Murray Ross founded TheatreWorks, UCCS’ innovative university/community theater project, in 1976. And in the nearly four decades since, he’s never been idle.
Not only did he create a successful program, he has taught classes and directed, adapted and created more than 100 works for the stage. His original stage plays include “Monkey Business,” “The Last Night of Don Juan,” “The Lady of the Camellias,” “Dar al-Harb” and “I am Nikola Tesla.” He has written stage adaptations of “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Odyssey,” Plato’s “Symposium,” “Treasure Island,” “Venus and Adonis” and several versions of “A Christmas Carol.”
He has directed original theater projects with orchestras in Colorado Springs, New York, San Antonio, Phoenix and Cincinnati. Ross sat down with the Business Journal earlier this week and discussed his long, productive career, as well as his role in the creation of the Ent Center for the Performing Arts at UCCS.
Tell us about your background and how you came to be in Colorado Springs.
I was born and raised in Pasadena, Calif., the son of a Texan dad and an English mum, both painters [they met at art school]. My interest in theater began with their great parties. [I] attended Williams College, then graduate school in Berkeley from 1966-72, where the earth moved every day. Served in the only tugboat outfit of the U.S. Army Reserve, touring San Francisco Bay on weekends. Studied English lit and theater — taught at University of Rochester and did some graduate work in England.
While studying at the British Museum, I saw the job offering at UCCS for a professor to teach Shakespeare and start a theater program. I thought that would be me — and it was.
Tell us about TheatreWorks — its inception, its growth, how it has changed over the years, and how you’ve helped keep it going for so long.
It began with a production of an obscure Swiss play in the basement of the cancer ward at Penrose Hospital. Then step-by-step we built a theater company that is now one of seven professional theaters in the state. We’ve had great talent and great support from both the university and the community. We’ve had lots of enthusiasm, considerable patience and we’ve gone to work to play every day.
You and your spouse Betty were honored at the groundbreaking for the Ent Center. It’s an amazing and ambitious project — tell us about it and how you helped bring it to fruition.
The Ent Center for the Performing Arts is a game-changer for us, for the university and for the community as a whole. It should be a hub of creative energy and a beacon of light for the whole Front Range. In some sense, TheatreWorks was a template for the building, which, like our theater, is intended to serve both the university and the Pikes Peak region as a whole. But really this building has come about because it is long overdue, and because our wonderful chancellor [Pam Shockley-Zalabak] made it a driving passion.
Our own new theater, designed in partnership with the hot New York architects of H3, will have all the virtues of our present intimate and flexible space, with the addition of much higher ceilings, mezzanine seating and a trap door. I think it will be the best flexible intimate theater space in the country. Wait and see.
You’ve worked with so many great actors, and put on so many wonderful productions. Name some of your favorites.
Bob Pinney’s “King Lear” was perhaps the best I’ve ever seen. Our terrific collaborations with the Symphony in the Pikes Peak Center (“Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Peer Gynt,” “The Tempest”) were truly unprecedented and extraordinary. It was great taking Molière and local actors to New York and getting a great review in the Times. And taking our audiences to the cemetery with “Everyman on the Bus” was the trip of a lifetime.
You’re a longtime Colorado Springs resident. What’s good about our city? What could use improving?
This is still the real West. The air is light and clear. The mountains are good chi. You can run your eye out a long ways. We have a genuine community of people who care about the arts and will support quality work. Our advisory board seems to be one of the few places in America where people of very different persuasions can meet, like and respect each other and get something done. The university has been a huge success and is now our primary engine of growth.
But while there are more restaurants and theaters, there is still really no “scene.” The fate of culture here depends too much on too few very generous philanthropists. We are taxophobic troglodytes, and we don’t invest enough in our own city — one reason we lag behind other communities on the Front Range. We are still too white bread. There’s no very good reason for ambitious, bright young people to stick around. There seem to be a lot more big pickups and angry drivers. We have grown but we haven’t always grown up. Yet I like what I see, whom I meet and where I work every day.
What do you do in your spare time?
What spare time? Theater never stops. But I travel, write, walk my dog, read, daydream and make odd little boxes with scenes in them that I can’t put onstage.