Theater In Conversation
MARTIN DENTON with Chris Harcum
In 2014, after nearly twenty years of covering theater in New York City, Martin Denton moved out to a beach-adjacent town in New Jersey to start a new chapter. Last summer, Aimee Todoroff and I finally got around to having dinner with him out there. Aimee is the Artistic Director of Elephant Run District (and my partner in life and art). Martin is known as the guy who ran nytheatre.com, a site brimming with reviews, podcasts, and blog posts, with a special focus on the often-marginalized NYC artists who create Off Off Broadway and indie theater. In addition to writing and editing thousands of reviews, he has published over 1300 plays on the site Indie Theater Now. Over dinner, Martin regaled us with tales about his early days covering the first FringeNYC in 1997 and other tidbits I did not know about him, even though I’d been doing theater in the city for fifteen years. Because he has given so much over the last two decades, I thought it was a travesty that more people don’t know his story. I immediately slapped the table and said I’d write a play about him that we would put up this summer. Here is part of a conversation I had with Martin about the process of creating this play.
Chris Harcum (Rail): Hello Martin. Thanks for chatting with me about the play I wrote about your life and work titled Martin Denton, Martin Denton. Has the process of reflection that developed from its creation impacted how you’re going about the projects you’re doing now?
Martin Denton: The main thing is that it made me look seriously and attentively at what I’ve been doing over these two decades. Our initial interview sessions last summer and fall not only led to you writing this play, but also inspired me to focus on creating the nytheater indie archive at nytheatre.com. And then building the archive made me want to write myself about that period, to investigate and to provide context for what we did at nytheatre.com over those years—which I am beginning to do in my newest project, mdd speaks (mddspeaks.wordpress.com).
Rail: I’m so glad you’ve built that archive. It’s important to have a record of indie theater from the last twenty years. How has having a play made about your life changed how you look at what you accomplished during that time?
Denton: Doing all of this archiving, writing, and thinking over the past few months, I have been essentially re-living twenty years of my life on a daily basis. And reading and re-reading and discussing drafts of Martin Denton, Martin Denton with you and Aimee has made me look at those same twenty years from your perspective, someone looking at all of this from outside. A very interesting and complicated dynamic!
I imagine the dynamic for you has been unusual as well. I can’t imagine that you’ve ever written a play about a person you know (who is also a theater critic) and had them read drafts of the piece while it’s in progress. What’s that experience been like for you as a playwright?
Rail: After our interview sessions, there were over 400 pages of transcriptions to process and sort. Early on, I thought I would simply cut and rearrange them, but that didn’t really get to the sweep of your story. So this became more of a journalism exercise where other research, conversations with people over the years, and my own experiences were included in this theatrical text. It saved a ton of time and helped improve the script to have you review it.
For those who might not know, you wrote and edited a combined total of over 10,000 reviews, published tons of plays, and posted thousands of blog pieces and hundreds of podcasts. That’s a massive output! I heard about a man who read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and said he would get these flashes of information at random times from it. Do you ever get unexpected memories of the thousands of shows you've seen?
Denton: I find I get those flashes mostly aurally: if someone says a particular phrase, I’ll latch onto an image from a play or song that’s usually only superficially related to what triggered the image. So if you said something to me about buying Aimee some flowers for her birthday, I might flash onto Amanda’s lines about the summer she was crazy for jonquils (from The Glass Menagerie). Luckily, I don’t tend to do that sort of thing when I am watching a play—it happens weirdly and randomly in conversation, though.
Rail: I do the same thing where hearing a phrase transports me. Speaking of randomness from conversations, the idea of making this play happened when we had dinner last summer and you told me some stories that gave me a little window into your life. I realized I didn't know a lot about who you were before you became the godfather of NYC indie theater.
Denton: Now that you have had a chance to dig into my life a bit, I am wondering what were some of the discoveries you made about me that surprised you, given what you already knew about me before you began this project?
Rail: Well, I had a vague idea of you having a previous life as an accountant. But I had no idea how you came to New York and became a reviewer. For all I knew, a mad scientist in the basement of La MaMa morphed you using a secret formula.
I appreciate you entrusting me to tell the version of your life's story that I created. It’s very brave of you. I hope in some way this inspires people to do more in their art and for others in the world, as you have inspired that in me.
