Michaela Murphy is Making Herself Useful

Justin and Michaela chat about serving the story, reading plays backwards, and failing faster.

Michaela Murphy is a writer, playwright, storyteller and teacher. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Off-Broadway, The Moth Radio Hour and mainstage, and in The New Yorker. Connect with Michaela on Twitter @bigalicenyc.

Welcome to the seventh episode of Audition Secrets!

Kill your darlings
As a writer, storyteller and performer, Michaela is all about serving the story. To do so requires tuning out the unhelpful chatter in her head and not being afraid to scrap ideas — even really great ones. If it’s not serving the story, it’s probably serving your ego.

Justin highlights the importance of text and understanding what words mean: how does what you’re saying serve the plot and move your character and the story forward? For Michaela, it’s not about being special, it’s about being useful — being a part of something bigger than you.

Let’s start at the very beginning
Justin looks at lines and lyrics as clues left by writers. Michaela offers a glimpse into her process and challenges what we’ve been taught about story structure. She acknowledges that we have to pay attention to the rules, but we also have to break them in pursuit of our own processes. The outcome of a story always has a beginning, middle, and end, but the order in which it’s told is entirely up to the writer.

The end is in sight
Robyn tends to discover her endings first. As she works backwards from that, the story comes into full relief, and suddenly, when it lands, she will have an overwhelming need to sit down and write it out. The last part of her process is the writing, but an idea has usually been working inside of her for years. Justin’s friend, also a writer, describes this sensation as an impending storm.

Z, Y, X, W
Justin describes the potential value in working from the end of your audition material to the beginning as a way to better analyze the journey of your character — to see where you’re going first and then figure out how to get there. Michaela tells Justin about David Ball’s book, Backwards & Forwards, a technical manual for reading plays in exactly that way.

Check your anxiety at the door
Michaela has experienced the full range of pre-performance nerves, but the minute she walks onstage, it’s all fine. She pays the most attention to that moment, recognizing that she has a job to do: serve the story. When she reminds herself of that — that it’s not about her failing or succeeding — and when she can be present and experience what’s happening with the audience, she sees that as a victory.

Do you hear what I hear?
Audiences tell Michaela how to tell her stories. She knows she can’t tell it without them (otherwise it’s just her hanging out in her living room), so to be present is exhilarating. You can’t know how it will go until you’re right there, in that moment, listening to audience. She describes it as an out of body experience.

Michaela clarifies that she is not suggesting we become self-conscious to judgement or a desired reaction. We must have a mastery over the story and know the moments we need to reach, but the pacing and exact calibration of energy is dependent on audience.

Justin and Michaela stipulate that larger audiences demand more technique, and Justin recalls performing for an 11,000 seat crowd at The Muny and somehow still finding his exchange with the audience to be intimate.

Children Will Listen
Michaela’s nervousness is no longer a discomfort, it’s an anticipation. Her experience has allowed her to trust that she knows what she’s doing. She recalls touring the United States with shows she wrote for audiences of thousands of kids. Talk about technique! Talk about a tough crowd! From these kids, she learned how to listen to an audience, grab their attention, activate their attention, and get them to be present.

Justin remembers being a hype man and dancer for bar and bat mitzvahs the year before he landed American Idol. He believes 13 year olds are among the hardest to impress. Michaela expresses how much she adores eighth graders!

Imposter syndrome
Michaela recounts the very first benefit for The Moth almost two decades ago. She was the first to tell her story in a room of impressive, prominent individuals, and she was feeling like a bit of an imposter. But suddenly, it occurred to her that her job was to leave the stage great for the next person. “That I can do.” Be generous, and you’ll probably also be successful. (It worked for her that night; she killed).

Fear Factor
Michaela and Justin harness nerves by asking what drives them. Usually, it’s the fear of failing or being seen as a failure, and preparation combats that fear. As long as we’re prepared, we must be willing to fail, and failure doesn’t feel as bad if you get right back up and do the thing again. It’s an ongoing journey to tamp down fear: “You can come with me, fear, but you can’t be the star of the show.”

Fail faster
Most people aren’t willing to be bad enough long enough to get to the good. Falling on your face is not the end of the world. The way things play out is entirely up to you. Are you going to see it as a great moment of discovery, or are you going to beat yourself up about it? Diffuse the idea that failure is an endgame. It’s the beginning.

Michaela recalls a horror story during press week of her solo show Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theater. She felt the stress of their brewing judgement, and their opinions would quite literally determine the success of the show. She said the first line of the show, and then she completely blanked. She stood there for quite a while, or so it felt, and the lines were not coming. Eventually, Michaela laughed, got the line, picked up, and kept going, and it ultimately became one of the best shows of that run.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Michaela opens up about going through a serious illness years ago, almost dying, but surviving. She attributes that experience to a major perspective shift in her life and career. She doesn’t worry in the way that she used to. “It’s all a gift.”

Take me, baby, or leave me
Leaving the terms of your success up to other people is giving your power away. Michaela says nerves, instability, and imposter syndrome go away over time. Her mindset has shifted to reflect a “take me or a leave me” philosophy. She encourages performers to do the same, maintaining a generosity about casting decisions that probably have nothing to do with you; maybe you just aren’t meant to serve that story right now.

Send an instant karma to me
Michaela wants you to remember how much agency you actually have as a performer. A career isn’t something that happens to your or something you’re given, it’s something you make. You can make it by being generous and by being useful — toward the story, toward your fellow performers — with great passion and heart. Michaela and Justin believe that what you put out will come back to you one million times! Onstage generosity is palpable to audiences, and Michaela thinks there’s nothing better than that. Recognition is nice, but a shared moment of reveal truth is better.

People, Places & Things mentioned in this episode:
“Backwards & Forward” by David Ball
The Muny
The Moth

Follow Justin at @justinguarini on all social media!

Justin Guarini