Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Martin Denton: the Man and the Passion Behind The New York Theater Experience

"We need to find ways to make indie theater an economically viable pursuit."
-Martin Denton

How did you get involved with the theater? What was your early exposure to it?

My parents were both big theater buffs and introduced it to my sister and myself when were both very young. My father would occasionally read plays to us when we were little – I remember most vividly his renditions of OUR TOWN and THE SOLID GOLD CADILLAC. My sister and I picked up the habit from him and read plays together all the time we were growing up. We also went to the theatre a lot when I was very young.

We had a summer tent theater not too far from where we lived in suburban Maryland (outside Washington DC) and from the time I was about 4, we would see musicals there every summer – I saw Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee in HOW TO SUCCEED, Chita Rivera in SWEET CHARITY, Van Johnson in BYE BYE BIRDIE, Leslie Uggams in CABARET, Eartha Kitt in a musical based on PEG O’ MY HEART, Martha Raye in a musical about Texas Guinan, and other shows. We also saw Ethel Merman in the revival of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN when I was 6 at the National Theater in DC. I can still remember a lot about all of these shows. So the love and appreciation of theater was instilled in a very early age.

As for actually getting involved with it – I never really did in a serous way until I started nytheatre.com in 1996. Before that, I did the occasional school play, I took some courses in college; but mostly I stayed involved only as an audience member. After I graduated college I started to increase the amount of theater I saw, and also became a voracious reader of plays, theater history, and theater criticism.

When you were 5 (or 10 or whatever) what did you want to be? What were your imaginings of the future for yourself?

I remember when I was very little that I wanted to be a fireman, though I had no idea what a fireman actually did. Then I wanted to be President for a while. By the time I started college I wanted to be a statistician, then a lawyer, and then eventually what I became, which was an accountant. The idea of writing about theater was in the back of my mind at that point. I never imagined I would work in the theater professionally.

Did you ever come to forks in the road? What were they and what did you do?

The most important turning point in my life happened after my father died. He died very quickly and suddenly at a fairly young age (61). He had left a good steady job with the federal government when he was in his 30s to open his own business and pursue interests that really suited his talents and interests. His life was well lived, and made a big impact on me. When he died, I realized that I needed to be sure that I was doing the thing that I really was passionate about, and it only took a few years for me to transition from my job at that time—working in accounting and computer technology at Marriott International—to the job I have now, which is one I love.

How did you begin reviewing theater and why did you?

This follows right from the last question. A few months after my father died, I had an opportunity to take a beginning Internet class for work. At that time, I was Senior Director of Corporate Accounting Services at Marriott and in 1996 the Internet was still kind of a new-fangled thing that we were trying to understand the implications of in our company.

After I took the class, I decided I should make a website for practice, just so I could apply what I learned. Because I love theater, I made theater the subject of the website. It was born in November 1996 and was called Martin’s Guide to New York Theater. I basically built the site I wanted to read, as a Washington DC resident who made trips several times a year to see theater in New York City. I included show listings, info about venues and how to get to them, info about buying tickets, and reviews of the shows I’d seen. I think the idea to write reviews just felt organic, as something that needed to be there to make the site complete.

By February 1997, the site was rechristened “nytheatre.com” and had started to build up a bit of a following. It was pretty much the first of its kind in those days—a site that included listings and reviews and articles/essays about how to navigate the theater scene—there just wasn’t anything like that on the web at that time. So it began to get read by a lot of people, and those people seemed to enjoy my reviews, so I kept on writing them.

What I discovered pretty soon was that I really loved writing reviews to share my enthusiasm for the work – especially work that either wasn’t getting much attention or was not well-liked by the main corps of critics.  I actually really dislike writing negative reviews—no joy in that at all. The joy is from letting people know about something great you’ve discovered and want to share.