Tell me a little about what you experienced in reading the drafts of the play and what you think you might experience while seeing it with an audience. Do you think it will be like watching a play with imaginary characters or a surreal dream? Another way to ask this is: do you experience this more as a reviewer, publisher, editor, or as a person?
Denton: Until this moment, I had not really thought at all about what it will be like to see MD, MD from the audience. I expect that I will be very conscious of everyone else in the room, which is not usually the case when I see a show. Actually what jazzes me most about the play is that I’ll be seeing a whole bunch of folks that I haven’t seen in quite a while. I’m looking forward to that.
It has been surreal reading the play, because each time I read it as Me (i.e., the subject of the piece), I run through this whole gamut of emotions and reactions that are nonetheless always undercut by a general feeling of mild embarrassment at being the subject of a play in the first place. And at the same time, I read it as a theater reviewer and play editor (which I love that you define in your question as being not a person), which after all has been my vocation for nearly twenty years. As such I am conscious of the artistry of the writing—because you are a very literary, smart writer—and also of stuff that I imagine I might do differently if it were my play. And because I have learned to be a mindful reviewer after all these years, there’s a third impulse in this tug of war, which is to let your play be what it wants to be, not what I want it to be either as subject or reviewer or editor.
Rail: Have you ever wanted to write a play yourself? About your life or something else?
Denton: I think when I was a kid I imagined I wanted to. By the time I was in college I realized that I was rotten at it. And now that I know hundreds of amazingly talented playwrights, I see absolutely no reason to attempt it.
I do get ideas all the time that I think would make good plays, though. I have been thinking for a while about running a contest for Indie Theater Now playwrights, asking them to write a short play imagining an interaction between two minor characters from two different famous plays that would be unexpected and provocative. Like, what if Ngana from South Pacific became a mentor to Alexi Darling from Rent sometime in the 1980s (when Ngana would have been middle-aged and Alexi just starting out)? Or if Winthrop from The Music Man turned up (as a man in his sixties) at one of the birthday parties in Company?
The obvious question I have for you along these lines is this: you have written and will be portraying a version of someone that many (if not most) of the people in your audience will know pretty well, and have many ideas about. What have you been doing to prepare for that? And what have people been telling you about me, as the subject of your play, as you’ve done your research and preparation?
Rail: First, everyone asks if I’m playing you. Then they say they can’t wait to see it. In terms of performing, I have a ton of text, which is its own Mount Everest and takes most of my attention. I do want to create a three-dimensional character, so it won’t simply be a comedic impression of you.
I’m having a great time rehearsing with Marisol Rosa-Shapiro, who is the other performer in this, and Aimee Todoroff, who is directing this. Working with them takes a lot of pressure off because they are both legitimately excellent at what they do. Marisol is an incredible clown, who cracks me up a lot in rehearsal. This is my sixth time working with Aimee in the type of collaboration where I’m the writer and performer and she’s the director. Working with her in this way—she’s also my wife—is my version of living my dream.
I do feel a great deal of responsibility with this project. I know there’ll be a bunch of playwrights, directors, producers, performers, and other theater creatures in the audience who will have their versions of your story based on their experiences. But they can always make their own plays about you if they want. It could be like Batman or Spider-Man, where every few summers a reboot of your origin myth is made with a different actor.
Denton: I totally love that idea, and at the same time I don’t think I can go through this process again. I think that fictional characters definitely have an easier time at this sort of thing.
Rail: Some people have jokingly asked if you will review this show and, of course, that would be...well, I was going to say weird, but why not? You write a review, and I will review that review. What do you say?
Denton: No! The absolute best part of being a former theater reviewer is that I don’t have to think about writing about the shows I see anymore. I have loved what I’ve done in my life, but I am loving what I am doing now, which is figuring out how to make this archive come alive and be valuable and inspiring to people today. I am writing, and I am also learning about new technologies like machine learning and natural language processing, which I hope will add a new layer of interest to what I do and to what people find in the archive.
Rail: That’s so exciting. I can’t wait.
Denton: Thanks, Chris, for making all of this happen. It has been awesome.
Rail: Thank you, Martin. You’ve done so much for so many.