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A Change in Scenery

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When East Drama and Speech teacher Matt Murphy was in high school, he liked to cheer. Loudly and often. He was the designated “hype man”, a role that had him flying through his school’s gymnasium, chanting, and getting his peers exhilarated. He has always had an affinity for dramatic entrances.

In middle school, Murphy went through a phase of thinking he was a “cholo”, a young Mexican gangster. He explains that he was “identifying with the people I was hanging out with.” Murphy recalls, “I had green, white, and red on my shoes and my father was like ‘Matt, why do you have green, white, and red on your shoes?’ I said, ‘It’s the Mexican flag.’ He was like, ‘You do realize you’re Puerto Rican.’”

Murphy explains he was a student who “didn’t like academics.” He remembers his start in the world of theatre, “[In high school], I was having a brown bag lunch and the improv team was forming. The improv teacher saw me sitting and eating lunch and said ‘Hey you, who are you?’ and I’m like ‘Me?’ She said ‘Oh, come on up’ and I said ‘What?’ And so I came up and she said ‘You’re on the improv team now,’ and ever since then, theatre totally saved me.”

His senior year, he made a decision regarding his future, “I was going to join the military, but theatre made me think I was smart enough for college, made me think I was capable enough to do intellectual things.”

After graduating high school, Murphy attended Colorado State University. At first, he didn’t try out for any of the theatre programs. “Then I went back to visit my high school theatre teacher and I said ‘Yeah, I’m not going to audition for any college theatre.’ She said ‘Why not?’ And I said ‘Oh, CSU doesn’t have that great of a theatre program.’ She’s like, ‘You’re such a jerk!’ I go ‘What?!’”

Murphy did eventually join the theatre program at CSU and ended up winning the lead role in every play. Some of his favorite shows were, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor”, and “Love and War”, where Murphy met one of his closest friends JJ Clark, an English teacher at East. “I was watching the show and I had never met him before and I could not keep my eyes off of him on the stage. He was unbelievable.” Clark says of Murphy’s acting abilities,“He’s so adaptable. You’ll see him change so many hats in ten minutes to fit an audience and it’s magical to watch.”

Murphy began his career at East student teaching. He then moved his way up the ladder and got a full time job teaching theatre and English. After a few years, Melody Duggan and Andy Mendelsberg encouraged him to take over the Speech and Debate program, an area he had no experience in.  Murphy remembers this as an initially “bizarre experience.” He explains, “I remember the first time I rolled into the national tournament, I watched a debate tournament that made no sense. I remember thinking, Oh my gosh they want me to teach this? I don’t even know how to start saying what it is. I couldn’t describe what I saw.”

Last year Duggan announced her retirement as the head of the theatre department. Murphy originally didn’t want the job, explaining, “Because of the exact feeling I feel right now, which is being stretched.” But in the end, he decided to take it. “It was a mixture of ‘This is what I’ve always wanted to do’ and it was also a mixture of ‘This is the right thing to do.’”

As a result of his new position, Murphy is no longer teaching Introduction to Speech, which has historically been an integral part of many student’s freshman year. He reflects, “I feel disconnected from the freshman class. I kind of look at them like ‘Oh, I miss you.’ And I realize that most people don’t want to teach freshmen, but freshmen are wonderful because they’re coming in as blank slates.”

Part of Murphy’s new position is the absence of Duggan. “Everyone telling me they miss Melody, I win [in how much I miss her.] I win 10 times. I miss her being here, I miss her advice, I miss her council,” Murphy continues, “You can miss her, but you’re a kid.”

As well as the loss of a friend from the workplace, he has gone through the challenges of essentially being a new teacher again. “The hardest part about being a first year teacher is that you never know what really requires your energy and what doesn’t. The way I feel lately has been just exhausted.”

On top of this, Murphy is trying to build new relationships with his drama students. “Every time you take over a program, the kids hate you because you’re not the old person.” When trying to build relationships with new students Murphy says, “You have to be like, ‘Look, I want to know how to help you and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to do that.’ I put all of my energy and effort into knowing the kids and connecting with the kids and hopefully meeting them where they were at.”

But Clark has no doubt how his friend will handle the new position, “With grace and with humility, and it will all end up being beautiful.”

Even though Murphy may face some challenges, he has set lofty goals for the theatre department to achieve, “I want this theatre to be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. I want our shows to be the shows that everybody desperately wants to see, and even the community of Denver is excited to see as a high school production, and I want them to go ‘Oh my god, those are high school kids?’”

To progress towards this goal, Murphy uses a special teaching technique of his, “I would say my philosophy is that it’s all about relationships,” he explains. He believes that student-teacher relationships are strengthened off of playfully making fun of each other. “I get made fun of for being bald [by my students]. You realize that you love them and they love you, and them making fun of you for being bald is a form of endearment. That’s the weird process of high school. We make fun of each other all the time,” smiles Murphy.

“In his room, good learning happens because he immediately has relationships with students.” Clark muses, “It’s enviable.”

From his high school years to his high school teaching days, Murphy wants to create stories with his students, “I want it to come from the actors, the performers, the tech kids. I really believe, wholeheartedly, with every fiber of my being, that, first of all, the artist is the only person that has the chance to save our souls and that the only way to do that is through story.”

As far as stories go, Murphy has chosen his first play as theatre director to be “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “I chose this is because I have been so heartbroken, just sick to my stomach, about everything that’s been going on, so what can we do? We can tell a story,” Murphy says solemnly, regarding racial inequality in the world today.

Murphy has lived a life of always being the hype man and helping people to be themselves. Everyday, he works towards the goal of building relationships with his students and taking risks to get to that point, just as he took risks jumping from his high school gymnasium ceiling to get his peers joyful and excited.

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A Change in Scenery