Stage Presence: Actor Jonathan McMurtry takes his next role in the premiere of Heroes at North Coast Rep
By Sara Appel-Lennon
For the past 50 years, Jonathan McMurtry has been Associate Artist with The Old Globe Theatre, having acted in more than 200 productions, performed in all 37 plays by Shakespeare, and mentored graduate students. His awards include the KPBS 2006 Shiley Patte “Lifetime in Theatre Achievement,” several Los Angeles and San Diego Critics’ Circle Awards, and the 2008 Craig Noel “Lifetime in Theatre Achievement Award.”
“I’ve stopped counting all of my awards. It’s nice to get them. I don’t do my work to get awards. The work is larger than I am,” McMurtry said. Hamlet is the character he most identifies with, he said, having played the role seven times. “My best Hamlet was my first Hamlet. As we get older, we think too much and get set in our ways.”
McMurtry will star with Ken Ruta and Ray Reinhardt in San Diego’s premiere of “Heroes,” Oct. 19-Nov. 13 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. The three actors combined, have more than 165 years of stage experience.
Of the casting, NCRT artistic director David Ellenstein said, “I am thrilled. This is what I wanted to do when I came here eight-and-a-half years ago, to be able to work with people like that on plays like this. So it’s going to happen in the company’s 30th year!”
In looking over his long career, McMurtry said he owes his big break to his mentor, Craig Noel, founding director of The Old Globe. Noel started its Shakespeare Festival and directed more than 225 productions there. In 2007, President George W. Bush honored Noel with the National Medal of Arts Award.
“He championed me,” McMurtry said. “He died last year at age 94, but he is a living legend in San Diego. He brought theater to San Diego.”
McMurtry said he met Noel in Milwaukee in 1960. McMurtry was playing a bit part (no lines) in “Taming of the Shrew,” and Noel invited him to the Shakespeare Festival at The Old Globe with a scholarship of $500 per month. After receiving his check, McMurtry said he borrowed $250 to repay the theater, promising to make good on the balance. He discovered the money was his salary!
“I was just a little scrub and happened to be at the right place at the right time,” McMurtry said.
The actor hails from Detroit, Mich., where his dad, in tuxedo and top hat, worked as a tap dancer with his mom, an acrobatic dancer and choreographer.
He said he read his favorite book, Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” in Mrs. Berry’s fifth-grade class. “I loved the surprises, the wonder of something you don’t know is going to happen.” He has read it six times since.
McMurtry worked at Walt Disney Studio as a commercial artist, then left to become a scenic designer and attend Los Angeles City College. In 1958, its Drama Chair, Jerry Blunt, encouraged him to enter the National Shakespeare Competition. By winning, McMurtry earned a scholarship to England’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
“I fell in love with Shakespeare,” he said. “Shakespeare is so generous. Nobody knows who Shakespeare, the man, is. He’s anonymous. He’s not political, his characters are. I think he chose to be anonymous.” McMurtry said he most enjoys Shakespeare’s one-syllable words, “In their simplicity, they’re so profound, not elaborate at all.”
He said he still remembers when his teacher, John Barton, said, “Everything’s in the words and the words only.”
McMurtry encourages actors to study Hamlet’s speech to the players. “The biggest problem with actors, is putting a period where there is none,” he said. “When I accept a role, I imagine a character’s posture. The questions I ponder are: Why did the playwright write this play and what is he trying to say?”
Watching McMurtry at rehearsals, the actor paces on stage, reading the script, and mumbling. Suddenly lines emerge from his booming voice.
Ellenstein described McMurtry’s method as “creating the make believe” before expressing it outwardly. He likened the process to planting roots and waiting for blossoms.
“We are dearest of friends,” Ellenstein said. “What a treasure Jon is for this town. He should be celebrated.”
McMurtry was celebrated when San Diego County and the city of Vista proclaimed June 30, 2008 as “Jonathan McMurtry Day,” on his 71st birthday. He was performing his favorite readings from Shakespeare at the Moonlight Amphitheatre.
In the humor-filled tale of camaraderie, three World War I veterans pass their days in a military hospital by engaging in verbal battles of long-forgotten military campaigns, grumblings about the staff, and reflections on their lives. Tickets $29-$49 at (858) 481-1055, northcoastrep.org
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