Murrell, John

  John Murrell, playwright, director, actor (b at Lubbock, Tex, 15 Oct 1945). Murrell received a bachelor of fine arts from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas in 1968. He came to Canada in 1969 and settled permanently in Calgary in 1971, receiving his teaching diploma in drama from the University of Calgary in 1972. His first play, Haydn's Head, won a provincial competition in 1971, but not until Power in the Blood won the Clifford E. Lee Award in 1975 did Murrell leave public-school teaching and begin to write full time. That year, he was appointed playwright-in-residence at Calgary's Alberta Theatre Projects, which premiered the prairie history play A Great Noise, A Great Light (1976), about William ABERHART and the Depression, and his most popular play with Canadian audiences, Waiting for the Parade (1977), which features 5 Calgary women coping alone during WWII.

Waiting For the Parade won the first of Murrell's three Chalmers Best Canadian Play Awards and has been produced many times in Canada and abroad. His most successful play, Memoir (1978), an exploration of actress Sarah Bernhardt's final days, has been translated into 15 languages and performed in 26 countries, earning him an international reputation. Farther West (1982), a shocking play about a doomed prostitute's quest for freedom, for which he also wrote the brief musical score, won the Chalmers Award. It was followed by New World (1984), a witty comedy focusing on a bizarre family reunion.

The Faraway Nearby (1995), which examines the life of American painter Georgia O'Keefe, also won a Chalmers Award. Subsequent plays reflect Murrell's sustained interest in historical artistic figures. Democracy (1990), which chronicles a meeting between Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson during the American Civil War, received the Canadian Authors Association's and the Writers Guild of Alberta's Best Play Award in 1992; and October (1988) features Italian actor Elenora Duse and the legendary dancer Isadora Duncan. Death in New Orleans features three Canadians who travel to New Orleans; premiered by Calgary's ONE YELLOW RABBIT PERFORMANCE THEATRE at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre during the 1998 International Festival of the Arts, the play won the Fringe First Award for outstanding new writing.

Murrell has also earned a national and international reputation for translating plays by Chekhov, Ibsen, Rostand, Racine, Sophocles, Cocteau, and Québec playwright Carol FRECHETTE into English. In 2001, he adapted Homer's The Odyssey for young audiences; the play premiered at the Banff Arts Festival. That year Murrell completed the book for Ballet British Columbia's production of The Fairie Queen, and continued his collaboration with choreographer John ALLEYNE, which culminated in the production of two new dance works, Ballet British Columbia's Orpheus in 2002 and Tristan and Isolde for THE NATIONAL BALLET OF CANADA in 2003.

In 2003, Murrell as librettist and John Estacio as composer wrote the opera Filumena, which was co-commissioned by the Banff Centre and the Calgary Opera Association. The opera, which tells the story of the last woman hanged in Canada, has been remounted in Banff, Ottawa, and Edmonton.

Murrell has worked as playwright-in-residence with THEATRE CALGARY, as associate director (1978-1980) of the STRATFORD FESTIVAL OF CANADA, as head (1986-89) of the Banff Playwrights Colony, and as head (1988-92) of the theatre section of the CANADA COUNCIL FOR THE ARTS. Murrell was artistic director/executive producer (1999-2005) of theatre arts at The Banff Centre before becoming its director of performing arts. In 2007 he left that position to step into one created in acknowledgement of his leadership and artistic contribution to the centre: emeritus artist in residence.

In recognition of his enormous contribution to dance, theatre, and music, Murrell was awarded the prestigious 2002 Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts. That year he was inducted into the Alberta Order of Excellence, and in 2003 he was appointed an officer of the ORDER OF CANADA. The University of Calgary bestowed him with an honorary doctor of laws degree in 2006.