So...in the odd world that is off-off-Broadway Theater in NYC - that has since been renamed Indie Theater in NYC (evolution of that term described in show - no spoilers!) - I am offered a chance to review a show in which I am named, because the person being portrayed is Martin Denton, who has been a remarkable champion of my work over the years (since 2000 when my first play was produced - and he gave it a favorable review and published it in his year-end anthology in 2001). Martin has championed many, many theater artists whom - before he came along and shone the spotlight on so many of us working in the literal and figurative fringes of the New York theater scene - were toiling in relative obscurity.
As we see in Martin Denton, Martin Denton, Martin changed this, because he became curious about how all this work was happening without much funding or even critical support. He had been a Broadway enthusiast, but got tickets to an off-off Broadway show in his early days of reviewing theater, and became entranced by what he saw.
This story - Martin's story - is told by Chris Harcum (as Martin) and Marisol Rosa Shapiro (as Rochelle - Martin's mother and partner in crime) and directed by Aimee Todoroff under the aegis of Elephant Run Productions, now showing at the Kraine Theater through the end of this week. The play is created primarily from verbatim transcripts from many hours of conversations Harcum had with Martin about the history of Martin's involvement with downtown theater, starting in the late 1990s and continuing to this day.
While the story is a treasure-trove of theater lore for many of us - especially those of us who worked in theater before Martin came along and then watched it flourish (in tandem with John Clancy and Elena Holy starting the NY International Fringe Festival in 1997, which also gave a focus to Martin's reviewing) - it is also importantly the story of how one person (and really two people, because Rochelle Denton not only accompanied Martin to many shows, but was also a key player in setting up his website and their non-profit, which is now a sustainable way to publish Indie Theater plays and archive all their thousands of reviews) - can affect so many others, and indeed help nourish a whole theatrical culture.
Because I was part of this scene - and sometimes periodically still am - writing about this show as a show is challenging - not because of any issues I have with it - I think everyone did a lovely job.I know the Dentons really well and they were in the audience the day I attended - so it was obvious I was not watching a re-enactment of living people (which Harcum makes clear at the beginning is not their intent - a wise choice). No, it's hard to write about because it is hard not to feel a little sad and wistful for a time gone by.
Martin and Rochelle now live in New Jersey, due in part to skyrocketing New York rents, and nytheatre.com (a review site) evolved into indietheaternow.com, which still published plays online but they no longer review shows. I now - coincidentally - am writing more prose and involved in theater less - and most of the folks I worked with originally are off doing other things in different cities - indeed I lived in the UK for eight years - so to watch this - especially the moving 9/11 sequence (not for the reasons you would expect - it's detailed and heartbreaking because the Dentons lived next to the towers and their recollections are about day to day things, which if you lived here resonate deeply) - in evoking a time I remember quite well also leads to memories of when a community came together that was also about to fall apart. There was grieving and togetherness but this was followed by many people drifting away or just moving away from a central location.
This was aided by relentless gentrification and dispersal - the same old NYC song - and where we are now.
But of course another person and people will come along and create new work from this impossible circumstance, like some of us did back in the day.
Elephant Run do a great service to not let this period of time go unmarked. Just as Martin began publishing our plays because he was afraid they would go unnoticed by history if he did not, Elephant Run has returned the favor, ensuring that when the history of this period of time in theater is written, the Dentons will be enshrined - as they should be - as witnesses in chief - giving attention to neglected venues and areas of the city, which enabled many artists to go on to thrive in larger and more sustainable ways.
There has been a lot of quibbling in reviews of this show (by critics of course) about Martin's theory of criticism - because he was as much an advocate for artists he championed as a critic, but since all critics have a patch and favorites and ideas about what kind of theater should be elevated, Martin wasn't doing anything different - with the invaluable exception that he took the risk of finding new work. He was not going to established venues and currying favor with trendy artists. He decided to have his own opinions and let you know about it - regardless of the 'currency' - literal and figurative - of any given theater production he witnessed.
