SesayArts in Conversation: Gemini-Award-winning Sarah Murphy-Dyson on teachers, tiaras and Truman Capote

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Sarah Murphy-Dyson (photo by Pierre Gautreau)

Spoiler alert. Ballerina-cum-actor Sarah Murphy-Dyson is pro-teacher. In the current political climate, that takes guts and conviction. And passion, of which she has plenty. (Not to mention a large dose of talent and loads of charm.)

Murphy-Dyson is also one of the most acclaimed Canadian actors to emerge onto the theatre scene in recent years. She currently stars in two plays by the renowned and prolific Canadian playwright and screenwriter George F. Walker. These are the first 2 plays of his newest cycle, After Class–the first cycle he has written since his acclaimed and popular Suburban Motel in 1997.

The plays, Parents Night and The Bigger Class, are being performed as a double-bill at Theatre Passe Muraille by CrazyLady Productions. Murphy-Dyson is co-artistic producer of CrazyLady along with Wes Berger, who directs both plays. As is typical of Walker, both plays are satires that feature relatable, sympathetic characters caught in untenable social and political circumstances —  in this case, the public education system. Murphy-Dyson, who started her career as a soloist in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, portrays two vastly different personalities in the double-bill: Nicole, a Grade 3 teacher in Parents Night and Irene, a high school principal in The Bigger Issue.

Sarah Murphy-Dyson in The Naked Ballerina (photo by Dejon)

So how did this award-winning ballerina become an actor? Originally from Victoria, BC, Murphy-Dyson attended Canada’s National Ballet School as a child. Later, she took drama classes in high school. For the next 15 years, she danced professionally with the Alberta Ballet, the Banff Festival Ballet, and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. During the “layoffs” following each ballet season, Murphy-Dyson would land stand-in and background roles in TV and movies, thanks to her friendships with the film crews who filmed some of the ballets she danced in.

And then Capote came to town. A serendipitous encounter with Philip Seymour Hoffman yielded an “a-ha” moment, and… well . . . no more spoilers! Murphy-Dyson speaks so passionately and eloquently about her career and the Walker plays that we present our conversation with this warm and multi-talented artist in its entirety below:

  1. Why did you decide to perform The Bigger Issue and Parents Night as a double bill? And why now?

It was George’s idea. We were going to do Parents Night, and he pushed us to make it a double bill–and we thought it was a great idea (after I had a “how-the-hell-can-I-possibly-ever-do-that?” meltdown)! And now I LOVE doing them back to back. It’s a trip. A dream for an actor: two entirely different people in entirely different circumstances.  I love making the physical transformation… Hair, jewellery, makeup, underwear, clothes… I love every detail of those details.

The preparation is one of my favourite parts of performing. Even when I was dancing I LOVED the ritual of putting on my makeup, warming up, taping my toes, pointe shoes, tiaras, sparkly earrings, eyelashes, tutus… Now the shoes are much more sensible and I’m maybe not as sparkly, but I still love it. I find it very meditative. And sexy. Weird but true. George’s nickname for me is Weirdo. Ha! More apt than I knew.

  1. You bio indicates both your acting credits and experience as a ballerina. We’re intrigued about your transition from dancing as a soloist for the acclaimed Royal Winnipeg Ballet to now theatre actor. What brought about this transition?
Sarah Murphy-Dyson performing with the Royal Winipeg Ballet (photo courtesy of Sarah Murphy-Dyson)

Sarah Murphy-Dyson performing in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty (photo courtesy of Sarah Murphy-Dyson)

A couple of ballets were made into films (Dracula and The Tale of the Magic Flute), and we got to be very close with some of the AWESOME Winnipeg film crews. So on our layoff (usually 6 weeks or so), we did a lot of stand-in and featured extra work. I LOVED it and had already done a couple of cool short films and had started on-camera classes.

Then Capote came to town. I got to wear vintage Chanel and red lipstick, and watch Phillip Seymour Hoffman at work. And THEN… I got to do a scene with him, sitting almost knee to knee (Capote’s dressing room after his reading)! He asked all about the ballet and coming to rehearsal, and then he talked about how to laugh on cue. The scene was going to be us laughing with him and Hoffman said, “The key is just to laugh. Just make yourself laugh and then you’ll be laughing.” Truth. Then the cameras rolled, and he morphed back into Capote and IMPROVISED with Bob Balaban. (Seriously?!?) And we were all laughing, and Hoffman turned to me at one point and looked into my eyes, and we laughed and laughed and laughed.

It was incredible, and it was right then I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I got an agent (in Vancouver), retired from the ballet (at the end of the season) and enrolled full time in Theatre at U of W. In fact, I had been taking a full course load while dancing full time. Somehow.

Sarah in a modern-dance duet (photo courtesy of Sarah Murphy-Dyson)

Sarah Murphy-Dyson in The Magic Flute (photo courtesy of Sarah Murphy-Dyson)

Also I always preferred character roles, and I would create a character if there wasn’t one to help with my nerves.

