Colleen Murphy: burning brightly at Studio Theatre

Bright Burning by Colleen Murphy, Studio Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

By Liz Nicholls,

“Our big fat myth,” declares Colleen Murphy (whose declarations tend to have a combustible edge to them) “is that we’re a classless society.”

“The tremendous gap between the wealthy and the working poor, and the rage beneath”: there’s the tinder for Bright Burning, the new Murphy play that ignites Thursday at Studio Theatre. It was commissioned, and custom-made, for the U of A’s graduating actors, all 12 of them, the grand finale of Murphy’s three-year Lee Playwright-in-Residence appointment.

Playing with fire isn’t a wild departure in the career of the Toronto-based star Canadian playwright/filmmaker. Murphy won the second of her Governor General’s Awards this past year for the fearless and disturbing Pig Girl, provoked by the grisly career of serial killer Robert Pickton.  The first, in 2006, was for December Man, which explored the fall-out of another horrific burst of violence, the 1989 shooting massacre at Montreal’s École Polytechnique.

Bright Burning, which arrives on the Timms Centre stage trailing warnings for “strong language, violence, sex, substance abuse,” has a similarly inflammatory sense of danger about it. “What planted the seed,” says Murphy over pre-rehearsal lunch this week, “is an article about so-called ‘ghost parties’: a bunch of young disenfranchised, marginalized kids who broke into a mansion, trashed the place and left… The police found them; the kids had taken selfies there.”

Bright Burning by Colleen Murphy, at Studio Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

In Bright Burning, a gang of six break into a posh suburban mansion with the idea of looting stuff to pay off a drug debt. Simmering resentment escalates into crazy violence that’s not without its black comedy. A meth dealer and her girlfriend arrive. A pizza delivery guy shows up. So do the daughters of the owners. “And the shit hits the   fan,” as Murphy says succinctly. “I took the idea and played it to its emotionally logical extreme….”

“I don’t know what people will do with that,” she shrugs cheerfully. That thought appeals to her. “For the first 10 minutes, the lights are off. We’re in the dark. There aren’t even any (stage) marks…. This is a show with a lot of physical challenges.”

“How would I break into a house? Well, I wouldn’t turn on the lights till I knew no one was there,” grins Murphy, noting mildly that “it’s not the most politically correct sort of play.” 

Which brings us to the chandelier. Murphy laughs. “If you’ve a got a chandelier, you’ve gotta swing on it!” And people do.

Murphy has particular praise for the dramaturgical expertise of director Jan Selman. The U of A’s department of drama “has thrown everything they have on this project: designers, staff, actors, a fight director! Amazing! I’m so lucky to be that playwright! (Laughs). So I just went whole hog!”  

Who doesn’t arrive? “Nobody plays ‘adults’, nobody plays cops,” says Murphy. The cast of 12, four times the size of the Canadian theatre average in this age of shrinkage, are all in the 10 to 25 age range. So are the individual characters Murphy has created for them. So “the challenge for the actors isn’t age,” she points out. It’s class. “It’s a challenge for theatre school actors to portray a different class.”

Bright Burning, Studio Theatre. Photo by Ed Ellis.

“I know this world, and it’s not a polite world. The possibility of violence, drugs…. Like all people, in life and in drama, (the characters) are searching for meaning.”

playwright Colleen Murphy

She had her own challenges with Bright Burning, says a playwright for whom “challenge” has a come-hither allure. For one thing, in an era of small-cast theatre, it’s a rare opportunity for a playwright to populate the stage. “Twelve people, and you want each one to have a character to play who has an arc, a life in this story.”

“We should be peopling our stages!” says Murphy, who “loves conflict, action, tension” in theatre. And this is the season she demonstrates. In The Breathing Hole, premiering this summer at Stratford (directed, incidentally, by U of A grad Renata Arluk), a cast of 19 plays 48 characters — in a story Murphy describes as “the life and death of a 500-year-old polar bear.”

In her opera Oksana G, (with Edmonton-born composer Aaron Gervais) — which debuts in May at Toronto’s Tapestry Opera  — a cast of 16, singing in Russian, Ukrainian and English, brings to life the world of sex trafficking.

For Bright Burning  Murphy “set myself the challenge of writing a play in one scene, in real time, in the same location…. It was hard, in an exciting way, to keep track of where the hell everyone is at any moment.”

“Also, the story demanded it,” as Murphy points out. “Intermission wouldn’t make sense.”

If Murphy’s plays all have striking differences in form, it’s because of the particular demands of the particular story, she says. “The idea dictates the structure; I really pay attention to that! I have to be able to tell the story in a ruthless formal container; that’s part of the storytelling.” She assesses her new phrase, “ruthless formality,” and likes it. 

In Pig Girl, for example, time operates in two different configurations, both onstage simultaneously. Dying Girl’s fatal and heroic confrontation with Killer happens in real time; meanwhile, Sister and Police Officer experience time over nine years, a damning indictment of the official indifference to a horrifying accumulation of evidence.  “It came to me in that form,” says Murphy simply.

In December Man, time spools in reverse. When actors tried reading the play in forward chronology, as an experiment, “it didn’t allow the same insights,” says the playwright, who has a sturdy resistance to sentimentality.

In The Breathing Hole, set in the Far North, time is as epically expansive as the setting is compressed. As Murphy describes it, The whole play happens at the same breathing hole. In three acts, a “magical bear” takes the audience through a story that begins in 1534, with the arrival on these shores of Jacques Cartier, and ends on New Year’s Eve 2034, when ice has vanished from the earth. “A vast tragic arc,” as Murphy puts it, of our wilful inattention to climate change.

With its single scene, in real time, and the occupation of the stage by at least half the 12 characters at any given moment, Bright Burning offers a different kind of formal challenge.

If you saw Murphy’s Armstrong’s War at Theatre Network, where two characters develop a friendship without ever agreeing, you’ll know that her plays don’t stack the deck by presenting thoughts you already agree with. In Bright Burning, with its insights into the rage of the working poor, “there’s a fulsome argument, both sides,” says Murphy. “You watch the trains collide, head on….”

In her acceptance speech at the Governor General’s Award gala earlier this winter, Murphy cited the British playwright Edward Bond. “ ‘If you can’t face Hiroshima in the theatre, you eventually end up in Hiroshima itself’. I take that to mean if we cannot face our own catastrophes in the theatre to gain some insight into why they happened then we risk repeating them.”

It will be for the audience to react in “whatever way they react,” says Murphy of the new play. “Love it, be outraged by it…. All those reactions are valid. The audience can feel whatever they wish. It’s an experience.”

“It may not entirely surprise you that the Shakespeare tragedy Murphy has taken in hand to adapt as satire, for an upcoming production commissioned by Vancouver’s edgy Rumble Theatre, is his goriest, Titus Andronicus. In The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, five outcasts scramble to perform their own version of the Shakespeare play, and the audience is encourage to hurl buns at the stage at moments of high offence.

“I write theatre I’d like to see, and I’m not interested in theatre that just upholds whatever I already think…. Theatre isn’t about pleasing people; it’s about exciting people.”


Bright Burning (I Hope My Heart Burns First)

Theatre: Studio Theatre

Written by: Colleen Murphy

Directed by: Jan Selman

Starring: the 2017 graduating class of BFA actors

Where: Timms Centre for the Arts, 112th St. and 87th Ave.

Running: through April 8

Tickets: 780-492-2495,


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