Nicholas Martin Part Two

With a Little Help from My Friends

By: - Jul 21, 2011

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Nicholas Martin Jenny (Gersten’s) concept for the Nikos Stage is to do classical plays (Streetcar Named Desire, The Doll’s House this season) as well as new plays.

Charles Giuliano That’s cutting into the mandate for the Nikos Stage to focus on presenting new works.

NM It was never a mandate. It was my choice and Michael Ritchie’s choice. Jenny contacted major artists, actors, directors, to see what they wanted to do. She has some really wonderful directors working here this summer. If you want to read a really eloquent description of this festival Steven Weber (actor) in Three Hotels has a gorgeous article in the Huffington Post on his blog. It really describes what WTF is. I was very moved by it. I think everyone should read it.

Steven Weber quote from blog on Huffington Post.

“I am currently appearing in a play with the absolutely lovely Maura Tierney called Three Hotels, written by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Robert Falls. It is being produced at the absolutely lovely Williamstown Theatre Festival, located in the absolutely lovely town of Williamstown, Massachusetts, a haven for the creative spirit, a healing balm for those who spend the lion's share of their time trying to matter in the garish narcissopolis of Los Angeles or the humectant crush of New York; a place where burgeoning young artists can, you know, burgeon. For a few weeks, young and (ahem) old alike can perform in classic or brand new plays, hang with their peers, forge new creative alliances, and drink copious amounts of boxed wine.

“The festival's renown as a smart. fearless celebration of classic and contemporary theatre was cemented decades ago by an international roster of outstanding actors, directors, writers, designers and sponsors who believe in the importance of theatre in American culture. The Williamstown Theatre Festival is as legendary and essential to American theatre as The Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-Upon-Avon is to the English…”

CG What is your appreciation of the festival?

NM Exactly what Steven says.

CG That’s not very helpful.

NM I’ve gone on the record a million times. It’s a place where artists young and experienced can relax and do the work.

CG Let’s take another approach. You have actors come up for three weeks of rehearsal. Which in itself is pretty insane.

NM Yeah, but its epidemic it’s the whole country.

CG Two weeks of performance then it’s history. What is that?

NM Show business. Everyone who comes up here they work their asses off. They try to do the best they can. It should be understood by reviewers, as it is by some of you, that these mammoth sets and gorgeous productions are put up in practically no time by unskilled labor. That’s a miracle in itself. Also that we can get a play together in such a short time. Closing night is actually what would be the first preview in New York. But there’s nothing wrong with that.

CG If you are working with an A list of artists it would seem important that a new production they are working on has the potential to travel. It would seem to be an incentive to participate in the marathon of a festival.

NM But not if that is the goal of the theatre. Then you just have a booking house. Then you become a place where “I hear there is going to be a revival of Anything Goes. Why not do it here.” Get it on its feet and send it on. That might have happened with You Can’t Take It With You. (A show intended to open the season on the Main Stage and slated for Broadway. It was cancelled and replaced by Three Hotels.) That’s ok too. But that was not chosen because it was going to Broadway. It was chosen because that’s a wonderful play for Williamstown.

CG You took shows from the Huntington to Broadway. Like Present Laughter with Victor Garber.

NM Many. Hedda Gabler, Observe the Sons of Ulster. I took three or four plays from here to New York.

CG How many Broadway shows have you done.

NM About seven. But I never started directing until I was about 50.

CG A late bloomer.

NM I’ve been reborn several times including recently. (A stroke in the fall of 2008)

CG You look marvelous.

NM Thank you Charles. You know you’ve always been a sucker for me.

CG (Both laughing) You know how to reel in the fish. How tough was it when you had the stroke but continued as artistic director of WTF. Wasn’t there a decision to consider letting go of that responsibility and focus on your health.

NM Yes. I did consider that. I wasn’t saying why am I doing this. I knew why. I did have to focus on my health and I couldn’t have gotten through the second two years (of a three year contract through 2010) if I didn’t have a staff here which was first rate. Justin Waldman (associate director of WTF) who isn’t here any more was fantastic. And Amanda Charlton. The whole staff was great. They managed to do well but I let a few things slip through my fingers. Like anyone does. I hope not like the Governor of Wisconsin. Why am I so political today?

CG Because the country is about to fall apart in a couple of weeks if they don’t pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling and the government defaults on paying its bills. Let’s discuss the issue of having an artistic director for WTF who does not direct. Jenny is focused in producing and administration of the festival. Where for the prior six years, three under you, and before that three with Roger Rees, as artistic directors who also directed during their seasons.

