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Interview: Playwright Martin Casella and BLACK TOM ISLAND at Premiere Stages

By: Oct. 03, 2018
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Interview: Playwright Martin Casella and BLACK TOM ISLAND at Premiere Stages  Image

Premiere Stages at Kean University will present Martin Casella's Black Tom Island from October 11 to October 21 at the 1882 Carriage House, Liberty Hall Museum. Based on an actual incident that took place in Jersey City in 1916, the play explores the first documented terrorist attack on American soil through the lens of a fictionalized Slovak immigrant and his wife who may or may not be involved in the attack. Directed by John J. Wooten, Black Tom Island features actors Damian Buzzerio, Mason Hensley, Jenna Krasowski and Bart Shatto.

Martin Casella's plays and musicals have been seen across the U.S. and the world: THE REPORT, The Irish Curse, Directions for Restoring the Apparently Dead, Scituate, Mates, Paydirt, Desert Fire, Beautiful Dreamer, Grand Junction, George Bush Goes to Hell. Play It Cool, Paper Moon, Happy Holidays, Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll, Saint Heaven, DOO-DAH! For film and television, he has written for Steven Spielberg, Lasse Hallstrom, Kerry Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Disney, Universal, Warner Brothers, ABC, CBS, and HBO. Awards/Nominations: two Outstanding Playwriting Awards, FRINGENYC; Drama-Logue and L.A Weekly Best New Play Awards; Great Gay Play Award, Pride Films and Plays; Best New Off-Broadway Musical nomination, New York Outer Critics Circle; two GLAAD nominations, Best New Play and Best Off-Broadway Musical; Oscar Wilde Best New Play nomination, Dublin Theatre Festival; Liberty Live Commission Winner, 2016-2018. Currently working on two animated British films (The Land of Sometimes and A Christmas Twist), two TV pilots (The Austin Chronicles and Resistance), two new musicals (Mary Modern and POPSTAR) and a new play (Miss Maude). As an actor: Poltergeist, RoboCop 2, Six Weeks, Amazon Women On The Moon. Graduate of Cal Arts. WGA, SAG/AFTRA, The Dramatists Guild. had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Casella about his career and Black Tom Island at Premiere Stages.

When did you first realize your penchant for writing?

I was a precocious teenager: I read everything I could find by Eugene O'Neill and D.H. Lawrence. Then, when I was in high school, I was obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald, his life, and THE GREAT GATSBY. So I wrote a full-length play about Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, and their life together, all told through scenes where they interacted with various other famous people from the 1920's and '30's. It began as a swoony love story, and descended into a tale of anger and madness. I found that I loved writing plays.

Tell us a little about your education.

I was so lucky when I was in junior high and high school in Los Angeles. My two theater teachers were incredible. They pushed me to keep writing, and acting. Particularly writing. (My teachers' names were Debra Livingstone and Enrique Duran; I idolized both of them.) For college, I attend the California Institute of the Arts. (Cal Arts). I had terrific teachers there, too, both for writing and acting. Much of what I learned about writing was from a graduate student at Cal Arts; his name is Michael Lassell and he basically taught me everything I know. He lives over in Manhattan and 40 years later, we are still friends. My other education came after I graduated from college. I spent three years working in Hollywood with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Robert Zeckemis and Bob Gale. Being around these giants and geniuses taught me so much about construction and character development, whether for theater or films. Finally, I spent a year in the 1990's working with film director Herbert Ross on a screenplay of mine he was meant to direct. It was a year-long master class in writing.

How does teaching complement your work as a writer?

I learned so much from the writing students I worked with over the years, especially the kids at the Harvey Milk High School in Manhattan. These are kids who are LGBTQ and At Risk. They have seen and heard and experienced everything. They taught me how to break rules, be fearless and not be afraid to put anything on paper. Teenagers don't believe in rules; they believe in being and saying whatever you want. Teaching them made me a better writer.

What have been some of the challenges of your career?

I think the biggest challenges in my career have to do with projects that are - for the lack of a better word, and forgive me for using it - stillborn. Whether it's a play, musical, film, or television script. You put your heart and years of your life into a project, and get so damn close to achieving your wildest and dearest dream, and then... bang. The giant musical you write with Tony-award winner actors closes out of town. (Tick that box off.) The film script that has an Academy-award nominated director and an EGOT-award winning actor attached to it and eight million dollars raised for the budget and then... bang. Your star decides she wants to do a daily TV show instead. (Tick off that box.) Or the play you spent five years getting written has the underlying rights pulled because the original author loses his mind and says he wants to write the play himself. (Been there.) Those kind of huge, crushing disappointments have been extremely hard to live through and process. So you take a few months off, and then open up your laptop and dive right in again. You learn to work as hard as you can to stay positive and optimistic and excited about the next play.