When he brought new reviewers into nytheatre.com (which at the time was a novelty - now online reviews are everywhere - but the idea of an independent website for reviewing was quite new at that time), he asked them to do what he did: witness first, attempt to see what the artist is up to, and discuss that. This is what all truly great reviewers do - see which critics have any staying power as serious theater writers - look for the published books - you will see them all written by critics who do this. The 'rapier wit' put down is for mediocre souls and easily forgotten critics. No one cares in the end what one despises.
What we do care about - theater makers and audiences alike - is reading the words of someone who truly understands what they have beheld - who cares about theater - maybe even - you know - Likes theater and theater artists. Because then we can further enhance our own understanding and see more clearly. We may not like everything we see - Martin didn't like everything he saw - indeed he did not like everything I did (so in this case, I can use my closeness to this subject for good - proof that Martin didn't like everything!) - but he was never gratuitous about it.
Martin Denton, Martin Denton is an invaluable record of a time and a place and a person who helped shape that time and place.
Go see it if you can. Like all theater, it will end.
(Except as I think the show points out: The Lion King and The Wiz - which this is not.)
(And hot tip: buy your ticket at the box office to avoid the large fee for online purchase. You heard it here first! I didn't just come back from Scotland for nothing.)
Welcome to my blog..
"We struggle with dream figures and our blows fall on living faces." Maurice Merleau-Ponty
When I started this blog in 2011, I was in a time of transition in my life between many identities - that of Artistic Director of a company (Apocryphal Theatre) to independent writer/director/artist/teacher and also between family identity, as I discover a new family that my grandfather's name change at the request of his boss in WWII hid from view - a huge Hungarian-Slovak contingent I met in 2011. Please note in light of this the irony of the name of my recently-disbanded theatre company. This particular transition probably began in the one month period (Dec. 9, 2009-Jan. 7, 2010) in which I received a PhD, my 20 year old cat died on my father's birthday and then my father, who I barely knew, died too. I was with him when he died and nothing has been the same since. This blog is tracing the more conscious elements of this journey and attempt to fill in the blanks. I'm also writing a book about my grandmothers that features too. I'd be delighted if you joined me. (Please note if you are joining mid-route, that I assume knowledge of earlier posts in later posts, so it may be better to start at the beginning for the all singing, all dancing fun-fair ride.) In October 2011, I moved back NYC after living in London for 8 years and separated from my now ex-husband, which means unless you want your life upended entirely don't start a blog called Somewhere in Transition. In November 2011, I adopted a rescue cat named Ugo. He is lovely. As of January 2012, I began teaching an acting class at Hunter College, which is where one of my grandmothers received a scholarship to study acting, but her parents would not let her go. All things come round…I began to think it may be time to stop thinking of my life in transition when in June 2012 my stepfather Tom suddenly died. Now back in the U.S. for a bit, I notice, too, my writing is more overtly political, no longer concerned about being an expat opining about a country not my own. I moved to my own apartment in August 2012 and am a very happy resident of Inwood on the top tip of Manhattan where the skunks and the egrets roam in the last old growth forest on the island.
I am now transitioning into being married again with a new surname (Barclay-Morton). John is transitioning from Canada to NYC and as of June 2014 has a green card. So transition continues, but now from sad to happy, from loss to love...from a sense of alienation to a sense of being at home in the world.
As of September 2013 I started teaching writing (composition and rhetoric) as an adjunct professor at Fordham University, which I have discovered I love with an almost irrational passion. So blessed for the opportunity and hope to find a more permanent job doing same.
I worked full time on the book thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign in May 2014 and completed it at two residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Wisdom House in summer 2015. I have done some revisions and am shopping it around to agents and publishers now, along with having written a rough draft of a new book and some other projects.
Not sure when transition ends, if it ever does. As the saying goes, the only difference between a sad ending and a happy ending is where you stop rolling the film.
For professional information, publications, etc., go to my linked in profile and website for Barclay Morton Editorial & Design. My Twitter account is @wilhelminapitfa. You can find me on Facebook under my full name Julia Lee Barclay-Morton. More about my grandmothers' book: The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani
Recently, I started a website Our Grandmothers, Our Selves, which has stories about many people's grandmothers. Please check it out. I will be blogging there, too, now.