebrations held in Ireland of its own patron saint paled in comparison to those held abroad. That is, until 1996, when a committee got together to change the perception of St. Patrick's Day in Ireland.
From the festival offices near St. Stephen's Green on the second day of the festival, Rupert Murray explained that the whole point was to make the holiday important, but most of all, fun again. Members of the committee were appointed in November 1995, which gave them four months to accomplish this ambitious objective. Michael Colgan, director of Dublin's Gate Theatre, chose his friend and longtime associate Murray to be festival director. Colgan says, "I knew with him running the street shows and parades, it would be a great success."
The 1996 St. Patrick's Festival was held March 17. The goal was to demonstrate that changes were afoot by putting on a full day of events culminating in a major outdoor theatrical show from Barcelona's Els Comediants. "When I took this festival on, and we were trying to stamp our mark on it, I needed something in it that would really stand out and make people say, 'Wow!'" Murray explains. "So I asked if they'd be interested in coming to Dublin. We'd never done anything like the type of productions they do. They actually incorporated the city into the show by making the buildings their set and lighting it with pyrotechnics and fireworks, and acting within that, then using the rooftops and sailing off them. I knew it would be great--they're mad, but organized mad, and I like that. Since I only had a few months to prepare, I had to have something special that I could pull out of my back pocket--and I knew that they would produce the goods."
By last year, the festival had been extended to five days, beginning with the biggest fireworks display ever seen in Europe on March 13. The following day marked "Paddy's Big Day Out" as theatre, music, and dance engulfed the streets of Dublin. The next night, "Aguto," saw the Amlima Theatre Company from Togo, West Africa, bring voodoo, ritualistic figures, Daliesque elephants, giraffes, bats, and snakes to the city. Then on March 16 Els Comediants returned, this time teamed up with Ireland's internationally renowned street theatre company, Macnas. Together they performed a unique version of The Odyssey. "Almost every event has some sort of pyrotechnic base to it, because I'm a psycho for fireworks," Murray admits. "I imagine that a lot of people with lighting backgrounds are the same way."
The Odyssey is a very big street theatre show. "It's an episodic story, very simple. A guy goes out on a boat and encounters a death ship, cannibals, sirens, and six-headed monsters," Murray says. "Anybody and everybody can understand it, because it's all done visually. But they use pyrotechnics as their way of actually lighting the show. They also use it to very dramatic effect, so it's a great mixture of music, theatricality, costumes, and a parade of sorts.
"I'm the producer, but of course I have an interest in how it looks," he continues. "Julio Martin does all the pyrotechnics for this; he is a genius. You always know geniuses because they're always very calm."
John Crumlish of Galway-based Macnas has worked with Murray since the 1996 festival. Crumlish says, "I enjoy working with him, and I have so much respect for what he's done for the Parade in Dublin. He changed it so much for the better--it's unrecognizable. The street theatre pieces are hooked into Latin and Caribbean traditions, mixed in with a little Irish--mock savagery really is where we're at. Rupert has taken that onboard as well as the carnival aspect, which is all about celebration. And he thinks big, which makes him a man after our hearts.
"To do The Odyssey we built a stage on the busiest corner in Ireland," Crumlish continues. "We took the story and put a postmodern twist on it. It was quite ambitious, and we actually pulled it off."
The parade then followed on the actual feast day, March 17, a brilliant mix of pageantry, color, and music. The final event was the Monster Ceili ("ceili" means "party"), where Riverdance took to the streets on a massive scale at St. Stephen's Green. Having transformed the festival into the country's largest national arts event, Murray has handed over the director reins to Dominic Campbell.
1974-78 Resident stage LD and technician at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin
1978 Founded Stage and Location Lighting Services Ltd.
1978-83 Managing director, Stage and Location Lighting Services
1983 Merged Stage and Location Lighting Services with Bourke Strand Electric, forming Lighting Dimensions Ltd.
1983-86 Managing director, Lighting Dimensions Ltd.
1986-88 Freelance stage lighting designer and production manager Credits include: Juno and the Paycock, Gate Theatre (director Joe Dowling) The Field, Abbey Theatre (director Ben Barnes) Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Gate Theatre (director Ben Barnes)
1989-90 Production/tour manager for the Gate Theatre, Dublin Credits include: I'll Go On, Gate Production World Wide Tours (director Colm O'Briain) Juno and the Paycock, Gate Production at Olympia Theatre (director Joe Dowling) A Woman of No Importance (director Ben Barnes) The School for Scandal (director Patrick Mason) Salome (director Steven Berkoff) The Aristocrats (director Joe Dowling) The Three Sisters (director Adrian Noble) You Never Can Tell (director John David) Salome (Edinburgh Festival) Salome (Spoleto Festival, Charleston, SC)
1990 Founded Creative Events Ltd.
1991 Festival coordinator of the Beckett Festival for the Gate Theatre, RTE, and Trinity College, Dublin
1992-95 Freelance theatre producer/production manager/ lighting designer Producer credits: Blues in the Night, Tivoli Theatre (director Carole Todd) The Streets of Dublin, Tivoli Theatre (director Brian de Salv) The Risen People, Gaiety Theatre (directors Peter and Jim Sheridan)
1995 Riverdance: The Show, directed by John McColgan for Abhann Productions
1995-99 Director of the St. Patrick's Festival
2000 Riverdance: The Show, on Broadway Expo 2000 Irish Pavilion
Coming up: US and Canadian tour of Catalpa by Donal O'Kelly US tour of the Gate Theatre's Beckett productions