Five Questions with Megan Murtha

Editors Note: We’re Imploding: A Toy Theater Double Feature, with songs, text, and direction by Megan Murtha opens at The Tank on Sept. 7th and runs through Sept. 23rd.

Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?
I grew up in a yellow house in West Seneca, NY, a suburb of Buffalo. My bedroom window was on the second floor in between the windows of my sisters, though I am the youngest, with a huge maple tree in front of it that made me feel like I lived in a treehouse.

My parents took us to see the musicals that came to Shea’s Performing Arts Center, which instilled in me the desire to travel with the people that came to town. But, I stayed in Buffalo for my undergraduate degree while being a cook and a waitress, and somehow knew I wanted/needed to move to New York when I graduated, though I had never been there before.

I got into a grad program, and moved here sight unseen, having sent money to someone on Craigslist for a room on the floor of a Victorian house in Flatbush I would share with three other roommates. Knowing what I know now, that was so risky of me, but at the time it seemed like how it needed to happen (and that was 12 years ago when Craigslist was more reliable). And so here I am.

Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why? 
Basically everything by Sam Beckett and Jan Švankmajer. I felt such comfort in finding others who shared my kind of sensibility and way of processing the happenings of the world that I couldn’t devour enough of what they had both made. That comedy and utter despair can live together in poetic language and image, that their entwining can be grimy and beautiful at the same time was a huge life and aesthetic lesson for me from both of them. 

Švankmajer’s films ignited my love of puppets and my understanding of how objects can be animated for elevated and layered meanings. Beckett shaped how I think about the rhythms of language, the games that can be played with it, and the fine line between density and obscurity that needs to be walked so mindfully or the audience will get lost. 

Beckett and Švankmajer, amongst so many others, carved out a space for the type of things I wanted to make, things that don’t cleanly fit into an assigned genre, things that are dark and funny. Fortunately, New York has venues and audience that like these sorts of things.

What skill, talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?
I wish I could dance/be a movement person. It just looks like it feels good to do. Even just understanding dance more/at all would be helpful for my own artistic practice in imagining what is possible. Dance is like the poetry of performance. 

What is the most magical thing a puppet can do? Alternatively, what is the least interesting thing about puppets in your opinion?
Become fully, empathetically alive. That we as viewers can become personally invested in and moved by what happens to the piece of paper, the shadow that moves before us, is pure transformative magic. 

I think puppets become extremely uninteresting, not by fault of their own, when the puppet maker takes over the performance. What I mean by that is when the puppet maker does not allow for collaboration with a writer or performers. Shows that feature the puppet maker writing for and puppeteering their own puppet(s) run the risk of being terrible because the life of the puppet becomes narrowed to simply how they move and what they can do, rather than what they can mean and be for a viewer. Also, pre-recorded sound for a puppet show kills the puppet and makes for a very uninteresting experience. There needs to be the organic transfer between the puppeteer’s voice and the puppet’s movement for the magical shape-shifting to happen. Without that, the puppet is just paper, just wood, just an object moving around without a soul. Who wants to watch that?

When writing for object theater (as opposed to, say, live embodied performers), does your approach to the text change? If so, how?
Writing for objects and puppets is very freeing in not having to worry about whether things will be physically possible to stage, like a character’s body double emerging, or a deer talking inside a glass house, or a set of cow bones coming to life. I feel able to imagine and write whatever I want. But then, I am very spoiled to have a fantastic collaborator, Mark Fox, who can engineer and build exactly what is in my head to the finest detail, and I am also fortunate to be surrounded by top performers who are limitless in talent and voices to bring it all to life.

Working on the smaller scale of puppets also allows for writing plays with “big budget” production needs like huge set changes, forests that sprout in and take over a living room, period piece costuming, enormous insects, all for the cost of foam core and paper and hot glue. When writing for object theater I am allowed to write at a higher level of abstraction that the movement of objects offers entry points of access to the meaning of. The objects help to ground the poetry and layer additional meaning through sculptural performance that inspirits things otherwise taken for granted or readily discarded.

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