Five questions with an actor turned director

Cason Murphy

Music and theatre assistant professor Cason Murphy uses his experience as an actor to find innovative ways to help his students. Photo by Chris Gannon.

Cason Murphy wants to provide new opportunities for students in the music and theatre department. The assistant professor draws from his own experiences as an actor to use innovative ways to challenge and engage students. He was awarded the Prize for Innovative Teaching at the Region 5 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. The award recognizes faculty who "demonstrate innovation in regard to student success in the area of theatre arts." 

Name: Cason Murphy

Position: Music and theatre assistant professor

Education: Bachelor's degree in theater arts from the University of California, Los Angeles; master of fine arts from Baylor University

Years at ISU: 5

Inside caught up with Murphy for five questions about his theater experiences and how he innovates to help students.

What was your experience as an actor?

I worked in Los Angeles and went to New York for a couple of months with two original musicals to perform in the New York International Fringe Festival and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Then I had a reckoning and had to ask myself if I liked this level of rejection. When I got the opportunity to produce a cabaret event, I just liked being on that side of the table a little more. I got my master's in theater directing and spent two years teaching at Southern Arkansas University before coming to Iowa State.

What was your favorite role to play?

I originated a character from a then-new musical called "A Brain From Planet X." I was a tap-dancing alien that helped a gigantic brain in its quest to take over the world. It was very wild, but I got to play against some incredible performers, including Barry Pearl, who was Doody in the original "Grease" movie.

It was one of the reasons for the new musical we did last spring, "Baba." We had our students work with the writer and composer to develop it. [Originating a character] was so impactful in my career that I wanted to share it with our students. The writers gave me an eight-page outline with two songs, and our students turned it into a two-act musical featuring 24 songs with their fingerprints all over the show.

How do your experiences help you as an instructor?

It allows me to speak honestly and truthfully with my students. I rely on my network of people who still are performing and bring them into the classroom to talk to the students. Students want experiences, and there are ways we can deliver pedagogy through those experiences. For one of my classes, I had students pretend to visit a set to do background work on a television show. In another, I am talking with dancers in the kinesiology department about doing an experiential dance day, or having musicians come over and create some acapella songs. I want to take ideas and put them into action. Give students spaces where they can maybe succeed, maybe fail, but learn.

How was the theatre department impacted during the pandemic?

Theater has traditionally been an in-person art form and that was one of the big challenges during the pandemic, but it was exciting to see students engage with the technology for classroom purposes. We did a lot with Zoom and social media. I am interested in theater makers who moved into video gaming and tried to make theater happen in those spaces. One theater maker would go into online lobbies in the game "Grand Theft Auto" and recite Shakespearean poetry while trying not to get taken out by other players. Students were very curious about that and responsive in the moment because it was using technology in an interesting way. But at its core it felt very much like the theater I know.

How do you see artificial intelligence impacting theater?

Even as AI is rolling in, you think that it can't replace an actor in front of people. There is something interesting with the idea of content being created with AI as playwrights. I know there are theater makers collaborating with AI to write scripts for play festivals and there is interest in creating robotic performers. I feel theater is insulated from some of that, but there are so many ways it can change things around us that theater will have to respond. I think it will lead to more content but highlight the humanity at the center of theater.