Alumnus in focus: Tommy Murphy

Tommy Murphy

Over the last decade, Tommy Murphy (BA 2004) has become one of the great success stories in Australian theatre. One of the most respected and popular playwrights of his generation, his work has been performed by all the major Australian theatre companies as well as having successful seasons internationally. Now, with his film adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s classic love story Holding the Man (based on his own award-winning stage adaption) set to close this year’s Sydney Film Festival, this success will extend to the Australian screen.

An Arts graduate (Majoring in English and Performance Studies), Tommy grew up in the regional town of Queanbeyan, just outside the Nation’s Capital. The seventh of eight children, regional Australia and family life have emerged as significant and reoccurring themes in his art. Hugely theatrical, imbued with great heart and humour, his plays often leave audiences with sore bellies, big grins and teary eyes.

Tommy co-wrote this year’s Logie and AACTA winning mini-series Devil’s Playground and is currently under commission for both Belvoir and Black Swan theatre companies. His adaptation of Lorca’s Blood Wedding formed part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Other plays include Troy’s House, Strangers in Between and Gwen in Purgatory. His stage adaptation of Holding the Man has played every year since its premiere including eight Australian return seasons and productions in New Zealand, San Francisco, Los Angeles and London’s West End. It is one of the most successful productions in recent Australian theatre history.

Some of Tommy’s many awards include the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award (twice), an Australian Writers Guild Award, a Helpmann Award for Best Play (Holding the Man), the Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award and a winner of the British Council Realise Your Dreams Award. As well as being a past-president of SUDS, Tommy was a board member for The Australian Theatre for Young People (2005-2010). He is also a graduate of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) directing course.

Below, Tommy shares with us memories from his time at the University of Sydney and reflects on his career in the Arts.

1. What are your happiest memories about your time here as a student?
My happiest times were spent at Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS). I saw my first SUDS show at about age ten because my older brother had been a member. It had always been an automatic choice for me; I always knew that one day I would move from my hometown to Sydney and that I’d attend the University of Sydney and join SUDS. SUDS enables students to find out for themselves what makes good theatre. It’s fair to say it teaches you a thing or two about dull and pretentious theatre too. You learn how to deliver to an audience, how to collaborate and to realise stage imagination. It is a fantastically productive outfit.

2. Who was your favourite Professor while you were a student at the University of Sydney and why?
I particularly admired Dr Paul Dwyer in the Performance Studies department. I remember a lecture he gave on Augusto Boal’s invisible theatre where he orchestrated some invisible theatre in the lecture itself. It provoked heated debate. It was brilliant pedagogy.

3. What is your proudest achievement?
I guess you hope it’s the last thing you’ve made. Holding the Man, the film, has been a project I’ve been patiently developing for eight years. It hits screens next month and I’m eager for the audience response. We never really know how a work is going to be received but I’m confident we’ve made the best film we could. I’m proud of the work that’s been done to explore all the choices on offer in the screen adaptation from the book and to find the focus that we’ve managed for the film. Holding the Man is in many ways a classic love story. There’s something old fashioned about it in some ways, whilst sexy and provocative as well.

4. Who inspires you?
My collaborators. The best part about writing for the dramatic arts is that your work is wholly dependent on collaboration. I’ve been privileged to work with extremely talented and expert practitioners. Chief among them, most recently has been Neil Armfield, the director of Holding the Man. I admire greatly his energy for work and his obsessions for detail and truthfulness. There’s no fudging the solutions with Neil. He brings a level of scrutiny that is the product of years of experience across many forms: theatre, film, opera. He’s an enemy of cliché. I think ridding something of cliché is more difficult than it seems and that’s what I find most inspiring about Neil - he’s the cliché slayer.

5. Please may you tell us more about yourself, your background, how you ultimately chose to become a playwright and writer?
I’ve been at home as a theatre writer for most of my career but in the last five years I’ve increasingly written for screen. There’s a great deal of opportunity in theatre and film at the moment. I’m fascinated by the differences between the two and how best to embrace those differences.

6. What is the mantra you live by and what drives you?
“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered” That comes from G. K. Chesterton via my late father, Philip. It’s one to live by.

7. What has been the most memorable success you have had?
My play Strangers in Between went on a regional tour which included performances in my hometown of Queanbeyan. The city had just built a new theatre and we helped baptise the space. I was proud to have written something that got to come home to a town that had been so nurturing to me when I was a teenager interested in the arts.

8. What are your plans for the future?
I am currently developing a film with director Cate Shortland. I am also writing two plays. One for Black Swan in Perth and another for Belvoir in Sydney. I hope to develop further projects for the screen now also.

9. What advice would you give to students graduating from the University of Sydney?
Seek mentors. As you set about focusing on your area of work, find that person you admire and learn from their expertise. Allow yourself to be an apprentice for a moment. A mentor, a good one, perhaps a series of mentors, will enable you to hone your craft.

Holding the Man opens in cinemas nationally, Thursday August 27.

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