As the curtain goes up tonight on Fifth of July, (August 11-22) Nicholas Martin wraps up his three year stint as artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival with some pretty impressive achievements. We talked about a few of them during a recent conversation, but first some background.
Martin is much beloved by his company of actors and designers, and part of that is his loyalty to them. In 2008 when he took over as artistic director, Campbell Scott appeared in The Atheist, and was featured again in the recent 2010 Our Town which Martin also directed. In fact, Martin directed 14 WTF shows before taking the reins in June 2008. His history with Campbell Scott goes back to one of his earliest WTF directorial efforts, Dead End in 1998.
One of the great gifts that Martin and the Williamstown Theatre Festival has given the Berkshire audiences are the first class productions of the musicals She Loves Me (2008) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (2010).
Right off the bat Martin and I began comparing differing Forums that we had both seen, and when I mentioned the Whoopi Goldberg version being the worst, he immediately agreed. “Oh that was terrible, except when my friend Nathan Lane was in it.” Great opening for a key question. Any chance of getting Nathan Lane to come back to Willliamstown?
“We talked earlier this summer, and Nathan said, ‘Yes, I was in Wiliamstown in the old days but was never asked back.’ So I thought, well really, let’s get this worked out. So, I am going to try to get him here – Jenny (Gersten who takes over WTF for 2011) has been kind enough to say I am going to do a play here next year. Nathan may be free next summer, and I was just thinking about it today. He’s a great artist. He’s as brilliant in a serous play as he ever is in a musical. Have you seen his new one?”
I told him that The Addams Family with Lane is on my list, and that I had talked with Bebe Neuwirth (the co-star) about it not too long ago when she appeared at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington. The critics were not very approving of The Addams Family, but the public likes it, and after five months it is still playing to 88% of capacity.
What about the theatre of the future? “You know, for twenty years everyone has been obsessed about getting younger audiences into the theatre. My experience has been that you can use the internet and all the electronic tools , but unless you program shows that are going to interest young people, it’s just not going to happen. You’re not going to get young people in substantial numbers to come to some types of plays, and certainly not to subscribe.
The subscription idea is dying,” says Martin. Even the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony have now broken down their subscriptions to very small chunks, sometimes just three or four Pucinni operas or a series of three Friday afternoon matinees.
“The Metropolitan Opera is an arts organization that is providing for the theatre of the future. Every move they have made under Peter Gelb has been smart. Hiring theatre directors for their productions, the live telecasts, his innovations all have the younger audience in mind.
“Nearer home, if I had been given a chance to direct a musical about baseball instead of Diane Paulus at American Repertory Theatre, I would have snapped it up. I had tried to do a workshop of Johnny Baseball here, but someone else picked it up. I really admire what she is doing.
“On the other hand there is the other idea of a theatre of the future which is sort of what we have been getting for the past ten years. So they turn plays on their ass whether they deserve to be done that way or not. Much of it is just fooling around with stage design or acting. Many of those innovations have nothing to do with the play anymore. It’s become kind of dated too. You know that old saying that everything changes except the old avant garde?” Exactly.
“But I am hopeful for the theatre. These are tough times. We have to face the fact that we will not get the kind of audiences we used to get before, unless it is a Broadway style show that fits into the Times Square theme park, with maybe one serious play a year having a decent run. And they are frequently British which is annoying. And the bottom line, Larry, is that mediocre work will not bring in audiences in any great numbers.
Advice to Jennie Gersten
Asked what words of advice he had for his successor, Jennie Gersten, Martn said: “I haven’t given her any advice. I did fill her in a bit on the Williamstown, the town and the college, and the things that have changed since she was last here. But by and large, no, but she is a very talented, honorable and respected woman with pretty much the same rolodex that I have. She has exquisite taste, and will always do the right thing.”
Gersten has tremendous credentials as a producer and arts administrator, even doing stints in audience development and fundraising.
“More than that,” says Martin, “And unlike many of those people with that pedigree, she also has great reach into the artistic community. She knows what’s good and appealing, and what’s not so elevated. I couldn’t be more pleased about a successor, she will do a tremendous job here.”
North Adams Mohawk Theatre
The conversation turned to real estate when I mentioned how expensive it was to visit New York. “I can’t afford to buy there,” Martin shot back. And what of his hope to one day settle into a cottage in Provincetown? “Oh that fantasy, I am certainly not through with that dream yet.” Can you imagine a conversation between Nicholas Martin and John Waters (who spends his summers in P-Town) comparing film and theatre?
Speaking of fantasies, I asked Martin if he was aware of the Mohawk Theatre in North Adams? “It breaks my heart every time I go past it to see it still unused,” said Martin. “I would back anyone who tried to get it back into use. Have you been inside, what’s the condition?” Partially renovated, and on hold I reported.
His Favorite Shows in Williamstown
I asked Martin what his best moment at Williamstown Theatre Festival was. Without hesitation he answered, ‘There have been two actually. Dead End (1997) which was a dream come true for me and Michael Ritchie (head of WTF at the time).
“When Ritchie was at WTF, he asked me what I wanted to do, and Dead End was the play I proposed, though it had a huge cast of 44 people. We actually put water in the orchestra pit, and had a mixed cast of Equity actors and kids, and it was done again at the Huntington in Boston and the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.”
