Before taking the helm of Shea’s Performing Arts Center last year, Michael Murphy had seen one production at its magnificent theater: "Annie" in the 1970s. He still has the ticket stub — and thousands of others — in a vase in his North Buffalo home.
"It was gorgeous, but it needed the restoration it went through," said Murphy, Shea’s president, of the theater at that time. "But it was still an amazing palace, and I got to see a show there and that was really fun."
At that time, Murphy was a young man growing up in Gowanda. He graduated from Gowanda Central High in 1979 and studied acting at SUNY Fredonia.
"I saw my first play when I was five: ‘Charley’s Aunt,’" he recalled. "That was it — I was hooked on theater and wanted to be an actor."
Eventually, Murphy realized acting wasn’t for him, shifted his ambitions to behind the scenes and left Western New York, earning a bachelor’s in stage management from Webster University in St. Louis and a master’s in performing arts management from Brooklyn College. After a stint in New York, he moved to San Diego, where he has spent most of the past 27 years, save for a brief period in Austin, Texas.
Most recently, he served as managing director for the Old Globe, a prominent theater where productions like "Into the Woods" originated before moving to Broadway. Murphy said his proudest accomplishments include debuting Tony winner "A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder" at the Globe and producing "Dead Man Walking," an opera that examines the death penalty, at Austin Lyric Opera in the Texas capital.
"I do theater for that moment when the curtain goes up, the lights come up on stage and the audience starts on a journey," he said. "You’re taking them somewhere different, somewhere they may not have been or are afraid to go, somewhere they may confront issues they don’t want to confront or somewhere that makes them wonderfully giddy. Everything we do in this business is all for that moment."
Murphy wasn’t looking for another job when longtime Shea’s president Anthony Conte announced his retirement. But, after visiting family and exploring the city, he decided to pursue the position — and hasn’t regretted a minute. He said he feels more at home in Buffalo than he ever did in San Diego and hopes to build upon Conte’s successful transformation of Shea’s during his tenure.
Beyond Shea’s beloved mainstage theater, Murphy has plans for its two other spaces: the intimate Smith Theatre and 710 Theatre, the former home of Studio Arena, which has completed two major renovations in the last two years on its lobby and café areas. Smith hosts small touring productions, while 710 Theatre produces its own works and provides space for other theater companies. (Its upcoming season includes productions by MusicalFare, Road Less Traveled and the Shaw Festival.)
In both spaces, Murphy hopes to expand Shea’s educational programs for local schools, as well as increase its community outreach and engagement opportunities with underserved groups, including the hearing-impaired community, senior citizens, immigrants and refugees, and emancipated foster youth.
"There are so many different areas of our community where theater can make an impact," Murphy said. "While I would love to start it all tomorrow, it will take time to understand how to develop relationships with funders and other arts colleagues, and how to best use our spaces, staff and position in the community. I get very excited about it — the possibilities are endless."