At the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) Marty Martin lectures in a theatrical way, with accents and gesticulations. He is the thespian turned professor that speaks about Tennessee Williams and then spontaneously exclaims “David-fucking-Mamet” with an arm up in mid-monologue.
The Plaza Theater is iconic for El Paso and has been the focal point for so many. However it is Martin that El Pasoans should think of when they picture theatre and playwriting. He is the writer that has had plays produced on stages across the country, even making it off Broadway.
Martin’s love for theater was natural. The playhouses and the traveling shows ignited the passion that he says was there from the beginning. He attended shows at the El Paso Playhouse, when it was still named the Festival Theater, and Liberty Hall, which used to be where the jailhouse is now.
“My father was born in a doctor’s office downtown in 1922 that became El Paso’s only community theater at one point. My father was a student at UTEP and he starred in Arsenic and Old Lace, before Cary Grant did.”
He started writing when he was ten years old, “touring” his plays around the classrooms of Wainwright Elementary School that use to be in Northeast El Paso. It was at Wainwright that Martin began seeing traveling shows.
He recounted, “I would go backstage and introduce myself to the stars and when I was a teenager I met an actress who remained pen pals with me and years later she had fallen and injured herself and had gained a lot weight and had contacted me and asked me if I would write a play for a woman of her size and I did and it was presented in New York and it was considered by America’s chief drama critic Walter Kerr as one of the ten greatest theatrical events of his life time. So that led to a career writing plays. ”
His mentor was the legendary playwright, Robert Bolt, who wrote some of the most critically acclaimed plays to date. Many of them have been adapted to film and won Academy Awards, for instance the play A Man for All Seasons, which Martin has taught in his class.
It was because of Bolt that Martin found so much inspiration for his plays. “he kind of trained me to take his place which I haven’t quite managed to do but he was very interested in historical dramas so I wrote a lot of historical dramas.”
Indeed his plays were historical dramas. His most famous work which even won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album in 1981 was based on Gertrude Stein, titled Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein. “At its time it was the longest running one person show in the history of the American theater, and it toured every college campus after it played off Broadway for a few years,” said Martin.
Another play based on a historical character was I Don’t Want to Be Zelda Anymore, based on the wife of famous writer and Stein’s fellow expat, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Martin told, “there had never been a play about Zelda in New York City, until that summer. And three plays opened simultaneously that week within a few days of each other Tennessee Williams’ Clothes for a Summer Hotel, and Williams Luce’s Zelda, and my, I Don’t Wanna Be Zelda Anymore, and the critics kinda favored mine over the other two and it ended any possibility of my getting to be friends with Tennessee.”
What Robert Bolt did for him, he now does for so many students at UTEP. He inspires young writers to be bold in their playwriting.
– By Antonio Villaseñor-Baca