Photo by Scott Stiffler
Now that I’ve been reviewing for more than a decade and a half—I’ve probably written about 3,000 reviews or so, and edited 4 or 5 thousand more – my attitude toward reviewing has changed. And here’s another fork in my road, I guess: at FringeNYC 2011, after seeing a show called SMOKE THE NEW CIGARETTE by the amazingly talented but underappreciated Kirk Wood Bromley.

In my review of that show I wrote: “What Bromley and his collaborators are showing us in SMOKE THE NEW CIGARETTE is how easy it is to categorize, to assign, to decide about art—and how wrong-headed any of that ultimately is. (Awareness of this is making it hard to write this review, by the way; I am trying hard not to prove the value of SMOKE THE NEW CIGARETTE but simply to share my enthusiasm for it and encourage you to see it, if you think you might like it.)” Kirk, years before, had dubbed me “an engine of enthusiasm for the art,” a phrase I have always quite liked; what his play taught me, after all those years of reviewing, is that ALL that a reviewer can do is share the passion. There should be no judgment, no gatekeeping. That’s what I try to make sure happens in reviews I write nowadays.

That led to... which led to... which led to...

Short version: By 1999 nytheatre.com had become successful enough that it was taking every bit of my spare time, as well as much of my mother Rochelle’s, who began working on the website in various capacities quickly after it launched. (She is basically the behind-the-scenes admin. person while I am the one who designs, builds, and programs our websites and creates/edits most of the content; there is no way any of what happened could have happened without her contributions.) So we had to make a choice: either go into this as a full-time endeavor, or shut it down. We decided to take the plunge, and the risk, and do what we loved. We incorporated as a nonprofit called The New York Theatre Experience, Inc. (NYTE) on July 20, 1999, and I left Marriott at the end of that year to become Executive Director.

We expanded our programs over the years. In 2000, we published PLAYS AND PLAYWRIGHTS FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM, an anthology of plays from the indie theater sector. Eleven more editions followed annually, plus a few other play collections. In 2002, we assembled a squad of several dozen theater professionals to help us review—for the first time ever—every show in the New York International Fringe Festival. We’ve done this every year since, with the aid of our amazing reviewers, and our gavel-to-gavel coverage of the festival is one of our signature features.

In 2005, we launched nytheatrecast, the first regularly scheduled podcast series devoted to the NYC indie theater scene, and we’ve made more than 400 episodes over the years. In 2011, we launched Indie Theater Now, our newest project, which Daniel Talbott says is the CYBER Caffe Cino and others have called iTunes for plays – it’s a website where people can discover contemporary plays in depth and read them online. We’ve published 600 plays on Indie Theater Now in about 20 months including works by an amazing spectrum of writers, from Crystal Skillman and Caridad Svich to Saviana Stanescu and Mariah MacCarthy; from Jeff McMahon (one of the original founders of PS 122) and Todd Alcott (of ANTZ fame) to John Clancy and James Presson. Most of my creative energy right now is going into expanding the capabilities of Indie Theater Now. A lot of cool new stuff is coming this summer and fall.

We also, in 2006, hosted the First Ever Indie Theater Convocation, which led directly to the adoption of “indie theater” as a name for our “brand” and to the founding of the League of Independent Theater and The LIT Fund. Our idea with the convocation was to bring the people we knew who made theater at the indie level together to meet and share ideas and discuss common problems. It was the right concept at the right time and has really helped strengthen and grow the field.

All kinds of things have happened to me as a result of starting nytheatre.com and NYTE that I would never have dreamed of in my Marriott days. I now know personally hundreds of remarkable talented theater artists, and interview them on podcasts and get to see their work on a regular basis.

Photo by Daniel Talbott
I was honored by Our Town newspapers for contributions to the community via nytheatre.com, and NYTE received the fourth Stewardship Award from the New York Innovative Theater Foundation (after Ellen Stewart, ART/NY, and The Field – pretty amazing company to be in). NYTE entered and won a national competition sponsored by Microsoft and TechSoup called “Show Your Impact” for excellent use of technology in the nonprofit world. I made a video for La MaMa’s 50th anniversary celebration (the other videos were by Julie Taymor, Marc Shaiman, and Mia Yoo; again, amazing company). I get to do what I love every day.
You support indie theater and indie theater artists in a multitude of ways, how do you organize your day/week? How do you handle so many different projects at once?

