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INTERVIEW: Playwright Joseph Vitale, on Murrow

Jospeh Vitale sat down with Jamie Rosler to talk about the creation and current production of his play, Murrow, now running in New York City.

 

Let’s start with a quick description of the show, and maybe a bit about your process of how the show came into existence.

Well it’s a one man show starring Joseph Menino, who is a longtime New York stage actor, and Joe does wonderfully in the role. The genesis of the play goes back to my years at the Columbia University School of Journalism, back in the early ‘80s, when one of my professors was actually Fred Friendly, who was Edward R. Murrow’s longtime collaborator and producer back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Fred, who was of course retired by then, would tell great stories about his days with Murrow, his reminiscences about working with him, but also in particular the lead up and the run up to the very famous Joe McCarthy broadcast of 1954. Fred would have us all spellbound by these stories. I remember, one day in class, thinking, “God this would make a great play.”

After graduation from Rutgers I had studied a couple of years at the HB Studio on Bank St, and so I was kind of oriented to the theatre, and at first I thought about other characters in the play. But then I said, “You know, this is one of the greatest communicators of all time. Why not have him alone command the stage, and tell his story to the audience, one on one.”

And so I began writing it, and through Fred and some other contacts I was able to actually talk to Mrs. Murrow (Edward R. Murrow’s wife who was living at the time), as well as some people who had known Edward R. Murrow. The great thing about this play is it actually relies [primarily on] the reminiscences of people who actually knew and worked with Murrow, so it’s really in some way a firsthand approach.

Do you have any source material that is from the man himself?

Oh yeah! I mean, I studied hours of his broadcasts. I went to, at the time, the Museum of Broadcasting in New York, where I just spent hours looking at videotape. I read every biography I could think of. The play is really a combination of a lot of research, through videotape and literature, but also, as I said, in a few cases, through Fred Friendly, Mrs. Murrow, and then a man named David Schoenbruhn, who was actually a reporter during World War II who had known and worked with Murrow.

And how long has this whole process taken? When did you start, outside of the idea when you were in journalism school?

Yes, it actually goes back to the ‘80s. I sent the play around—this is mid to late ‘80s—and it was picked up by a very famous producer, David Suskind, and Mr. Suskind wanted to produce the play. I worked with him for about a year, and he had gotten an air date from PBS, so I was of course very excited by that. But unfortunately he was not able to get funding for the play so after about a year of trying he gave it back to me and said, “Listen, we’re not going to be able to do this, but feel free to take it to another producer.” And it was circulated to a couple of other theatrical producers, but unfortunately never happened.

What made you bring the script back to life in the 21st century?

I decided to resurrect the play now because I think that we’re in a very unique time in terms of media. The media has become, in many ways, as important as the story itself. There was recent poll [showing] media confidence is at an all-time low, in terms of the public. The public by and large don’t believe the news media, they question the integrity of the news media, and as I said it’s at an all-time low, so I think now is a really great time to bring this play back, because if nothing else, Edward R. Murrow stood for professionalism and journalistic integrity and high standards, so I think he’s got a lot to say in 2016 about what’s going on with the media today.

Is that what you’re hoping your audience will come away form the production thinking about?

Yes. I think the way it’s directed— We have a very talented director, Jeremy Williams, and what he’s trying to do is not make it so much a period piece; he wants the contemporary audience to connect with Murrow. He really wants that to be a message, so I think he’s going to do a great job of that.

You’ve mentioned Mr. Williams, the director, and Mr. Menino, the actor in the production. To what level have you all collaborated in the building of this production of your play and what was it like all working with each other? Tell us a little bit about that process.

It’s been a great experience. Joe has done the play before, in readings and then we had a two-night performance earlier in the year at The Theatre Project in New Jersey, a professional theatre that I’m affiliated with. We were able to work the play, discuss the play. Joe Menino, who’s been a longtime member of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, has worked with Jeremy Williams in the past, and so they have a great working relationship, and we all were able to collaborate on the look and feel of the production.

Can you go a little more into the description of what the look and feel is?

I think he’ll give the play more of a contemporary feel. There’s going to be a lot of projections, a lot of audio sound design in the play. I think he’s going to be introducing some modern clips from contemporary media. What he wants to do, I think especially in the second act, is he wants to take the play out of its period and make it somehow timeless. So when Murrow has a long passage when he’s talking about what television in particular is becoming, and warning against what he saw television becoming— Actually the passage is from a very famous speech he did in 1958, but the way it’s staged there’s a lot of contemporary images, projections, and sound clips, so I think the effect is going to be, He’s really talking about our time, as well. Not making Murrow so much a creature of his time, but really timeless in a way.

And who do you hope the audience will be?

I hope it’s a range of people. I hope it’s older people who may have remembered Murrow from his TV days, but also younger people who know the name but don’t really know much about this guy and who he was and what he did. And I really hope we have some young journalists, too. I hope we have some students who want to pursue this career, and I think they’re going to get to know someone who really was very instrumental in shaping the modern media and modern news coverage.

Murrow isrunning at The Wild Project in New York City until 22 May 2016.

The Reviews Hub - America

The American team is under the editorship of Adrienne Sowers. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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