To celebrate Durham Drama Festival’s 47th Anniversary this week, Aimee Dickinson interviews Jake Murray, one of Festival’s judges this year. Murray is a director, writer and theatre maker based in Durham, and is currently the Artistic Director of Elysium Theatre Company which aims to bring high quality theatre to the North East.
Upon being asked how he started out in theatre, Murray explains that he “grew up in a theatre family. My father was a theatre director and my mother a designer. Theatre was in my blood, it was part of my upbringing, so it was always an option. Plays were being discussed and argued over at dinner each evening from as far back as I can remember.” The first theatre company Murray started was Allende Theatre Company at the Edinburgh Festival in 1993. In the thirty years he has been working as a director, Murray has worked with venues all over the country, but states that his passion is running his own company due to the “artistic and creative freedom” it brings. Murray recalls some of the highlights of his career with his current theatre company Elysium, including ‘Days of Wine and Roses’, ‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’ and ‘Miss Julie’, explaining that Elysium has allowed him to produce some of his “favourite work”; “The excitement of finally working the way I want to, with actors and creatives I love and trust, has been really special”, he states. “There’s no doubt having your own company means you can realise your dreams.”
Moving to Durham in 2016 for his family, Murray confides that “I did think that moving up would pretty much end my directing career”, as most of his previous work had been based in London or Manchester. However, getting in contact with actor Danny Solomon and producer/actor and writer Hannah Ellis Ryan, Murray set about creating his own theatre company to “get theatre on in Manchester and the North East.” Murray is passionate about extending regional theatre beyond London especially. As he explains: “London is a world-famous theatre city, and the scene is great, but massively overcrowded, super-competitive and of a very particular kind. It’s also incredibly expensive, not just to go to but to put on. Meanwhile, there is a huge range of talent all across the country which is not in London, and audiences who are hugely receptive to theatre but are being denied it.” He explains that “we also have to give the regions their voice” in terms of representation within theatre itself. As he states, “the experience of a north easterner is different to that of a Londoner. Why shouldn’t their lives be represented as vividly on stage as they are down south?”.
I was interested to know how Murray had been handling the pandemic as a theatre creator. “When the pandemic hit”, he explains, “like all theatre companies we had to cancel all the plans we had. To begin with we were in disarray, but gradually we began to get creative.” He explains that Zoom readings of plays have provided a great opportunity “to try out plays we were interested in and enlarge our pool of performers.” Elysium began to present “public online workshops every Thursday evening”, which involved Murray exploring dramatists from Shakespeare to Chekov to O’Neill and which can be found on YouTube. Elysium has also launched a project entitled “the Covid-19 Monologues”, a series of dramatic monologues which are rehearsed online and then filmed socially distanced, which have enabled the company to “break into new writing” and have “had great reviews and incredible coverage.”
Finally, I asked Murray what advice he had for students looking to get into the theatre industry or to start their own theatre companies. He advises, “running your own company is the most fulfilling thing you can do, but it’s hard and you need to know what you are getting into. Be prepared to work for little or no money for a good while, but have a long term plan. Build your company up from nothing by making smart decisions. For instance, tailor your work to where you want to do it. Work out what you think your audience is, or what theatre isn’t being delivered where you are so you can create a niche for yourself.” Murray also advises students to take advantage of “the ways in which theatre can be reinvented through digital means” during the pandemic.
Check out Elysium Theatre Company here: www.elysiumtc.co.uk
Image credit: Garth Williams