Nicholas Martin's Second Season at Williamstown Theatre Festival

Directing Coward's Present Laughter on Broadway in January

By: - Jun 25, 2009

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The last time I spoke with Nicholas Martin was mid August when he was winding down  his first season as Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. After a long tenure at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston he had arrived in Williamstown with a two year contract. There was some caution by the Board as the company was attempting to get back on track after the administrations of two Artistic Directors who left the company with a diminished reputation and declining audience. 

By mid summer, during one of several spontaneous chats, Martin informed me that his contract had been extended indefinitely. Age and health, however, were issues. Would Martin remain at Williamstown long enough to restore its reputation as one of the foremost regional theatres in America?

After finishing the season at WTF Nicholas was off to LA to direct "House of Blue Leaves" at the Mark Taper Forum. The next stop was back to New York to direct "Saturn Returns" which was scheduled to open on October 16.

Walking into his office at WTF yesterday it was revealing to see how much has changed. In late September, when he returned to New York to start rehearsing at Lincoln Center he suffered a stroke. He greeted me warmly and suggested that I sit at the desk while he was moved to a wheel chair by an assistant. His speech was fine, it returned after three days, but he acknowledged a slow recovery and intensive physical therapy. There were moments of  humor and optimism but the general sense was measured. He is conserving energy and pacing himself for the intense season ahead.

The meeting took place during a break from rehearsing "Knickerbocker" a new play by Jonathan Marc Sherman which opens on the Nikos Stage on July 8. The season officially begins on July 1 with "Children" by A. R. Gurney on the Main Stage. The pace of the season from July 1 through the final curtain on August 23 is ferocious. There is an opening every Thursday alternating between four Main Stage plays and three in the smaller Nikos Stage. This is hardly straw hat summer stock. There is a great emphasis on magnificent production values and new material. It is a mix of the best of traditional theatre, such as last season's "Three Sisters" by Chekhov as well as a premiere for "The Atheist" which moved to Off Broadway in the fall.

At the Huntington, and now with WTF, Martin has a track record of developing plays that are hits on Broadway and Off Broadway. In addition to "The Atheist" other recent examples are productions of "Mauritius" and "39 Steps." He will direct Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" which he developed at the Huntington on Broadway in January. Once again it will star Victor Garber. One of last summer's most successful productions by the African American playwright, Nathan Louis Jackson, "Broke-Ology" will be staged at Lincoln Center in the fall.

In addition to the personal setback of the stroke, in October, the economy tanked taking the arts down with it. What is a difficult job, planning a season of theatre, became more so with diminished resources requiring tough decisions. Like arts organizations across the board in the Berkshires Martin made cuts. The schedule for the Nikos Stage was reduced from five plays to three.

While WTF is staged on the Williams College campus it is a separate entity with its own endowment and operating capital. An infusion of cash comes with its apprentice program in which they pay $5,000 for the experience. This also provides  free labor for many aspects of the production through supervision and mentoring. In general arts groups have cut their budgets by an average of  20%. Everyone is keeping their fingers crossed in anticipation of what will be a challenging season during a terrible economy. With less money for vacations and entertainment audiences will be far more selective.

Last summer, getting to know Nicky, I came to appreciate and enjoy his wonderful warmth and wit. He likes to laugh and his forte is comedy. Some of our spontaneous exchanges were just hilarious. He was always generous in answering questions frankly. Given the grueling pace of the season there is not a lot of time for the media. So you grab quotes when you can. One of our interviews, which resulted in a scoop, occurred because I happened to be there when he emerged from the men's room. That just added to the ambiance and humor.

Honestly, I was unhinged by the emotion of seeing him again. It was poignant and remarkable to see first hand how he is continuing under such adversity. All of the passion, humanity, and fabulous wit are still there but slower and more measured. Given out in carefully considered but deeply thoughtful increments. The experience was so stunning that at one point I told him I was losing it. That's really saying something from a battle hardened journalist.

You get awkward and self conscious. Not quite sure in relying on the tricks of the trade. I found myself joking, laughing and trying to get that wonderful smile from him. To draw out his humor which is so infectious. But I asked the obvious "How do you feel?" How dumb. "I'm doing well" he said "It's just that I am an impatient fellow."

I asked if he planned to slow down?  "This (stroke) is sending a message to scale back" he said "But it is just not in my nature to do so. One of the first things that became apparent was that it would be easy to slide into depression. The best way to fight that is just work Right now I am doing nine things at once. The opening of  'Knickerbocker' is just a short time away. We have been rehearsing for a week."

Last summer there was an over the top moment when we compared our angioplastys. I had gone through mine several months previously. "Aren't they wonderful" he exclaimed with that remarkable Nicky flair. But he explained that the stroke was not about that, a blocked artery, it had been brought on by stress. Bounding from the demands of a season in the Berkshires to immediate rehearsals in LA and then on to another production in New York.