Thank you for saying that, I appreciate it. The training from the Marriott days kicks in here: we create a plan every fiscal year, and monitor it closely all the time, making sure we modify it as things change in our world. And we make a monthly detailed workplan to guide activities week to week, which we update every few days. I actually prefer to do one kind of thing each day, so one day per week I may focus on updating nytheatre.com, another day may be dedicated to writing, another to editing and publishing plays on Indie Theater Now, and so on.

If you had to choose one thing to be passionate about, what would it be? (out of all the things that you do...)

Right now I’d have to say it would be to focus on Indie Theater Now to make it better and better. Developing new features that will make it more interactive and fun for users to work with, provide more information and context about the plays we publish, and greater opportunities for the playwrights. I guess maybe that’s more than one thing, but it’s still many fewer things than I do now…

Finish these sentences:
When in doubt, I... try out as many different ideas as I can until I find the one that makes sense to me.

In a perfect world... people would be eager to try out and embrace all kinds of diverse art and science; they wouldn’t be fearful about things that are unfamiliar to them; creative people would get rewards commensurate with their contributions to the body of knowledge; people would understand that hoarding money is unnecessary and probably evil.

My guilty pleasure is... the closest thing is probably really excellent chocolate cake, like the kind they used to have at Hamburger Hamlet in DC years ago. Almost all of my pleasures outside theater are not guilty ones at all: I love to ready mystery novels, love to play with computers, and love to play certain board games. But I don’t feel the least guilty doing any of those things!

Advice for emerging indie theater artists?

Read this. Do the work you care about. Do your work: don’t write Facebook posts when you’re disturbed about something happening in the world; make a play instead.

How would you describe the indie theater scene now as compared to the off off scene of the 60, 70's or 80's?

Well, because I wasn’t here to experience the off-off scene in those days, I can only speak about this based on what I’ve read and (in very limited fashion) heard from people who were there. My sense is that the scene was more unified when it started in the ‘60s; remember: it was the ‘60s, and there was a very significant cultural divide in that era—Establishment versus Counter-Culture, if you will. Off-off-Broadway in the early days was very much the reaction to mainstream/commercial theater on Broadway. The mainstream artists and producers on Broadway were entirely aware of off-off in those days, and there may have been a genuine antagonism born out of a lack of understanding, but there was, I think, a grudging and growing respect for the alternative art that came out of the off-off movement.

Today we’re very fragmented, everywhere in our culture; and mainstream theater in NYC is largely unaware, I’m afraid, of the details of what’s happening in the indie theater movement that’s unfolding only a few blocks away from where they work and play—and it doesn’t appear that they have a vested interest in finding out about it.

I wish that artists today were as politically engaged as they seemed to be in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  But the sense of adventure and newness and immediacy is still huge in the indie sector, and even though in some ways nothing is ever “new” the rediscovery of forms and ideas, often in the context these days of a new technology, is explosive.

What are your hopes for the future personally/professionally and for the indie theater scene?

Personally and professionally I hope that I can keep doing what I’ve been doing, which is to learn about new technology and find ways to apply it to support the indie theater community. As for that community itself—I want to see it continue to blossom and yield astonishing new work. I hope that groups like LIT can help the indie theater community organize to become powerful and perhaps more importantly to FEEL powerful: indie theater is the most exciting theater art I see, and yet it’s still too often viewed as a transitional place for artists to work rather than a destination in and of itself. We need to find ways to make indie theater an economically viable pursuit.

What's next?

NYTE is cooking up is a new paradigm for covering theater. We’ve pioneered new paradigms throughout our history, and we’re getting ready to launch the next wave. It’s too soon for me to say more about this, but an announcement of the details is coming later this summer.

With Andrea Alton at FringeNYC 2011

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