Tell us a little about your inspiration for writing "Black Tom Island."

The Catholic Church I attend in Jersey City (where I live) has a beautiful baptismal fount at the front of the church. There is Polish writing on it, since the church's first congregation was Polish immigrants. I asked about it, and a priest explained what it meant. He also showed me a set of stained glass windows that had a dedication in Polish: "In memory of those who died in the 1916 explosion." The priest didn't know what that meant, so I went home and looked it up. Then I promptly fell down the Black Tom Island explosion rabbit hole. I couldn't stop reading about it. Everything about the story was thrilling, mysterious and fascinating: recent immigrants who had been treated badly in Jersey City, evil German spies, The Great War, and the largest mad-made explosion in the history of the world (up until the bombing of Hiroshima.) I was hooked. Two weeks later my agent told me about the Liberty Live commission, which involves dramatizing an important, but unknown story in New Jersey history. It was such a perfect fit that I immediately applied for the commission. And I got it!

We'd love to know about your experience working with Premiere Stages.

I loved the folks at Premiere Stages from the moment I walked into their offices for the first meeting, when I was a finalist for the commission. They are smart, caring, funny, charming, dedicated, and unbelievably professional. Every single person who works there is just great at their job. Since John Wooten (the artistic director, and the director of Black Tom Island) is also a writer, he treats writers with such respect. He and his staff include me in everything. My Dropbox is full of costume designs, set designs, make-up designs! I've worked at big regional theaters where I never saw a set design until it was already built in the shop! Premiere Stages is like a home away from home for me. It's been a soul-satisfying experience, and I'm going to miss everyone after Black Tom Island closes.

What would you like metro area audiences to know about the show?

When I pitched the idea of Black Tom Island to John and the gang at Premiere Stages, I emphasized the thriller aspects of the story. I compared it to the classic play and film GASLIGHT, where a woman begins to believe she is either mad, or being driven mad. But the show is a mystery, too: who caused a horrific explosion in New York Harbor in the middle of a sweltering July night? I also loved that Black Tom Island's back story is about ugly animosity toward immigrants, a foreign country manipulating the government of the United States, and terrorism on our homeland. So it's unbelievably current and topical. But since it's set in 1916, there is a distance for the audience, so they can sit back and think, "Wow! This happened over a 100 years ago... and it feels like right now!" Long ago history is suddenly very alive. As the French say, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

We know you have some exciting projects in the works. Would you like to share a little about them with our readers?

I've just written two animated feature films for a company in the U.K. One of them is about to go into production, with vocal work by Ewan McGregor, Helen Bonham-Carter, and Shirley Henderson. I'm also writing the book for musical called MARY MODERN; it's an adaptation of a wonderful novel about cloning, and whether it's possible to recreate a love from the past. My latest play is called MISS MAUDE; it's the true story of how Life Magazine photographer Eugene Smith met a backwoods midwife named Maude Callen in South Carolina in 1953, and ended up making her one of the first heroic black woman to have a photo spread in a national magazine. Finally, an up-and-coming director in LA wants to make a film from my play THE IRISH CURSE. I just started writing the script!

Anything else, absolutely anything you want BWW readers to know.

To quote Winston Churchill. "Never never never give up." For most of my career, I haven't been the guy who got commissions or grants or things like that. I just wrote plays and worked on getting them produced. The only other commission I got was in 1995 for The Pasadena Playhouse. But two years ago, when my agent called me about the Premiere Stages Liberty Live commission, I thought what the heck! Just give it a shot. I did and they selected me. So, if you're a writer, keep writing. Keep sending your plays out and submitting them for festivals and commissions. Keep self-producing if you have to. Follow through with all possibilities. I sent my play THE IRISH CURSE to about thirty theaters - every single one of them turned it down. Finally, some friends and I produced it at FRINGENYC in 2005. It got great reviews, sold out, won the Outstanding Playwriting Award, was optioned for off-Broadway and done there in 2010, was published by Samuel French, has had productions all over the world, and now someone wants to film it. Never, never, never, give up!

Black Tom Island runs Thursday, October 11-Sunday, October 21 at various times. Tickets are $30 standard, $20 for senior citizens and Kean alumni and staff, and $15 for students and patrons with disabilities. Significant discounts for groups of 8 or more apply. To purchase, please call the box office at 908-737-7469 or visit Premiere Stages online at

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Martin Casella


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