Theatre yesterday and today



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Now more than ever, young actors are devoting their college training exclusively to theatre at schools across the country in order to best prepare for professional careers upon graduation. Certainly there are still parents who are distressed by the notion of paying for an education that results in a BFA, rather than a BA or BS, but it's been my personal observation that the stigma once attached to all that has faded considerably over the last two decades. Many theatre schools of note have grown in stature and reputation with the turning out of future stars. Open any given Playbill at the next Broadway musical you see and count in the bios the number who have attended or graduated from Julliard, NYU's Tisch School or other specialty programs. It's astounding.

Over the past month, it's been my pleasure to be working on a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in Plymouth, MA, with nearly two dozen students, either still in school or recently graduated from programs that criss-cross the nation: Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Cincinnatti, Ithaca, Boston and both Staten (and Long) Island. When I first began the audition process for Forum back in February, though pleased with the overall talent I was seeing, I was also struck by the number of students that came in the exact same shape and size. Forum calls for the casting of a male and female ingenue, then the rest are character roles for comedians. The current obsession in America for getting in shape, left me shy of enough young people possessed of the ability to get into character. By that I mean, after a few hours I decried: "Where are the next Nathan Lanes and Christine Baranskis?"

Perhaps I should limit these observations to actors specializing in musical theatre. It would be my hope that a school like Julliard doesn't discriminate against actors who don't conform to standard waist measurements. After all, who else would you have in an acting company to essay roles in Shakespeare and other classical styles that require outsized performances? And I mean that in both senses of the word.

I think of someone like Margo Martindale, who was already a full-fledged character actress when she began her professional career in her early twenties after college. I'm sure there was a part of her that was annoyed when certain directors showed little interest "coloring outside the lines" to cast her as an ingenue in say Romeo and Juliet. Would you care to bet that she played Juliet's Nurse (as opposed to Juliet) at least once in her long and distinguished career, and probably long before she was thirty? When she first came to New York, I saw her in a play direct from the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky. It was Jane Martin's Talking With, a series of 11 monologues for actresses, and she played a character called "Rodeo." I can recall her costume (lasso and all) in a flash. I was mighty impressed by the then twenty-nine-year-old, who appeared ageless to me.

Just a guess, but I'll bet this headshot of Margo Martindale

was taken when she wasn't much older than the age of thirty or so.

Citing Margo Martindale as a premiere character actress isn't one I picked out of the clear blue sky, but with a nod towards an inside joke of how the industry both treats and respects her. In on the joke herself, she is currently voicing a character on the Netflix animated series, BoJack Horseman. It tells the improbable tale of a horse, once the star of his own TV series, who is now on the outs—put to pasture by an industry that once adored him. The character Martindale voices is referred to by BoJack (and everyone else) only as "Character Actress Margo Martindale."

The cartoon Martindale in BoJack Horseman (2015)

Now past sixty, Martindale cannot stop working. She's everywhere on film and television (which is wonderful), except it has left little time for stage work. Her last Broadway appearance was as Big Mama in the 2003 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I was transfixed by her performance in this role. The intelligence and anger she brought to the complicated relationship with her husband Big Daddy (played by a powerful Ned Beatty), in addition to the love and affection she showed him, was exceptional. And calling it her "last" appearance is slightly deceiving as it was also her first—if that can be believed. Yes, Cat was her Broadway debut (at age forty-eight).

But being a late bloomer is nothing new to Martindale. She made her film debut in 1990 (having first begun working on the stage in the early eighties). And now with two Emmy Awards in the last five years, one for the backwoods drug dealing Mags Bennett on Justified, and one for Claudia, the tough-as-nails Russian spy on The Americans (both on FX), she is more in demand than ever. And it couldn't happen to a harder working or nicer person in the business. I spent a memorable evening one night with her at Joe Allen, everyone's favorite theatre restaurant. We shared the same agent, who introduced us, and I confess to falling a bit in love with her.

So cheers to character actors everywhere, especially to the young Margo Martindales out there. And if any of you are reading this, please come and audition for whatever show I may direct next.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.