Murphy: Allow Yourself to Be Guided

By Leanne Kleinmann, Special to The Daily News

When you open the website of Playback Memphis, the 8-year-old nonprofit founded by Virginia Murphy, the first thing you see is a banner memorializing Verdell Smith, the Memphis Police officer who was killed on June 4 by a criminal in a speeding car fleeing a Downtown shooting. In the picture, Smith is in uniform, smiling broadly, holding a sign that says, “I matter.”

Virginia Murphy founded Playback Memphis, the local outpost of an international organization that uses improvisational theater to connect the community and share real-life stories. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Officer Smith was part of Playback’s Performing the Peace initiative, and the sentiment on the sign is the shorthand version of what Playback Memphis does in the partnerships it has built all over Memphis. Performing the Peace brought together two groups that are historical opposites: the police and those who have been incarcerated.

“At its core, (Playback) is an improvisational theater ensemble and at our performances people share reflections, moments, true stories from their lives,” says Murphy. “We have a team of actors and a musician, and we bring those stories to life on the spot using music and movement and metaphor. When I talk about Playback, I often describe it as a practice. A practice of deep and generous listening.”

Murphy, 47, discovered Playback during graduate school in San Francisco; her master’s degree is in counseling psychology with a concentration in drama therapy. There are Playback organizations around the world, though Murphy’s Memphis outpost is unique in its voice and partnerships. Her husband, Joe, is one of the Playback actors; they met in the New York Playback troupe.

“When we decided to move back to Memphis, we wanted to grow this work here,” she said. “It’s a powerful communication tool, and it’s extraordinarily helpful in breaking down barriers and nurturing trust.”

Did you have a business plan when you started Playback Memphis?

“No, so I’ve learned a lot. In the beginning, I had a clear plan as it related to our public performance series. But I was very aware that what we were doing was so out of the box, and I knew there was no way that we would gain support for it until we had demonstrated the impact. But I recognized that our world needed it, that our community needed it, that the people we were performing for needed it, and there’s just no question to me that it would eventually take root. But that came at an enormous personal sacrifice.”

Did you ever come to a moment when you thought, ‘Uh-oh, this isn’t going to work’?

“I had a moment where I was really in that place of, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’ I was about to accept that, and I went to the mailbox and I got a donation for $10,000 from an anonymous donor. I still don’t know who that was.

“I know that this tenacity is part of my personality, and that’s what has allowed Playback to become what it has become. But I recognize that there’s a shadow side of that. I get so passionate about something that I believe in that sometimes I will sacrifice in ways that may not be healthy for me and my children (the Murphys have two sons, ages 9 and 11).”

Do you and your husband struggle with these decisions together?

“Yeah – the entrepreneur, nonprofit, double-artist marriage! (Joe Murphy is the director of Music for Aardvarks, Memphis). We also understand that our lives are so abundant, that we have everything that we need and that we live in a culture that oftentimes tricks us into thinking that we need so much more. As white people, we have crazy amounts of privilege, and even though we may feel that the angst of not having a 401(k) or a nest egg for our kids to go to college, we immensely trust in the work that we are doing and we will be OK. We are living our values and that is the gift that we giving our kids.”

Do you think they are starting to get what you are doing?

“They definitely get it.”

What do you know now that you didn’t know when you started Playback Memphis?

“I know a lot about organizational growth and development, and the importance of having a plan. But in many ways it’s kind of parallel to improvisation. You need structures and forms, and it is highly ritualized. You also need to show up in the moment and if need be completely abandon it for whatever the need is.

“I think I also have a profound appreciation for the role that a board of directors plays, as well as the individuals who are investing in the work. Not only because their gifts help to fund us. I have been so enriched by the relationships that have developed through the development side of the work.

“I think the nonprofit world is changing a lot. I have really seen how much people who give to Playback feel that Playback gives to them in a unique and meaningful way. There is something very interesting happening there.”

What advice would you give your younger self?

“Trust yourself. It’s not going to be smooth and easy all the time. I think finding mentorship is really critical – finding people who have experience in the areas that you don’t have and building relationships with them and allowing yourself to be guided by their wisdom. You don’t have to do it all.”

Tennessee Arts Commission
Arts Memphis

Playback Memphis is proud to be supported by ArtsMemphis and the Tennessee Arts Commission.
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