NM In the case of Jenny (Gersten) it is a brilliant decision. She has such good taste and she knows everybody. She’s a force in her own right. The big thing is she understands the art of the plays. She was born into real depth. Talk about theatre history. Although she’s done it all on her own. Every single thing. There is a tendency now in the country to go for money people in producer jobs. They have no business really dictating their programming and what the theatre does. Frequently the theatre becomes very successful.

CG In journalism that describes Los Angeles Times publisher Eddy Hartenstein. In a L.A. Times story it was reported he  “…was named chief executive of Tribune Co., which owns The Times, the Chicago Tribune, KTLA-TV Channel 5 and other media properties.

“Hartenstein will remain publisher of Los Angeles Times Media Group, but has appointed former Times executive Kathy Thomson president and chief operating officer.

”The change in the management structure at Tribune did not signal a geographic shift for the company, Hartenstein said. Tribune will remain headquartered in Chicago, and Hartenstein said he 'will be racking up a lot of frequent-flier miles.'

“Hartenstein's chief challenge will be to keep the company running as it struggles to exit bankruptcy protection after several years of stop-and-start negotiations with creditors and bankruptcy court hearings. 'The board feels strongly that it is in Tribune's best interest to have one person providing strategic vision and day-to-day direction for the company and its employees as we prepare to emerge from the Chapter 11 process,' said Sam Zell, Tribune's chairman.”

It has been widely discussed in the media that as a money person Hartenstein has little or no respect for the news room and its editors. This is symptomatic of the vulgarian trends in major news organizations. Witness the recent implosion of Rupert Murdoch’s scandal ridden media empire. These tendencies are evident in theatre as well.

Have the money lenders taken over the temple?

NM It’s what’s happening all over the country but particularly in the arts. It’s true in the world of opera and music. It’s true in all the arts with companies failing. Good, essential companies failing. The death of the New York City Opera is tragic. That was because of money people. I could go on.

CG What were the concerns during your watch at WTF. In general it was a time when through a market down turn endowments in general eroded by half. It turned out that in your second year (2009) you weren’t able to produce a musical.

NM You can’t do a musical here every year. Financially. Unless it comes with enhancement money.

CG What does that mean?

NM The New York producers who may be interested.

CG Here we go again. You’re making my argument.

NM Yes, that may be sensible. But you can’t go for that. You just can’t. If I wanted that kind of theatre I would be in there stirring up the pot. Getting Broadway shows and so forth.

CG Let’s talk about your Rolodex. Who’s in it?

NM Oh my God, you name it. Anybody who’s substantial in the American theatre.

CG Who are the go to guys like Brooks Ashmanskas?

NM They are all in She Stoops to Conquer (2011) or in She Loves Me (2008) or Where’s Charley (2002).

CG Except Jessica Stone. She wanted to be in Stoops.

NM I couldn’t get her. How do you know?

CG Because I talked to her. Why did you let her do the musical last year (Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)?

NM A very good question. I wasn’t going to do it no matter what. I didn’t think I would be great with that show. I wanted to do Our Town. That’s the luxury of running a theatre. With Jess I gambled high and it paid high. Again. It’s instinct. Smart people should go with their instinct. That’s what Jenny is doing.

CG Wasn’t that the first show she directed.

NM Yes. Ever. Anywhere. She came to my apartment and pitched it. You know we’re very close friends. I thought. I don’t know this is her first show. Even though I think she is just about the smartest person in the American theatre.

CG What a comment.

NM Well, perhaps it is over stated but for the moment it will serve the purpose. A couple of days later she called me and said “I don’t think I convinced you. I’m going to come over with Chris (Fitzgerald) and we’re going to show you a few ideas.”

CG They double teamed you.

NM Yes. They got up and started things. She knows that I hate Greek tragedy and all the phony stuff with masks. She said “We’re going to send that up right away” and she pitched it again. I thought I’m going to give this to her. I called Brooks who is a real theatre guy, he’s sort of my son, and I asked what about Jessica? He said “She can do it.” And I was right. She’s as good as anybody working today. She’s that fertile an imagination. Energy and smart. So it wasn’t a sacrifice to hand off Forum.

CG You didn’t get a great reception for Our Town.

