Cason Murphy: Digital Residency


Cason Murphy (Music and Theatre): Digital Residency

I first heard about the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities before I was even hired here at Iowa State. During my on-campus interview in February 2018, two members of my hiring committee breathlessly extolled the virtues of this mystically-acronymed CEAH as we strolled across central campus in the chilly wind. Although I didn’t know exactly what those four letters stood for, their function hit like music to my ears. It is worth recognizing that there are historically very few external granting agencies willing to fund early-stage projects of faculty based in university theatre departments. So, to this end, the impact CEAH has had on my career is quite significant—having been awarded four grants from them in the five years I have been at Iowa State.

At the end of my first year, I was supported by CEAH for a project related to the “critical reinterpretation of the theatrical canon,” an aspect of my research agenda which has been a means of engaging in deep critical inquiry regarding the foundational issues of exclusion systemic racism, sexism, and ableism that are baked into the process of making, analyzing, and canonizing theatre. In 2019, I was invited by the creative team of the Play On! Shakespeare Project to serve as a “scholar-on-site” for a month-long festival at Classic Stage Company in New York City. At this festival, audiences would get to experience for the first time the 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare translated into contemporary modern English by over 30 professional living playwrights representing a diversity of identities. CEAH funded me for a focused period of preparation prior to my time at the festival that summer.  

As a result, I was able to develop a mobile audience feedback reporting tool to better capture audience impressions to these new translations in real time during the entirety of the New York festival. I also was able to prepare and research the plays and playwrights for the 4 talkbacks I was invited to moderate in person while I was there. This time I spent at the Play On! festival allowed me incredible access to, and insight about, the project which helped me to complete an essay which was published in a peer-reviewed international journal on literature and performance.  

Additionally, my interactions at the festival put me in contact with a host of contemporary theatremakers—some of whose plays and musicals we have either produced here at ISU Theatre or are on our shortlist for future production—who expressed a curiosity and interest in our department and our university as a whole. Thanks to the support of CEAH, I was able to situate ISU Theatre as an entity much like Play On! Shakespeare—intentionally charting the boundaries between tradition and innovation.


The next year, I was part of the committee that asked CEAH to provide support for ISU Theatre in our year-long symposium series entitled “Gender Equity in the Arts” which occurred in conjunction with our 2019-2020 “HERoic” Theatre season. Celebrating the centennial of women’s suffrage by programming an entire season of work by women and female-identifying playwrights, the symposium grant we received from CEAH helped fund nationally-renowned guest artists and speakers who collaborated with our faculty, staff, and students on productions and engaged the campus and local community on issues of gender parity and representation through a series of keynote lectures, panel discussions, and master classes.

While that HERoic season was ultimately cut short due to COVID, with the production of 9 to 5: The Musical I was directing cancelled two weeks before opening, CEAH was there again to assist me in ensuring the thousands of hours of creative work and research put by our students and my fellow faculty collaborators could be properly documented and celebrated.

With the support of CEAH’s Sheltering the Storm: Processing COVID-19 Grant, we were able to create Imagined Performance: 9 to 5, an online repository where the cast, crew, and creative team could preserve our collective memories of making and unmaking theatre during the era of COVID-19. For some of our graduating student performers and designers, this Imagined Performance became a final opportunity to showcase their creative work. For the design faculty and production team, it was a vital piece of evidence for our research trajectories and creative practices. For our department and audience, it served as an alternative commemoration of the production’s necessarily incomplete journey to opening night.

While in-person performance has cautiously but optimistically returned to our campus, the cumulative impact of several years of production, conference, and publishing delays and cancellations on my and my colleagues’ careers remains incalculable. Which is why I am so appreciative for the folks at CEAH, who have remained as engaged and supportive of us all during the pandemic as they were before. As part of my “pandemic pivot,” a large part of my scholarship and creative activity since summer 2020 has been about or in response to the theatre-making and industry shifts during the pandemic—projects that are now bearing scholastic fruit and could perhaps benefit from CEAH’s generosity (so Matthew, you and your team should expect a research grant application come early February!).


Ultimately, When I think of CEAH and its impact in my time here at ISU, I think of a quote from theatre director Anne Bogart, who in remarking on the art of directing theatre said, “You cannot create results. You can only create conditions in which something might happen.” I can only say how profoundly and truly grateful I am for CEAH’s unwavering commitment to creating the conditions for things to happen in the arts and humanities here at ISU.