5 Q’s with Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy in a blue shirt in front of a grey background.
Photo of Aisling Murphy.

5 Q’s, 5 Femmes is a short series facilitated by writer Kemi King, interviewing five femme identifying artists; getting to know a little bit about them and their craft. 

This interview is with Aisling Murphy. Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, Aisling is a playwright, critic, dramaturg, and academic. Aisling is a staff reporter at the Toronto Star, the senior editor at Intermission Magazine and president of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. Her writing was featured in many places prior to joining the Toronto Star team, including The Fulcrum and Maclean’s. In 2020, Aisling’s first play, Feast, was developed with the Tarragon Theatre Young Playwrights Unit in Toronto; following the closures spurred by COVID-19, Feast was granted an #ArtApart grant by the National Theatre School of Canada. Feast was then developed at the University of Toronto under the supervision of Djanet Sears. Feast is featured as a short case study in the Routledge anthology Undergraduate Research in Theatre. Aisling graduated Magna Cum Laude with her Honours BA in Theatre from the University of Ottawa in June 2021. She just finished her MA in Theatre, Drama, and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Hi, I’m here with Aisling Murphy. Aisling, how are you doing today?

I’m good. It’s weird for me with most people going back to school, and not going back to school myself this year has been completely insane. Aside from the existential crisis prompted by that, I’m good.

Can you tell me something people don’t really know about you? Or what is something about yourself that surprises people?

I used to do a lot of musical theatre, and this has weirdly come up a lot in the past year, but when I first moved to Canada I was really into performing musical theatre. For most of my undergrad I wasn’t really a writer. I didn’t do anything with criticism, or writing about theatre, or anything like that. But I did competitive musical theatre performances. A few years before moving to Toronto I placed second in Ontario at one point, which is my fun party trick. But yeah, I used to do quite a bit of musical theatre performance before going cold turkey on it and just doing criticism in 2019.

Cool, so wild. I am not a big musical theatre person. So when someone’s doing it I’m just like: Wow.

Yeah, it’s one of those things where now that I’ve been out of it for a few years, I cringe a little at how much I used to love it. I have so many Broadway tattoos; I’m not necessarily proud of that. I have a Dear Evan Hansen tattoo, and that’s just on my body forever; the same with Hadestown. I think I got a lot out of it while it was happening, but I also think once I started reading more plays and writing plays and my own stuff I was like, wait a minute—there’s a much richer way for me to engage with the text than to perform it myself. I find I’m more fulfilled if I’m analyzing and discussing something rather than trying to approximate it myself. It’s made me happier as an artist, and as a person, I think.

What have you found? Regarding analyzing and doing theatre criticism that really piques your interest?

Forgive the long story: I’ve spent the past few years navigating getting an ADHD diagnosis, because my attention span isn’t great. I grew up loving to read, loving stories, and I kind of grew out of that as I got older. As my own mental health got worse—I was actually in the middle of a nervous breakdown in 2019—a friend of mine gave me a box of several pieces of string that were all knotted together. They were tangled up; it was literally just a box of tangled string. 

We were in a directing class together, and this friend asked me to untangle the string by our next class. I spent that week untangling the string, working really methodically to get all the knots out, and to make sure that it was wound in a way so that it couldn’t get tangled again. That’s the best metaphor I can think of for what theatre criticism is for me. I find that if a play or a piece of performance is that box of tangled string, me going in and analyzing it, critiquing it, finding out what it is that makes it work or makes it doesn’t work—that’s the act of untangling it. That’s what makes performance make sense in my brain for me.

It’s probably a little cheesy, but I got so much more out of theatre and attending live performances when I realized that there’s this active thing I can do to participate and enter into dialogue with it. I can untangle it in my own brain to better understand it and to get more out of it—at the end of the day, that’s dramaturgy. Then to also keep that conversation going with others by publishing my writing—I find it so cool that criticism is this way that you can enter into dialogue with a piece of art. It kind of talks back in this really fruitful way.

Short answer: theatre criticism makes my brain feel nice. The longer answer is I like the dialogue and the relationships that can come out of compassionate discourse. I think you can critique something without tearing it down, and compassion and empathy are at the core of that.

Thank you. Happy for your friend and the box of string. So no more back to school, you’re done with your MA! Can you tell me a little bit about your thesis?