NM Oh yeah. I take great exception to that. I was not necessarily surprised. I find that critics who do know a play, who have seen many productions, are frequently unwilling to see other productions.

CG You are speaking slowly and choosing words carefully.

NM I’m not shooting my mouth off.

CG You have something to say. Why not say it. You have nothing to lose.

NM Oh, I have nothing to lose. Well, first of all Charles, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t read the reviews. I just wanted to know what they were because I was the producer here. I wanted to know generally. And I couldn’t tell because the audiences were substantial. And the reception was substantial. But I think I know when as show is good and when it isn’t and in particularly when it’s acted. Talk about my Rolodex. That play was full of them. You wouldn’t get better work than that company did. You would never find a stage manager like Campbell Scott.

CG He was remarkable.

NM He is remarkable. And you would never find parents like Jessica Hecht and Dylan Baker.

CG It’s amazing to get people of that quality to come up and do minor parts. An ensemble.

NM I am able to get work, because we have worked together many times. They love coming here and I am able to create an atmosphere where people are relaxed and enjoy the work in front of them. People can’t bear to see a bunch of chairs on stage. It is Jessica Hecht’s and my favorite set (by David Korins). But if they can’t stand that and good light. I’ve been to some local theatre productions here where the quality of the design and the acting were so mediocre.

CG You touched on but did not enunciate the issue of critics coming to productions and not being able to let go of their preconceptions. You fudged on it.

NM How much further do I have to go?

CG I’m redirecting the question. It returns back to our earlier discussion of what is the critic and what baggage do we bring to the theatre?

NM You can’t help but to bring baggage to the theatre. But I want you to bring informed baggage.

CG For your final season why would you take on a play that is so familiar like Our Town?

NM Oh, I can answer that. Because I consider it to be the greatest American play. At this time in my life I wanted to be in Grover’s Corners (The Stage Manager asks us to imagine the apocryphal Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. He informs us that it is located 42°40' north latitude and 70°37' west longitude. Those coordinates actually place it closer to Rockport, Mass.) And to be in that language and that world of this great and important American play. To be a gift to Williamstown and a gift to myself.  And a gift to all of the family which I bring here. Seriously. That meant more to me than having a good production of Forum. It worked out perfectly for me. Our Town here, last summer, is still one of my favorite things.

CG Name two others.

NM Camino Real (Tennessee Williams 1953) and Dead End (Sidney Kingley's play was staged at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1998 and the Huntington as his first show there in 1999. That production's large cast featured Hope Davis, Marian Seldes, Campbell Scott and Robert Sean Leonard.) There was a movie and that’s where the Dead End Kids come from. The movie has Bogart. (The play was 1935 and the film 1937.) It hadn’t been done in fifty years and Michael Ritchie and I got that idea together. And Camino Real. They were enormous productions which I am proud of.

CG Why She Stoops to Conquer this season?

NM Oh. Because it’s great comedy. I knew I could cast it. Again. I did it in Princeton at the McCarter theatre.

CG How is this like that?

NM Oh it’s very much like that. Many of the same actors. The same designers so I haven’t had to change it much. There is a great luxury in doing a play a second time. I found that with Hedda Gabler and many of the plays I have done. Especially because of the three week rehearsal period. You can fix what didn’t work and react to everything. There is a point when a work opens where I can’t see anything but my own mistakes. I’ve been lucky to be able to fix them here.

CG Don’t Actors Equity rules state that you can’t go back and direct after opening night?

NM You can do it in New York you can’t on this contract. Oh yeah in New York if you pay everybody.

CG Here after opening night that’s it.

NM That’s right.

CG You can’t take notes and meet with the cast.

NM Yeah but a lot of people, directors and actors ignore that.

CG Why would you not take notes on opening night?

NM Because you’re not allowed by the contract. In New York its allowed during previews. So that’s what previews are all about.

CG So that’s how Spider Man got away with it through months of previews.

NM Spiderman paid everybody. Everybody. Preview or no preview. Because there’s a limit on how long you can keep the actors in previews.

CG Spiderman was what four months of previews?

NM It was ridiculous. More.

CG Finally the Times gave up and reviewed it.

NM They all gave up.

CG Did you see Mark Rylance in La Bete?

NM No but I saw him in Jerusalem. He’s amazing. But the most incredible performance on Broadway this year was Joe Mantello in The Normal Heart. It was gorgeous. I hope you put that in the article.

CG You bet. Thanks as always.