I said something in German. "What is that German or Yiddish" he asked? A bit of both I explained translating that "We are a couple of old farts" and should act accordingly by cutting back. "I know" he commented "But I'm in denial about that."

Stating that these are tough times for the arts I asked for his views of the coming summer? "We have a strong season" he said. "So I am cautiously optimistic. There will be three premieres." He will not be producing the sure hits and chestnuts of the straw hat circuit. "No" he replied "But one bow to the recession was that we had to cancel two new plays which are quite wonderful. It broke my heart not to be able to do them, Three of the shows we did last summer have gone on to Off Broadway including 'Broke-Ology" which is opening at Lincoln Center in the fall."

Last summer "Broke-Ology" was included when another project with an African American playwright fell through. The play, which had its premiere at WTF, proved to be one of the greatest treasures of the season. Martin agreed. He also produced August Wilson at the Huntington so with some ironic humor I asked "What is it with you and black theatre?" This evoked a smile that lit up the room. In particular, I asked about the late August Wilson. Posthumously Martin produced his last play "Radio Golf" at the Huntington which went on to Broadway for a relatively short run. A revival of Wilson's "Joe Turner" earned six Tony Award nominations in 2009.

"They (African Americans) are a large constituency" he said "But I don't say at the beginning of a season 'Let's do a black play.' That's not my style. But if a first class play about black people is available I'll produce it. That's a truism. There was a long standing relationship between August Wilson (1945-2005) and the Huntington that preceded me. So I was just continuing that. During my time at the Huntington we did three of his  plays. His time in Boston was significant."

It was revealing that Huntington embraced Wilson while Robert Brustein, then Artistic Director of American Repertory Theatre, feuded with him. It said a lot about the differences of these two, remarkable, Boston/ Cambridge based companies. Given that background I asked Martin to discuss his relationship with Wilson and assessment of the legacy.

We didn't get very far on the relationship aspect which Martin described as professional and focused on the work. He stated, however, that he considered Wilson to be one of the five greatest playwrights of the 20th century. I responded that at least four of the others would include Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, and Pirandello Was Wilson in that league?. Martin reconsidered and stated that Wilson is surely one of the Five Great American playwrights of the 20th century.
What about Pinter I asked? Have you ever done Pinter, or Beckett? "No I have never done them. I like some Pinter but it's not my thing. I like Beckett but have never had the occasion. This year the revival of 'Waiting for Godot' was the best thing on Broadway."

If he favors Wilson over Pinter I asked him to define just what he looks for in great theatre. "What's Nicky's thing" I asked? He became meditative as he gave a thoughtful answer.

"First a great play has to accurately reflect the human condition. Like 'The Rivals' (by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1775, which Martin directed at the Huntington in 2005). Secondly I look for humor which leaves out O'Neill except for 'Ah Wilderness' which I love. And third, I prefer a play in which there is a glimmer of hope. I would say the season we have selected is a reflection of my taste. The point of view of the Artistic Director is paramount in defining a company."

Martin also loves musicals. He started the season last year by moving the production of "She Loves Me," his last at the Huntington, to start the tenure in Williamstown. It was an elaborate and expensive project. Because of the budget cuts there is no musical this season. "I would love to do one musical every year if I could."

In addition to sets and costumes a major expense is a full orchestra. Not this year. But even for the small Nikos Stage we commented about the elaborate sets for "The Understudy." How will he be able to maintain those production values which of all the major Berkshire companies  are the closest to Broadway standards?

"It almost broke us" he said referring to last season  The productions were viewed as a step up from the three seasons under Roger Rees who followed a different mandate. "The labor is largely free so it is not that the sets cost so much. It is more that we put a lot of thought and care into selecting the most brilliant designers. Yes, I agree that WTF is the closest in the region to New York standards. That's the reason why we cancelled two shows. When you are faced with budget cuts you can reduce staff or production budgets. We decided that it is easier to do three plays (for Nikos Stage) first class than five plays helter skelter. We are maintaining the same quality of actors and designers that we have always had."

In addition to the budget cuts I suggested that he is not today the man he was a year ago. Given the circumstances for how long will he remain at WTF? Is this it? Are we seeing the final curtain of a remarkable career that has included Broadway shows "Butley" "Match" "Hedda Gabler" and "Present Laughter" next season, as well as, many Off Broadway and regional productions?

It was a struggle to maintain composure through his poignant response. A tough question was met by a straight answer. "I don't feel I'm not the guy I was and I intend to go on as long as they (the Board of WTF) will have me here. Yes there is stress but I can't change. I'm like the Bourbon Dynasty; I forgot nothing, and I learned nothing."

Reflecting on that he said that he would try to give me a better quote which I may or may not use. He paused and thought carefully about what he wanted to say. There were gaps, as I tried to capture his words precisely, so it came out in deeply moving increments. It seemed compelling for him to state his position clearly.

"If work is what sustains you have to pursue it" he said with a long pause, then he added that, "What you mustn't allow is for stress to overrule your equanimity. That's what I've learned."

