Actor Patrick Murney '05 on the Importance of Improvisation — in Acting and in Life

Patrick Murney (Dwight ‘05), an accomplished actor in film and television, spoke to Dwight Global students recently about the importance of improvisation, an acting skill he first honed as a student at Dwight.

Appearing virtually, Mr. Murney showed the students a video compilation of his acting and explained how he has used improvisation to animate his roles.

Over the course of his career, Mr. Murney has had roles in the shows "Seven Seconds,” "Public Morals," and "Godfather of Harlem," as well as in the films "God's Pocket" and "The Irishman." He now has a lead role in the popular HBO miniseries Mare of Easttown.

Mr. Murney discussed the principles of improvisation with students, especially the cardinal rule, which is always to "say yes" to whatever lines a fellow actor says to you. Improv has helped him flesh out several characters, he said, while recounting scenic moments in which he improvised action or dialogue.

"As an actor you improvise in response to whatever is thrown your way," he explained. "You can’t get rattled. You have to listen to your instinct and not doubt yourself."

Caroline Hendrickson, a junior at Dwight Global, said she learned a good deal from Mr. Murney.

"During the Acting Workshop, I had an amazing experience improvising--learning about spontaneity and picturing a scene in my head," said Caroline. "Responding to other students' actions with absurd comments — like when another student had just given me a pot of dirt--was hilarious and so fun!" 

Bernardo Sequeira, another Dwight student and actor, agreed with Caroline's assessment.

"The session with Patrick was great," said Bernardo. "What struck me was the story he told about the time he disagreed with the writers on one of his shows. Patrick believed his character would never make a scripted action, and instead used his improv skills to make the scene more genuine. This anecdote inspires me because it demonstrates how useful improv is in tackling difficult acting situations."

Mr. Murney’s presentation was part of a three-day acting workshop for Dwight Global students run by Terry Christgau, Head of Upper School Theater. Mr. Christgau introduced Mr. Murney to acting when he was a student at Dwight School in the early 2000s, and during the intervening years the two have remained friends and collaborators. Mr. Murney, who plays a volatile and drunken father in his current show, Mare of Easttown, said Mr. Christgau was the first to spot his acting abilities. In high school, Mr. Murney had twin passions "for basketball and for being a class clown," he quipped. But then he took an improvisational acting class with Mr. Christgau — a class that changed the trajectory of his life.

"Terry [Christgau] opened my eyes to improvisation and acting," recalled Mr. Murney. "I come from an acting family but wasn’t interested in it until I met Terry, who saw my qualities as an actor. He’s a father figure to me, and he changed my life. He still coaches me and helps me develop characters."

Come senior year at Dwight, Mr. Murney didn’t know what college to attend or what to study. Mr. Christgau encouraged him to assemble his portfolio and apply to acting programs. He ended up enrolling at Syracuse University, which along with having a top acting program also had an elite basketball program — his other passion. During a semester studying abroad in London, while performing at the Globe Theater, Mr. Murney recalled thinking to himself, "This is what I’m meant to do.” When he returned to Syracuse, he spent a semester (known as the Tepper semester) studying in Manhattan, at which point he knew he had the “acting bug big-time."

"After London and NYC, I felt like a tiger in a cage,” said Mr. Murney. “I was bursting out and killing my auditions. Some actors live for fame. But for me, building a character — creating a believable human being — is the best part of acting. That’s what motivates me."

Actors must learn, however, to embrace rejection and the reality of unglamorous work, said Mr. Murney, who has worked as a bartender, a basketball coach at his old elementary school, and a delivery man (the commercial plates on his delivery van helped him find parking for auditions in Midtown —"a great perk") to support himself.

The improvisation skills he learned from Mr. Christgau, moreover, helped him cope with life as well as with acting. “Improv trains you to react positively,” said Mr. Murney. "It’s about taking what you get from a situation and rolling with the punches. That holds true for life as well as acting. In life, you are called upon to assume many roles, and improvising will always help you get by."

Mr. Christgau, himself an accomplished actor and director, is proud of Mr. Murney’s artistic success. He mentions reading a review of “Mare of Easttown” in the Atlantic in which the critic says of one of Mr. Murney’s scenes, “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I watched it.” And he proudly mentions watching Saturday Night Live (SNL) this weekend, which sent up “Mare of Easttown,” satirizing the show’s main character, Kate Winslet, as well as Mr. Murney’s character.  A show that is satirized on SNL is a show that has arrived or touched a nerve in American culture. And the send-up also proves that Mr. Murney has arrived as an actor, which comes as no surprise to Mr. Christgau.

"I’ve been teaching at Dwight since 1997," he said, "and Patrick is the best improvisational actor I’ve ever worked with. He uses improvisation often, and more times than not the director will accept his improvised moment over the script. That’s when you know you’re a talented actor."