Interview

The Curtain Never Falls for Nicky Martin

By BILL GALE

Nicky8tn1The question of second acts in American lives is often debated and sometimes mocked. But Nicky Martin, who has enlivened Boston’s arts scene since arriving at the Huntington Theater two years ago, goes well beyond any the question.

 

At, 63, this small, jolly, exuberant man has had at least three acts and is looking for more, thank you very much.

Over lunch at his favorite Asian fusion restaurant next door to the theater (“Just tell them `Mr. Nicky’s table,’ ” he says), Martin, dressed all in black, outlines his life and career. Born Joel Levinson in Brooklyn, he burned to be not just an actor, but a star. “Then it dawned that I was a short, fat, Jewish homosexual,” he says, laughing and waving his chopsticks through the air.

Other difficulties included a “serious” drinking problem conquered years ago and, around the age of 40, a series of deaths of those close to him, including his father in an auto accident. Martin countered all this by seeing the bright side, he says. “The trick is to have the grief without letting it overwhelm you. Look for the light, rather than the dark.” He also sequed into direction, eventually becoming associate artistic director at Playwrights Horizons in New York.

In Boston, he has brought on such major winners as a bright and insightful “Hedda Gabler” with Kate Burton that moved on to Broadway success and the poetic Frank McGuinness drama “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.” It’s quite a  splashy start, especially for a man of a certain age.

“You can change your life after 60, and for the better,” Martin says. “I am proud of that, and if that sounds egotistical, so be it.”

Martin was hired to shake up the Huntington, which had gained a somewhat stodgy image in the Hub. With a wry smile he says they hired him to “snazz” the place up. “I have little patience with lofty and attitudinizing theater people,” he adds. “But my love and devotion to the theater runs very deep, most particularly to the classics. You want my credo? It’s to take the mumbo jumbo out of the theater while retaining its magic.”

Few, if any, artistic directors of major theaters have had Martin’s experience as an actor, and I asked him how that affected his direction. Over a post-lunch cup of Cuban coffee (we told you this was a fusion restaurant), he replied that “After you have mastered the technical essentials (of directing), the most important thing a director can bring to a play is an attitude of nurturing to the actor, so he can do his best work. It’s a foolish director who treats actors as items of furniture, or fools.”

That is a position most any actor would die for, and Martin goes on to volunteer his advice to young performers everywhere: “Try not to give up,” he says simply.

Certainly he hasn’t, and he says he loves Boston although “I’d like to see a little more corporate money here. I mean, we’re used to it in New York. But still, let me tell you that Boston audiences are superb and so smart, no matter how dodgy they are rumored to be. They really come to see a play. It’s not a social event like New York. And they have a very high appreciation of humor.”

And Nicky Martin, off on a new success in his mid 60s, ends with just the right note for a town known to have an inferiority complex in at least one area. Riding roughshod over the Curse of the Bambino, he says, “I’m having a love affair with Boston. I even love the Red Sox.”

Bob Woodruff and A.R.T. – Ulimited Possibilities

By BILL GALE

If a resident theater artistic director can be called legendary, a prime candidate is Robert Brustein of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. Moving from Yale in 1980, the writer-critic-director has taken the Harvard-based A.R.T. to the top rank of American theaters.

And, of course, that could mean that anyone following Brustein might just have a tough way to go. Succeeding a legend has become a legendary problem, and not just in the theater.

--Cambridge - 5/23/01 - 1 Robert Woodruff, Artistic Director of The American Repertory Theatre to take effect in August of 2002. Digital image, Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office

“Daunting?” says Robert Woodruff leaning forward in his  tiny-but-temporary corner of an office at the A.R.T. a block or so from Harvard Square. “Yeah. But life is daunting.”

Wearing his usual all-black outfit of T-shirt and jeans, he pauses a second, before adding, “But you know, you just go. It makes you bigger.”

And why would Woodruff not take that attitude? His trim frame and black pony tail make him look 8 to 10 years younger than his age of 55 and in the past 30 years he has developed a reputation as probably the foremost experiemntal director in the American theater. From early days in San Francisco when his blistering productions of Sam Shepard world premieres (“Buried Child,” “True West”) helped to make his name, he became a pre-eminent director, the guy you brought in when you wanted a new take, a different and probably far-out production.

All over the United States, in fact, there are people who remember Woodruff productions, with good or ill will. In Providence, people still talk of the angry, sex-infused “Baal,” the early Bertoldt Brecht work, Woodruff did at Trinity Rep a dozen years ago. His breadth (and connections) can be seen in the lineup he has planned for A.R.T. next season. Internationally-known artists such as Peter Sellars, Anne Bogart and Philip Glass will be working in Cambridge. They are, after all, “some of my best friends,” Woodruff says.

Born in Brooklyn, and raised on Long Island in a family where going to the theater was part of the “suburban, Jewish culture,” Woodruff first glimpst his future on Broadway, a place that seems foreign to him now. “I don’t do entertainment,” he says. “Art seems extremely entertaining to me.”

After college he became a school teacher in New York’s Washington Heights and Harlem, mostly to avoid the Vietnam-era draft. “But what an education that turned out to be,” he says. After three years, he treked across the country, landing in San Francisco where he gained a master’s degree in theater, fell in with Shepard and director Joe Chaikin (“My tutors”) and lead the founding of the seminal Eureka Theatre.

From there, Woodward became the ultimate peripatetic artist,. From Greenwich Village, where he still lives, he went around the nation to wherever the work looked good. “You need survival skills to be an artist in this country,” he says. “I hustled my ass off. And I never thought about the next day. I never looked down the road. Never.”

Well, he has got to now. Running a big theatrical organization is hardly easy, especially if you have had no experience doing so. Asked how a captain of intinerancy such as himself will handle all the day-to-day chores, Woodruff talks of cooperating with A.R.T.’s longtime managing director Robert Orchard, 55, and with newly appointed associate artistic direcor Gideon Lester, who is just 29. “There’s a partnership in the building,” he says. “A chance to shape a society that’s open.”

His shaping of A.R.T.’s artistic future includes more music-driven plays and works put forth by “artists with a dream,” some from “outside the scope of the current company. ” Where Bob (Brustein) might start with a play,” he says, ” I might start with an artist with a need to create something. The engine is a singular vision. I know that I want it ‘live.’ The possibilities of what we can present seem limitless.”