Grad student directs her growth
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.
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.
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
“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.
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
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
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
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.