I know folks will be shocked, but my thesis was about Canadian theatre criticism. I conducted a historiography of Ontarian theatre criticism since 1967, which is when the National Arts Centre  opened in Ottawa. I looked at criticism of the first-ever English play at the NAC, which was the Ecstasy of Rita Joe by George Ryga, which had some problematic and fairly racist theatre criticism surrounding it. I was curious if you could trace fault lines between the criticism around that play and the criticism around Yolanda Bonnell’s Bug and Kim Senklip Harvey’s Kamloopa. Spoiler: yes, you can. There’s direct links between the way we talked about Indigenous theatre in ‘67 and the way that we do now. Kim hosted a critic’s circle for folks who wanted to review her work and how she thinks about theatre criticism. I went to that and it changed a lot of how I feel about what theatre criticism is and does, but she also said something during that circle that when you’re engaging in theatre criticism, you have to inherit that which came before you. There’s an entire, and very problematic history of criticism that came before. You have to weave that history into your work in order to approach any sort of harmonious working relationship with artists. My thesis was essentially: here’s the history, here’s how I’m inheriting it into my own work, and here’s how we can move forward to make theatre criticism better. It can’t just be this avenue which tears artists down. It should be a meeting place for audiences, artists, and critics to exchange dialogue, with the hopes of keeping art alive and eventually making the work even better. 

I think that it’s so interesting that there are so many ways of criticizing or responding to work. I really appreciate the conversation, that’s what I like about being on this side of the worktalking to the artists. What is your favorite type of theatre to review? 

Oh, that’s a big and wonderful question. It’s not necessarily the type of theatre I like the most, but it’s the theatre I most like to engage with, which is Canadian solo performance. I find it interesting that this sort of trope has emerged surrounding Canadian solo performance; it’s very much a genre in itself. It’s confessional storytelling, but there’s often elements of stand-up, elements of autobiography, exposé. I find myself interested in Canadian solo performances that don’t feel like a TED Talk and that do feel more like a solo play. There was actually a show a couple years ago, Take D Milk, Nah? by Jivesh Parasram. He made a joke in his solo autobiographical play about the fact that all Canadian solo autobiographical plays are the same, and they all feel like TED Talks. But then his play proceeded to feel like that too, which I was just kind of fascinated by. So ever since I saw that at the NAC, I’ve been really curious how storytelling can happen just in the body of one person without feeling like an open mic or a TED Talk. 

Also, anything at Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto. I have a soft spot for those folks. The work they do is excellent.

Yeah, I feel like for a long time I had an aversion to one-person shows for that exact reason. Could you talk a bit more about how you would review for a show like that? 

Before I was doing criticism, I was dipping my toe into dramaturgy and more into the mechanics of plays like, what is a play? What does it do? How does it do it and how well does it do it? Mark Fisher, in his book How to Write About Theatre, talks about the critic being someone who can ask what was the play trying to do, and how well the play did it. So if it’s a solo play that feels like a TED Talk, I find that I’ve kind of tried to temper my expectations a little more. If that’s what they’re going for, cool—why? If not, how can they revisit that while continuing to develop the work?

I think what’s cool about being a critic is being able to balance what you perceive intent to be versus how you feel that intent was portrayed. It’s constantly weighing different versions of reality, and finding the resonances and gaps between them.

What is a piece of media that you would recommend to our readers?

The book I would recommend is actually a collection of plays. I absolutely would not be doing what I’m doing now without those plays,  and that is the complete works of Sarah Kane. Sarah Kane, for those who don’t know, was a British playwright in the 1990’s who was one of the forefront artists of the “in yer face” movement. Her work, in my opinion, really confronted what theatre can do. I think a lot of people in the 90’s saw the work as either gratuitous or overly gory, or just too much. I think that’s a really simplistic reading of Kane’s work, and what’s lasted is her ability to suggest themes through image. I think she died too young, and I often wonder what her work would have done had it not been capped by her untimely death. But I also think her canon of plays is so coherent, and the five of them really speak to what theatre is capable of, and each play does that in a completely different way. I’d recommend the works of Sarah Kane to anyone with any interest in theatre direction, dramaturgy, even film. 

The TV show that I’ll recommend for anyone interested in theatre is Succession. Succession does so much with theatrical worldbuilding and language and inverted tropes in a way that’s really refreshing to see on screen. Many of the writers for Succession are playwrights themselves—Lucy Prebble, who’s a British playwright, and Will Arbery who’s an American playwright, and one of my favorite playwrights as well. They’re both writers on Succession, and I feel that you can really see that in the way characters both talk to each other and also how they evolve as characters themselves. It often feels like you’re watching a play in real time rather than just a TV show, and for me that’s what’s kept me coming back. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, and I think thematically it’s not even my cup of tea. It’s about business corporations, like the 1% of the 1%, and that doesn’t really speak to me, yet the way that that story is told is so rooted in theatre and so rooted in playwriting, that it makes it both accessible and really compelling to watch. 

Keep up with Aisling on her website and on twitter.