He was concerned about my response to the statement. Was the word equanimity ok? Should he think of another? It seems ok,  I responded, equanimity is clear. Absorbing that statement  I followed with affectionate banter. "Are you going to be a good boy and cut back after the season?"  There was that impish, bad boy look and engaging response as he discussed plans to direct "She Stoops to Conquer" (1773, by the Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith) at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, in the fall, and then on to the Roundabout Theatre on Broadway opening "Present Laughter" in January. 

It was time to get back to rehearsal. I asked for a hug and kiss. We all love Nicky he is  such a treasure. He said that yes it has been tough and depressing but "Not when I'm working." As the season posted below unfolds, now more than ever, it will be the arts that sustain us through tough times. True to his spirit and artistic vision it will be humanity, humor, and a glimmer of hope that shines through.

The Main Stage
July 1 - 12, 2009
 WTF's Main Stage season will begin with Children by A.R. Gurney. Tony-nominee John Tillinger (Loot, The Sunshine Boys) directs this timeless Gurney classic set in a large summer home on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. When an estranged brother's return and a mother's impending marriage recall painful memories of their father's death, seething arguments reignite one family's struggle with its tragic past and uncertain future.

 True West
July 15 - 26, 2009
 Next on the Main Stage will be True West, by Sam Shepard, directed by former Boris Sagal Directing Fellow Daniel Goldstein (Walmartopia, Godspell). Former WTF Apprentice Nate Corddry ("Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," Showtime's "United States of Tara"), and his real-life brother Rob Corddry ("The Daily Show," The Heartbreak Kid), will play the squabbling siblings in this Pulitzer Prize-winning play. This modern classic is an explosive exploration of family rivalry as two very different brothers attempt to sell Hollywood their version of the great American Western.

 The Torch-Bearers
July 29 - August 9, 2009
 Tony-nominated stage and screen actor Dylan Baker (November, Mauritius, Revolutionary Road) will direct a cast including Becky Ann Baker (All My Sons, Assassins) and Tony Award-winner Marian Seldes (A Delicate Balance, Deathtrap) in The Torch-Bearers by George Kelly.  The play is a side-splitting 1920s farce in which a troupe of amateur actors rehearse and perform a show-stopping new play—or try to with all their might. Their stage is riddled with comedic drama, suspense, and good old-fashioned witty mayhem, similar to both Noises Off and Boeing Boeing.

 Quartermaine's Terms
August 12 - 23, 2009
Tony-nominated director Maria Aitken (Broadway and West End's award-winning production of The 39 Steps) will close the WTF Main Stage with Quartermaine's Terms by Simon Gray (Butley, The Late Middle Classes). Featuring a cast including Tony-nominee Mary Beth Hurt (Top Girls, A Delicate Balance), Simon Jones (Blithe Spirit, Waiting in the Wings) and Tony Award-winner Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife, Journey's End), this charming and heart-felt 1960s comedy follows an endearingly eccentric group of English teachers in Cambridge whose insatiable quest for knowledge has masked their secret longings for passion, romance, and true happiness.

Nikos Stage

July 8 - 19, 2009
 Nicholas Martin will open the Nikos Stage season, directing the world-premiere of Knickerbocker by Jonathan Marc Sherman (Women and Wallace, Sophistry).  "Are you ready?" The question looms over Jerry as the months tick by and his unborn son grows from the size of a peach to the size of, well, a baby. As the birth date creeps ever nearer, will the advice, encouragement and warnings of friends and family make Jerry more or less ready? The awe and terror of becoming a new parent shines through Sherman's newest play as he examines whether one can ever truly be ready for parenthood.

 What Is The Cause Of Thunder?
July 22 - August 2, 2009
Also on the Nikos stage, WTF Artistic Associate Justin Waldman (WTF and Off-Broadway's The Atheist) will direct the world-premiere of What Is The Cause Of Thunder?, a new play by Noah Haidle (Mr. Marmalade, Saturn Returns).  After 27 years on the same soap opera, Ada is starting to confuse her art and her life. But after so many years of acting, her art is her life.  Haidle's poignant comedy brings us the hilarity of day-time drama alongside the harsher, but often equally funny, realities of life.

 Caroline In Jersey
August 5 - 16, 2009
 Closing the Nikos Stage season will be the world-premiere of Caroline in Jersey by Melinda Lopez (Sonia Flew at the Huntington Theatre Co., directed by Nicholas Martin and Steppenwolf), directed by WTF Artistic Associate Amanda Charlton (Dissonance, Demon Dreams). Caroline is down and out in New Jersey. She's having a nervous breakdown, her career as an actress is tragically dwindling, and a peculiar stranger has made his presence known in her new apartment. Can she find a way to conquer it all? This funny and touching new play follows one woman's whole-hearted attempt to accept the past and take hold of the future, despite the many surprises that might pop up along the way.