Lindsey Huebner is inspired by her chat with multi-talented creative, Conrad Murray in the run up to not one but two shows at Battersea Arts Centre.
I am set to meet theatre maker Conrad Murray at the Battersea Arts Centre on a freakishly balmy February day. People have flocked to Clapham Common on the doorstep of BAC in droves, displaying an excitement for half-decent weather that I’ve found to be exclusive to Londoners. Football is being played. There’s a man in a Speedo. It’s 14 degrees, but we’ll take what we can get. It’s hard to know whether the buzz in BAC is a result of the sunshine-induced euphoria or if it is simply a by-product of this vibrant space.
I sit down in the centre’s café and take it all in. There are those doing work on laptops; meetings are being had; people are bustling about from room to room and all to a catchy soundtrack. Never have I known a livelier Tuesday afternoon. If any space is looking to foster a creative community, search no further than the BAC.
Before our meeting, Murray has been working upstairs in a different part of the building. As a creative, he evades any single definition. One might call him a director, writer, musician, actor, theatre-maker, rapper, facilitator or teacher among many other potential titles. I am very aware just how much this creative powerhouse is up to at the present moment and hesitant to infringe too much on his time, but conversation quickly begins to flow, and we are off.
Throughout our chat, I come to realise the significance of meeting in this fateful building. Murray himself was a member of a youth theatre group here. He and his mates got a glimpse of the lingering tension between what one might call ‘serious art’ vs. the creative expression that came naturally to them: namely rap. At the youth group, when they would fool around with rhythm and rhyme, they were told that this was serious work and to stop “messing around.” Although time and space were afforded outside of formal rehearsal hours to develop their talents, it was made clear that there was no place for rap in “proper theatre.” Murray’s current work shows that this is anything but true.
Murray is presently immersed in two productions, firstly: High Rise Estate of Mind in which he performs alongside fellow collaborator Paul Cree. Murray describes the show as a, “hip hop/ grime life experience featuring beat boxing and other man-made sounds live on stage.” The show is set in the future and delves into issues surrounding class and in particular, housing. The show was initially scratched at Camden Peoples Theatre and has been developed further since. Although Murray’s working class voice is prevalent, he believes the subject matter is something everyone can relate to. “Everyone is struggling. Everyone is living in shit. Everyone is finding it hard. If we don’t help each other, it’s a race to the bottom. Housing affects it all.” The show intends to shed light on an issue that affects us all, and perhaps by tackling the issue together, progressive change can be made.
High Rise Estate of Mind features what Murray calls a, “young-ish cast, because how do we define being an adult? An adult is someone who can made decisions about their lives. None of us are adults. We don’t get to be because we’re still uncertain. Everyone still feels like a student. Forty-five and youngish? We aren’t given a chance.”
The second production that Murray has on the go is Frankenstein: Making a Monster which features members of BAC’s Beatbox Academy. They are led by Murray and again, collaborator Paul Creed. The production is inspired by the themes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and then morphed in collaboration with the whole ensemble. On this, Murray says, “they’re all rappers – it’s part of the culture. You’ve gotta let everyone try their stuff. You have to let everyone have a say at some level. Everyone has a different level of expression, be it beats or lyrics.”
Stylistically, both productions are set to a visceral soundtrack of human-created rhythms and beats. Murray tell me, “we want more hip hop on stage; we want more beat boxing on stage – that’s part of my vision. It’s the lexicon that I use – those are my tools.” Murray believes that no matter your background, there’s something you can get out of the shows. “Maybe the rap, the music, the lyrics, the message.” There’s something for everyone.
The working class voice that has been hitherto lacking in the current theatre scene is becoming more prevalent. “It is getting better,” says Murray. “Five years ago, we were doing loads of shows, but no one was coming. At the time, the world wasn’t ready.” Now, however, it appears that the tides are changing. Murray and Creed are currently teaching at a few of London’s major drama schools in the voice departments. Murray says, “the doors of the institutions are opening to hip hop culture. Someone might have thought that drama school was not for them, but now, maybe it is.”
As theatres and creative institutions face continual threats from funding cuts, dwindling audiences, etc., Murray is undaunted. The theatre that Murray strives to create isn’t dependent on granting bodies or state funding. At one point in our chat, he in all seriousness, proposes that we could go out into the streets and create something. Growing up with limited resources, Murray requires nothing to create the work that is authentic to him. He believes that some of the state-funded theatres could incorporate this innovative ethos into their practices. He enthuses, “loads of theatres are late. If a theatre is state-funded, they have a responsibility to appeal to and accept everyone. Diversity doesn’t just mean colour – it means diversity of class; diversity of thought.” Murray also encourages the next generation of theatre makers to think outside the box. “If we repeat what they do – how are we going to create something new?” It is this kind of innovation that has gotten Murray where he is today.
When I ask Murray if there was ever any point he felt like giving up because the world wasn’t ready for his work, he is unwavering. “I believe if you stick to your guns, the world will come to you. I used to do judo and they’d always say, let them come to you and you can use their own force against them.” By staying authentic to his work, Murray has managed not only to bring hip hop to a greater audience, but also to inspire the next generation of creatives through his post-secondary teaching as well as community initiatives such as the Beatbox Academy.
My time with Murray is infectious. I re-emerge into the London sunshine buzzing. It’s time to stop making excuses and start making some theatre. As I conclude this feature, I wish I could drop a beat or two as my companion casually did throughout our time together, but I guess you’ll just have to come BAC to witness the legend that is Conrad Murray for yourselves.
Frankenstein: Making a Monster is playing from 12 until 29 March. For more information and tickets, visit the Battersea Arts Centre website.
High Rise Estate of Mind is playing from 20 until 30 March. For more information and tickets, also visit the page via the Battersea Arts Centre website.