Interview: Theatre Life with Jonathan David Martin

By: Feb. 06, 2019
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Today's subject, Jonathan David Martin, came to Washington, DC after accepting a job as Associate Producer of Theater J, but he is currently living his theatre life back onstage in The Heiress at Arena Stage in the role of Morris Townsend This production, which marks his Arena Stage debut, begins performances on February 8th. It plays through March 10th in Arena's Fitchandler Stage space.

Jonathan was part of the original Broadway cast of War Horse at Lincoln Center Theater. His Off-Broadway credits include productions at the National Black Theatre, 59E59 Theaters, and Bushwick Starr. His regional work includes productions at Theater Alliance, Two River Theater, Portland Center Stage, Shakespeare Santa Monica, Seattle Children's Theatre, Empty Space Theatre, NMA Physical Theatre Ensemble, and Washington Ensemble Theater, where he was a founding co-artistic director.

He is also the co-artistic director of NYC-based Smoke & Mirrors Collaborative whose original works include Olityelwe (59E59 Theaters, UK and South Africa tours), Point of Departure, Head in the Sand, The Alien Nation, #HashtagProject and Tangible Hope Project, a documentary series highlighting community change-makers across America. Living here is keeping a company going in New York is what I call one heck of a telecommuting gig.

Jonathan recently directed A Charlie Brown Christmas and Peter and the Starcatcher for Redhouse Arts Center in Syracuse, NY. The latter was for their Summer Theatrical Institute division. You might have also seen him on television in Unforgettable and Believe.

Jonathan was an Annenberg Fellow for the Arts and holds an MFA from New York University's (NYU) Graduate Acting program.

As you will read, Jonathan David Martin wears many hats in the theatrical world. It is rare that an artist can be present on both sides of the footlights and do both kinds of jobs equally well. When you go to see The Heiress at Arena Stage you will undoubtedly notice how strong of an actor Jonathan is. Speaking as someone who worked with Jonathan on the managerial side of things, I can personally attest to how well he did his job at Theater J. In fact, one night during our production of Broken Glass, both of Jonathan's worlds collided when he had to go on for one of the actors who got stuck getting back from Chicago. He only had a few hours rehearsal, but you wouldn't have known it.

That story provides you with just one example of what a master of the craft Jonathan David Martin is - but don't take my word for it. See for yourself by purchasing tickets to The Heiress at Arena Stage.

Interview: Theatre Life with Jonathan David Martin
An early career pic of Jonathan David Martin in the 2008 New York University Graduate Acting Program production of Hobson's Choice.
Photo by Ella Bromlin.

Growing up, would you say you were a theatre kid?

By the time I finished high school, definitely. I grew up with a couple of older cousins who were very active in their high school theater program and I absolutely idolized them; but until I became a teenager, I was much more serious about music and sports. Actually, my first paying job at age 15 was playing trumpet in the pit orchestra for a season at Western Stage Theater near where I lived in Salinas, CA.

Where did you go to school for your theatrical training?

I trained as an undergrad at the University of Washington along with some time training at the Moscow Art Theater School in Russia. I received my MFA from NYU's Graduate Acting Program.

Interview: Theatre Life with Jonathan David Martin
Jonathan David Martin and Laura C. Harris in a pre-production photo for Arena Stage's production of The Heiress. Photo by Tony Powell.

Can you please tell us a little something about The Heiress and your character in the show?

The Heiress is a thriller of the heart. Like any good thriller it keeps the audience in suspense and asking questions about what is true and right and where the characters will end up until the last possible second. Catherine, the young woman at the center of the play, is the story's beating heart. I portray Morris Townsend, an ardent young suitor to Catherine. Morris is a perfect catch in every way...except for his poor station in life and her rich future fortune.

What makes The Heiress relevant to today's audiences 72 years after its premiere?

I think that the struggle of someone, especially a young woman, in a society defined and dominated by men, is incredibly, achingly relevant. It feels like we're at a moment culturally where many women are speaking their truth and taking space in ways that are reflected really poignantly and personally in the play.

Interview: Theatre Life with Jonathan David Martin
Jonathan David Martin as one of the puppeteers in War Horse at Lincoln Center Theatre. Photo by Paul Kolnik

You were part the original Broadway company of War Horse at Lincoln Center. What are some of your fondest memories of putting that show together and just working on it in general?

I could write a book about my experience as a puppeteer and actor on War Horse so it's a challenge to pick out just a few from that unique and extraordinary process. That said, one that comes to mind is the first day of rehearsal when the directors, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, made sure that we knew as a cast they were interested in creating the Lincoln Center production with us, rather than just plugging us in to the version they had created in London. They were still curious about finding new ways of telling the story of the play and they invited us to be collaborators with them. Many of my fondest memories were tiny moments onstage as a puppeteer in the horse when I felt I could read the thoughts of my two co-puppeteers before they even knew they had them. It is what I imagine being part of a world-class jazz trio would be like: each night the set of songs might be the same, but each of our solos are a little different night to night and we play so tightly together it is as if we are one instrument creating the music.

You came to DC as the Associate Producer of Theater J. When you took that position, did you think that you wouldn't perform anymore, or was it an "I'm sure I'll come back to it someday" type of deal?

Neither, actually. I've spent my career in the theater wearing multiple hats, working as a producer, performer, director, writer, dramaturg, and technician. I'm usually happiest when I'm working on multiple projects at once. While I was in my first year on War Horse, I used my one week of vacation to create, direct, and produce Point of Departure, the first show of my company Smoke & Mirrors Collaborative. Coming to Theater J, I had this amazing opportunity to work closely with the Artistic Director, Adam Immerwahr, and to be part of a company that is really committed to serving its community. I knew that in a way, it would be like War Horse for me: a full-time job that was wonderfully challenging and would inspire my own work outside of it at the same time.

You recently completed The Tangible Hope Project which took you all across the country. Can you please tell us about it?

Tangible Hope Project will be a documentary series about individuals and organizations across the country that are making the communities around them a better place to live. I traveled 5,000 miles across the United States interviewing people I met in bowling alleys, church parking lots, and graffiti parks (among other places), and with grassroots organizations that embody a spirit of innovative, positive change. I was inspired by a desire to bring attention to stories about ways that people are working to create the world that they would like to live in. One that is not defined by, and in reaction to, the headline-grabbing political and cultural flashpoints that seem to consume most of our collective attention. The series is still in post-production, but if readers are curious to learn more, they can check it out by clicking here.

After The Heiress closes, what does the rest of 2019 hold in store for you?

I start rehearsals in March for another show in DC (to be announced soon!) and go right from that to portraying the writer Isaac Babel in Woolly Mammoth's production of Describe the Night. Along with Tangible Hope Project, I'm at work creating a couple of multi-media infused plays , getting up to speed on my new position as Director of New Works Development with LA-based Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble, preparing for Smoke & Mirrors Collaborative's next play in New York City, Black History Museum According to the United States of America, teaching, and (hopefully) some more appearances on DC stages in the fall and winter of 2019.

Special thanks to Arena Stage's Media Relations Associate Skye Lindberg for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.


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