Nov. 7-20, 2003
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Grad student directs her growth as artist
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Grad student directs her growth as artist
Director and grad student J. Murphy Mason, above left, sits with costume designer Katherine L. “Kater” Gordon, while the costumes for “The House of Bernarda Alba” are unveiled for the first time at the Culbreth Theatre.
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
Director and grad student J. Murphy Mason, above left, sits with costume designer Katherine L. “Kater” Gordon, while the costumes for “The House of Bernarda Alba” are unveiled for the first time at the Culbreth Theatre. Below, Mason inspects one of the costumes.

By Jane Ford

Like most graduate students, J. Murphy Mason is part student, teacher, undergraduate mentor and researcher, juggling many tasks and responsibilities.

J. Murphy Mason“Graduate school is a delicate balance,” said Mason, directing student in the M.F.A drama program. “There is so much work. I’ve got all the balls balanced in the air, but when life happens, it throws everything out of whack.”

Since the semester started in late August, Mason has kept a grueling schedule. Up at 7 a.m., she often doesn’t get home until after 10 p.m.
Her day typically begins at home reading and reviewing material for the day’s classes. Mason arrives at the drama building about 10 a.m. Her own three classes this fall, work as a teaching assistant in two undergraduate classes and directing “The House of Bernarda Alba,” which opened the Culbreth Theatre season, require perseverance and planning.

As a teaching assistant for playwriting professor Doug Grissom’s Drama 101 class, she will lecture three or four times and grade two assigned papers for 77 students. In Walter Korte’s film class, she will grade more than 85 exams. She shares running the weekly movie screenings for the class with her fellow teaching assistant Clinton Johnston, also a directing student in the M.F.A. program. That’s all in addition to the readings, presentations, papers and other work for the classes she is taking.

Mason applauds the drama department’s focus on studying and presenting older as well as modern classics. There’s such a rich background of information to bring to the plays, including biographies and critical analyses, she said. “I felt I really discovered Tennessee Williams last year when I directed ‘The Night of the Iguana’ in the Helms Theatre.” She also directed “Something Made Up,” a new play by Chicago playwright Barrie Cole, an old friend from her undergraduate days.

Drama M.F.A. Program

The M.F.A. program is structured as an ensemble of artists-scholars who are admitted on a three-year cycle. A total of 18 members — eight actors, and two each of directors, theater technologists and costume, lighting and theater designers — work collaboratively in a program that is part applied and part academic. The directing component was reestablished this session after a six-year hiatus thanks to the Edgar Shannon Graduate Support Fund in Drama, funded by alumnus John H. Birdsall III. M.F.A. drama students receive full fellowships plus an $11,000 stipend for each of the three years.

“The size and the fact that we can offer fellowships to everyone makes the program very competitive to get into,” said Bob Chapel, drama department chairman.

This semester, Mason directed Garcia Lorca’s play, “The House of Bernarda Alba,” which has a cast of 21 actors. She devoted a minimum of three to four hours a day just to rehearsals. Behind-the-scenes duties required coordinating technical issues and consulting with others who lent their expertise. As director, though, Mason had the final say on most production details. Not hours, but weeks were involved bringing together the contributions of all the players, including costume, lighting and set designers as well as set builders and technicians. All were graduate student colleagues or undergraduates, working under the guidance of faculty experts.

One evening, just a week before opening night, Mason concluded her day of class-oriented activities with a 5 p.m. dress parade. Sitting in the theater, the set awaiting a few final touches, Mason and undergraduate costume designer Katherine Gordon, with costume professor Gweneth West nearby, had a first peek at how the costumes and hair designs would look as an ensemble onstage.

“I love these unveilings, I feel like I’m at a fashion show,” said Mason. Early in the process, she had discussed style, fabric and colors with the designer. This night, few changes were needed.

The actors moved around the stage, testing the movement and shape of the garments. “At the dress rehearsal everything will be finished so the director doesn’t have to worry about it,” said West. Only a hem change here and an added apron or shawl there, and a few other minor adjustments were decided on for the final dress rehearsal early the next week.

After Mason grabbed a microwave dinner, the cast ran through the play. Mason watched and conferred from time to time with stage manager Sam Nystrom and assistant director Jinny Parron, both undergraduate drama majors. The evening ended with the actors receiving tips from assistant professor Marianne Kubik, who teaches dance and movement, while Mason conferred with music and voice coach Logan Byers, also an undergraduate student. It was already 10 p.m., and Mason still needed to talk with the actors before everyone called it a day.

Mason is no stranger to the hard work and long hours that are a hallmark of life in the theater world.

She spent more than 10 years in the working world before returning to school. After earning a bachelor’s degree in theater education from Emerson College in Boston, Mason worked as an actor, director, producer and creator of theater groups up and down the East Coast.
Attracted by the small size of U.Va.’s M.F.A. drama program, Mason said she appreciated the opportunity to direct her own course of study and choose her own projects.

“It’s a wonderful luxury to be able to focus on my own growth as an artist,” she said.


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