Dead End had an amazing cast of “dead end boys” and other characters to die for: Robert Sean Leonard, Campbell Scott, Julie Dretzin, Marian Seldes, Hope, Lee Wilkof, Tom Brennan, Bruce MacVittie, Rod McLachlan, Jennifer Schelter, Amy Van Nostrand and Scott Wolf were all in it.
“The whole saga of that show – which began at WTF – also began my tenure as a real artist. My other favorite thing might be She Loves Me – I adored doing that – but I must admit Our Town is it. It did not escape me that it was a good show to leave a place you loved with, though I also choose it somewhat selfishly.
“Since my stroke, I feel my mortality, and Our Town became a work that I identified with a little more closely than I might have wished. I just wanted to be around that great play and its New England roots, and this may sound like a cliché, but I simply wanted to be around its affirmation of life. That’s the reason I did it.
“I am very happy with the results, I think its got all the right actors, many of whom are actor-family to me. I am proud of it and it is a fitting work to give to Williamstown and the Berkshires.
“It was about a year ago that I knew I would have to leave the WTF, that I didn’t have the energy to keep up with the nuts and bolts of each year’s intense schedule. You know that story that Elaine Stritch tells about the old prostitute who takes a guy up to her room? When it’s over he says ‘this must be a hard job’ and she replies, it’s not the job, it’s the stairs.
“Same for me. I have a lot of energy to direct a play, but I don’t have the stamina for the stairs anymore,” he admitted. In my experience artistic directors don’t only deal with the art, but are in constant demand as mediators, fundraisers and administrators, “and forced to play Solomon,” Martin added. And after a taxing budget session, “How do you find the clarity to go to rehearsal or plan a season?” he added. It’s all part of the job, Martin admitted, “And I am not complaining. But you know it’s exhausting and unnerving, certainly at a certain age when ones patience is not the same as when you were younger…”
I asked Martin directly if he thought running a major theatre company in a small town was more difficult than in a big city. He answered simply: “No question.”
Next up – “Bus Stop” in Boston
Martin’s next project is Bus Stop, a play he is directing for the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, where he was artistic director from 2000-2008. It is slated to play there, on the main stage, from September 17 to October 17, 2010. It is the story of a stubborn, lovestruck cowboy and the nightclub singer he hopes to marry and stars Karen McDonald and Noah Bean, with Will LeBow as Carl. Bean is appearing in Fifth of July at WTF “and all that is needed is to put a pair of cowboy boots on him to make him the perfect lovesick cowboy, Bo. “
“When the Huntington offered me Bus Stop, I seized the opportunity to mount a production by a major American playwright whose work I have always admired and wished to direct,” says Martin.
“Inge’s skill at providing a Midwestern landscape for the most basic convolutions of sex and longing is always imbued with mid-century innocence and a depth that rivals early Williams and Miller. I have gathered a superb company of first-rate designers, some real acting surprises, and my old Boston friends. I love the city and am happy to go back.”
We turned to the role of the critics in Boston vs. the Berkshires, and Martin made me a friend forever by saying “Your reviews, of course, are refreshing, but so many others are crap. I promised Alan Chartock that I would talk about critics this year on his radio show on WAMC. But, only once the season is finished. I wasn’t ready when asked back then, but I am 72 now and ready to talk. The New York critics have been extremely kind to me, and gave me a career when I was in my fifties.”
When Martin does talk, he will have two decades of opinions to dissect, from fulsome praise to critical darts and arrows. You have to have pretty thick skin to open your work to the imperfect world of critics and columnists who often have to write their reviews in a matter of hours when weeks have been spent on a production.
From Broadway actor to Director, via Bennington and Victor Garber
Before Martin became a director, he was a Broadway actor, then a professor teaching theatre at Bennington College.
When asked about the transition by Ted Sod at the Roundabout’s Lecture Series, Martin said: “I went to Bennington College to teach when I was in my early forties, and a great friend of mine, Sandy Dennis, said to me, “Oh, if you teach, you’ll want to direct.” I had resisted directing. I was determined to make it as a kind of odd-ball leading man in musical comedies, doomed from the start, I must say. When I went to Bennington, miraculously, she was right. As soon as I taught my first class, I thought, “I want to put this into action.” I wanted to direct a play.
“I thought maybe this really is what I should do because my acting was, let’s say, tolerable and really be honest and say not very good. One of my great pals was and continues to be Victor Garber. My friends started coming up to see my work at Bennington and Victor said to me, “You really ought to start directing professionally.” And I said, “Oh, no, no. Don’t be silly. I’m enjoying this. I love teaching young people, and it’s what I have to offer. I don’t need professional theatre.
“But somehow, over the years, it became more and more important to me. And as I’m fond of saying, Victor kind of pushed me into the career of directing.”
His life has not been without bumps, but he has survived all its many trials so far, the most recent of which was his minor stroke in September 2008. It slowed him down during 2009, but it did not stop him, and by 2010 Martin had figured out how to deal with his impaired mobility and get on with the job at hand.
He’s never lost his ability to laugh at adversity, at life, and even himself. He is a lucky man and knows it. He may be an older single guy but he has his theatre family, something that is rarely found in any other field of endeavor. It is especially strong between actors and directors.
As you might suspect, in Martin’s case, he never spends holidays alone. Wouldn’t you like to have a standing date to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with the likes of Victor Garber and other actor friends?
Even better, I am now looking forward to next summer and Martin’s return to the Berkshires. Let’s hope he and Nathan Lane can cook something up along about the fourth or fifth of July. We’ll all be waiting.