As a child, Michael Murdock played a bean in a local road show in Salt Lake City and, thinking he had reached a theatrical pinnacle, became hooked on the stage.
He achieved another kind of high as an undergraduate at the University of Utah when he performed in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" with highly respected actors George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst. They offered to help him when he went to New York.And he thought he "had jumped over the moon" when he auditioned for and was accepted by LAMDA - the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts-in New York City.
As one of only eight men and four women accepted in the program, his classmates included Academy Award-nominated actor John Lith-gow, with whom he performed in Shakespeare's "Henry V" and Chekhov's "The Seagull."
Michael Murdock translated his lifelong love of theater into a dual career as professor/performer, which accelerated to full speed beginning in 1970 when he earned his Actor's Equity card, followed in 1971 by a doctorate in theater at the University of Wisconsin.
Murdock spends most of his time in Canada, where he is a professional actor and a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He is on sabbatical this year while he serves as guest theater professor at Brigham Young University.
"I've had many great opportunities, and many of them have been through teaching," he explains. "While I had many friends who went to New York and received substantial stage success, I've never been haunted by the route I've taken."
Among his academic benefits is the chance to work with select young theatrical talent while living in a city committed to drama. Edmonton has 14 professional theaters, and theater has strong university support. He directs in an actor/training program in which between 400 and 500 people audition annually for 12 openings. In addition, he has abundant options for performing.
"My professional work makes me a better teacher," he explains. "The careers complement each other."
He made his choice to pursue the educational/professional route after he fell in love, got married, and began having children: six sons and two daughters.
"I've always managed to keep working and keep eating," he says.
An additional bonus he sees is the ability of theater to keep him young.
"So many people assume a bearing once they get a job," he says. "They can easily affect a posture that ages them. Theater keeps me in shape (he also runs seven miles a day). I recently did the title role in a play based on a prize-winning Canadian book called "Shakespeare's Dog." As the dog, I tried to get Shakespeare to go to London where his full creative abilities could be expressed. It was exhilarating. As George Bernard Shaw said, `I think there must be a special heaven reserved for theater people.' "
He gravitates toward the works of Shakespeare, Chekhov and George Bernard Shaw because he finds "a lot of heart in their work."
"They are able to reveal the weaknesses in people and still love them," he says. "Chekhov certainly has characters who can be called villains, but you understand why they are who they are."
He is developing a work in Russian and English that uses Chekhov's humor, aspects of the Book of Mormon and the Bible, poetry of Pushkin and parts of Boris Pasternak's translated "Hamlet." He will present it in Canada next year.
"To me there is spiritual yearning in great theater. You can find the bitterness in `Long Day's Journey Into Night' or the decadence in `Streetcar Named Desire,' or you can discover how all of the anguish is translated into great poetry. You certainly find that with Shakespeare.
"His characters are struggling and suffering pain with which we can identify. I find Shakespeare's Hamlet encountering a crisis somewhat similar to the Spirit commanding Ne-phi to kill Laban (from the Book of Mormon) or the terrible spiritual struggle anyone faces when asked to do something diametrically opposed to their better nature."
As for his time at BYU, he says "the very talented students have demonstrated to me an impressive courage and accessibility. It has been a unique and refreshing pleasure to watch them grow."
He is directing several of them in a production of "Hamlet," which opens Thursday and plays through Feb. 2. Tickets are available through the drama ticket office, 378-7447.