Five Questions for Tom Murrin
Name: Tom Murrin
Title/Occupation: Alien Comic; performer, writer
Organization/Company: The Alien Comic, Paper Magazine
1. Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?
Well, that’s really the whole show to tell you the truth.
I grew up in Los Angeles, California; I moved to New York at a certain time in the mid 60s. I wanted to be a writer and I went to LaMama on Second Avenue and saw a play called “Chicago” by Sam Shepard and I got into writing plays and doing theatre.
In the 70s I moved to Seattle and started performing with a Para-troupe and travelled around the U.S. with them. And then Johanna Went (another Para-troupe member) and I started performing street theatre together in the U.S. and Canada and then in 1977 I started doing solo performances in Tokyo. And I went around the world for the next year and ended up back in New York.
In 1978 I began opening for bands downtown at CBGB’s and other music venues and since that time I’ve been doing shows at downtown venues at places like PS122, LaMama, Dixon Place, Theater for the New City, 8 B.C., King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut –that was a great place – Lucy Sexton and Annie Iobst had a show there Wednesday nights and all the downtown performers played there.
I have performed a lot in L.A. and other places in the 80s and 90s too – the Anti-Club, L.A.C.E. gallery, Highways… for a while we had a place out there; primarily we live here in N.Y.C.. I still have a lotta family, friends and places I perform out there.
2. Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why?
Jeff Weiss did a show at La Mama in the 60s called “That’s How the Rent Gets Paid.” And it was just him doing a performance of incredible entertainment skills: he sang, he danced, he told stories, he did scenes, he charmed you completely – he did everything you would ever expect an entertainer to do in an evening and he passed the hat.
And as for movies – The Thief of Baghdad. By Powell, I think. Sabu played the Thief of Baghdad. Fabulous story set in India – I must have been about 10 when I saw it. It’s about adventure and magic and romance and I knew this was the kind of life I wanted to lead. There’s a giant genie that comes out of a bottle and grants three wishes; there was an evil magician who has a flying horse. It was really magical – and it got me onto the magical adventures that are out there if you look for them.
As music goes, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles was a show in itself – they had taken an older form of British entertainment and used it to frame a musical album – not only was it a masterpiece but it also told you something about mixing genres – that anything was possible that way, too.
As far as artists go – Gauguin is my favorite artist. He went to the South Seas and painted some beautiful pictures of people, trees and animals – he was not restrained by the colors of nature. He could make a purple tree or a yellow bird. He opened the idea that you could make up your own color vocabulary – and later when I started making my own masks, I felt that was influential.
3. What skill or talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?
Well, I’d like to fly. But that’s just a fantasy skill. [lots of laughter]
I’d like to be a more consistent golfer. [more laughter] I caddied and I played golf when I was young and I really enjoyed the game. I would like to still be able to play how I played then. But better. Golf is a very humbling game. And it allows you to be both good and horrible, one shot to the next. So if it were any skill – I’d have that same skill from [being better at] golf in life. And so I’d make one decision or action or a creation or an anything and have it be good and have the next one be good too. In other words, I’d like to make a series of good shots in a row, not one good one, one bad one. I’d be more consistent.
4. What do you do to make a living? Describe a normal day.
Well, what I do is I do my shows, and I work for Paper Magazine which I have been doing for about 18 to 20 years. I write about performers and theatre. When David Hershkovits asked me to write for Paper – let’s say 20 years ago – he said, “Tom, we’d like someone to write about downtown performance and theatre and we know that you are in that performance scene. We don’t want a critic. We want you to write about people whose work you like and think other people should know about.” And I said, Thanks! I wouldn’t want to be a critic – there’s enough – and as part of the scene, I wouldn’t want to be saying anything negative about anyone doing the same thing I’m doing. I know how hard it is.
I love my job because I can go to see people who are creating theatre and stage and give them a little bit of a plug so someone will want to see that show or know more about them. I’ve been very fortunate that during the 80s and 90s and now the 2000s, that there has been a tremendous amount of creativity in our downtown scene. I can go to shows 2-3 times a week and be happily surprised at all the new and terrific stuff going on and I can still see people I started with who are doing real well and who have made a success with their lives as performers and actors and playwrights.
So let’s see, a normal day for me will be going through various press releases and previews, calling back publicists and asking if I can interview someone connected with the show they are plugging, talking to that person, writing it up longhand, eventually getting to a computer, getting a picture and sending it in. I used to write for the print magazine more but now it’s mostly papermag.com online.
Then I make my props and costumes and masks from scratch. Usually, I’ll get a piece of cardboard and make it into a mask with a rubber band to hold it on my head and I paint it. I do this every day because I like to change my show every time and have new things to play with. The masks are inspirational in terms of what kind of show I want to do.
I put the things down on the floor around me in a circle, arranged by color. Let’s say there will be a grouping of red things here, green things here – it’s not always that defined, but I try to use color to originally set up my working props. Then I will put on a mask and I will put on a costume and hold a prop in my hand and then I will look in the bathroom mirror and I’ll see what this tells me to say. Then I will write this in a script. Then I will put on the next section of things and continue that way. So the masks and the props are always inspiring the text for the show.
I’ll always have a theme. I try to make the show related to something that is happening at that time. A month or so ago I did a show for Nicky Paraiso’s Christmas Show at La Mama. So I got red and white and angels and Santas and started with that. Before that I did a show for Thanksgiving, and before that was Halloween. January was a full moon show. February was my birthday so I did a birthday show. In March I’ll do a St. Patrick’s Day show, in April an Easter show. So the shows are relative to certain current holidays. Or the weather. Or politics. Or something eventful of the moment. I’ve always tried to do shows that were timely because it kept me interested as well as the audience. A long time ago I did a show downstairs here [at Performance Space 122] about Jimmy Swaggart when he had to apologize for being caught with a prostitute. I got a water bottle and sprayed my face so it was wet because he was crying during his public apology. For fashion week I did a fashion show.
5. Have you ever had to make a choice between work and art? What did you choose, why, and what was the outcome?
Well, it sounds like I’m not answering the question but my art is my work so I never did have to choose. I wanted to be the things I was doing at each stage of my life. I realize how lucky I am that that happened. When I was a lawyer, I was a lawyer. When I was a playwright at La Mama I had a job at an insurance company. And when I started performing I made money from my performances. When I began doing the stuff I’ve been doing the past 20 years– it wasn’t full time but enough of a job to keep me going so I could do my performances at the same time. I didn’t really have to take a 9-5 job and I know how lucky I am that that happened. I’ve worked in offices and done odd jobs here and there along the way but I’ve just been lucky.
Tom Murrin is currently appearing in “The Talking Show” presented by Performance Space 122 and directed by Lucy Sexton. Playing through March 7. http://www.ps122.org/performances/the_talking_show.html