  1. Do you continue to dance alongside your acting career?

I teach ballet and I teach Dancing with Parkinson’s, and in my [autobiographical] solo  show The Naked Ballerina, I dance en pointe a bit. I do episodes of (the TV show) Reign here and here as a dancer.

  1. What (or who) is your inspiration for portraying a teacher and school principal in these plays?

I find the character through the words. Trying to impose any kind of “ideas” about what I think might define a high-school principal or a Grade 3 teacher is deadly for me. So I get to know them through the text and also probably there’s an infusion of all the wonderful teachers I had in there too. I had GREAT teachers. Playing Nicole and Irene has opened my eyes to what teachers have to deal with. I bow down to you all. What they have to deal with?! Mind blowing.

All I can say to my teachers and to (almost) all the teachers out there… Thank. You. You deserve more money, more appreciation, more resources, more everything. Well, except for students. Less students. And less grief from uninformed, overprotective parents.

  1. The Toronto local of the Elementary Teachers Federation is actively promoting your shows, even offering special ticket prices. So there’s bound to be a lot of teachers and principals in the audience. What do you think they’ll be discussing after the plays end?
A scene from Parents Night: l-r: Matthew Olver, Sarah Murphy-Dyson, Dana Puddicombe (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

A scene from Parents Night: l-r: Matthew Olver, Sarah Murphy-Dyson, Dana Puddicombe (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Oh wow. Well John Smith, president of ETT, is my personal hero at the moment. He read the plays, understood how important they were for teachers and made it all happen.  We’re so sure teachers will want to share war stories, that we are hosting three Fridays (so far) with a Q&A/chat upstairs at the bar after the shows with the cast and maybe even with George! Can’t wait for that. We talked to some teachers who came to Parents Night in Hamilton, and they could relate to it on many, if not every level. Very exciting. They deserve to be recognized and these plays give you a glimpse into their worlds.

  1. George F. Walker, one of our most treasured and prolific playwrights has wonderful things to say about you and Wes. Clearly, you have a strong rapport as he is acting as artistic consultant to CrazyLady. Can you speak about this relationship?
Playwright George F. Walker

Playwright  and CrazyLady’s Creative Consultant George F. Walker (photo courtesy of CrazyLady)

George is amazing. We worked with him on The Ravine, his world premiere in Niagara Falls. He directed, I was the character, Cassie, and Wes assistant-directed and ended up acting in it (long story). George and Wes hit it off immediately. Similar instincts, similar taste and the same fundamental belief about telling stories truthfully. George is easily one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He’s also one of the kindest and warmest and scariest and loving people I’ve ever met. I’m in love with his whole family. They are very special people, and I feel incredibly lucky to have them in my life. George makes fun of how much I cry, so it’s good he’s not here. Ha!

Anyway, George was writing Parents Night at the time, and he came in one day and said to Wes that he doesn’t believe in opening presents, but there’s this play he’s writing–and Wes can have it. And it’s going to be the first in a cycle. “And there’s a part for you, Sarah. And are you going to cry again? Jesus. Come here.”  And then I got a big George-F-Walker  bear hug.

  1. What dynamic does this consultation create?

We work really well together. He doesn’t let me get away with anything as an actor. No excuses, just do it. He said to me before The Ravine premiered: “I’m done. It’s yours now. It’s up to you if you want to be good or you want to be great.”That was a huge moment for me. Understanding that it really was all up to me. Very empowering. I suffered from really bad stage fright when I was dancing. Now I know what I have to do to avoid that black hole. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Basically it involves diving straight into the heart of your fear.

  1. CrazyLady is a relatively new theatre company. Why did you and Wes Berger decide to create it? What sets CrazyLady apart?
A scene from The Bigger Issue; l-r: Julia Heximer, Sarah Murphy-Dyson, Dana Puddicombe and Matthew Olver (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

A scene from The Bigger Issue; l-r: Julia Heximer, Sarah Murphy-Dyson, Dana Puddicombe and Matthew Olver (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

It was George’s idea for the three of us to create some kind of company to produce the “After Class” cycle. I don’t know if it sets us apart necessarily, but we are telling real stories about real people. Nothing fancy or shiny or “inspired”. We want it raw and messy and alive and honest. 

  1. Where did the name “CrazyLady”come from?

Ha ha, the name is hilarious to me. It was George’s nickname name for Wes. 

  1. What’s next for you and the company?

Well, there are at least two more plays in the cycle, plus we’ve started to talk about possible tours. Honestly, producing and prepping to act in two plays has dominated my existence for the last few months, so I’ll be able to answer that more accurately in a week or two!

News You Can Use

What: Parents Night/The Bigger Issue, with Sarah Murphy-Dyson, Matthew Olver, Dana Puddicombe and Julia Heximer; directed by Wes Berger

Who: for audiences 13 and up

When: On stage until May 17, 2015, 7:30 pm

Where: Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto ON

© 2015 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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