The devastating and untimely death of Lanford WilsonÂ last Thursday turned Center Theatre Group’s revival of hisÂ Burn This, at the Mark Taper Forum, into a de facto memorial for this extraordinary champion of the theater. Directing the production is Nicholas Martin, whose long stage career had often coincided with Wilson’s.
Though Wilson and Martin were never close friends, they enjoyed a collegial, professional relationship, Martin says. In the wake of Wilson’s death, Martin called him “one of the greatest 20th century playwrights, as eloquent and true in his depiction of 1980s New York as he was at home in the Midwest. He was an ideal collaborator and American poet. His works will endure forever.”
Martin had long wanted to direct a revival of Burn This, which had itsÂ premiere at the Taper in 1987. Its passionate intensity is in direct contrast to the playwright’s gently emotional Talley’s Folly, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980.
Burn This is anything but gentle. The title refers to the vivid experience of heartbreak. One character speaks of writing personal truths: “Make it as personal as you can. Believe me, you can’t imagine a feeling everyone hasn’t had. Make it personal, tell the truth and then write “˜burn this’ on the bottom.”
Martin chose to produceÂ Burn This at Boston’s Huntington Theatre, where he enjoyed a long stint as artistic director. Circumstances kept him from actually directing the production, but the play has haunted him since then.Â He explains, “This is unlike anything else Lanford wrote.Â Even as I watch it now ““ and I am very happy with what is going on ““ I think, “˜How did he get inside these people?’Â It is an absolute reflection of New York in the 1980s and even now.Â A really urban play.
“The problems in it are very real to me.Â The problems of creativity and sex and relationships are so well observed. He is an actors’ writer, no question about it.Â His plays are so scrupulous about making an ensemble.Â All the characters are experiencing a kind of loneliness that even they are unaware of.”
As for working with CTG at the Taper, Martin is extremely happy.Â “I love it. It is such a welcoming place.Â The staff is great.”Â He staged Dead End, which was artistic director Michael Ritchie’s first CTG production (at the Ahmanson) in 2005 and subsequently The House of Blue Leaves, which re-opened the newly renovated Taper in 2008.
“In many ways MichaelÂ is so realistic.Â It’s of its time.Â Gordon [Davidson, founding artistic director of the Taper and Ritchie's predecessor at CTG] was the exact person for his time,Â Michael is right for now.Â He can really balance art and commerce.”
Martin, 72,Â began his career as an actor and is proud to be thought of as an actors’ director. He clearly states his strength. “I’d hire me because I am so good with the actors. I think my rehearsals are the easiest, the most fun (though fun doesn’t always produce good work), the most relaxed.Â I have a theory that you must make the environment in the rehearsal room as free as possible, as long as you know about staging and have an imagination and know the technical aspects of lighting and all that…I do that well.Â I can work with stars and I can work with young actors.”
He has worked with both with enormous success since his early 40s, when he became an accidental director.Â He took a teaching job at Bennington College in Vermont, not quite knowing how he would teach. “My old friend Sandy Dennis said, “˜Oh if you teach, you’ll want to direct.’Â I had spent 20 years avoiding directing.Â But she was right.Â There was some chemical thing.Â I taught one class and I thought, “˜I have got to get these kids in a play.’Â I didn’t know what to teach.
“A friend said, do the Meisner method.Â This is when it was just sort of becoming popular.Â She was teaching that semester, so she said she would teach it to me and I could teach it to them.Â It was completely unorthodox and I never let the kids know I was learning right along with them; that was a thrilling way to do it. When I taught Meisner, I had a great deal of practical experience behind me.Â I thought this was the way to go.Â His theory was acting is not feeling and not expressing, or thinking; it is doing, the most valid to me of all notions.Â I think where Stella Adler and Sandy Meisner took Stanislavski ““Â not where Strasberg took him ““ was really healthy and a great way to teach people how to act, if they are any good at all.”
So he began directing college productions. He loved it and his plays were highly successful.Â He began teaching at universities around the country. Then his friend Victor Garber, with whom he had acted inÂ The Importance of Being Earnest (and recently directed in the Broadway revival of Present Laughter), began pressuring him to direct professional theater. “I was scared of all that.Â I told Victor, “˜No, I am happy. I act and I direct and love the kids, and I know I am a good teacher.’
“Then I got an offer from Playwrights Horizons to be associate artistic director and direct Sophistry by Jonathan Marc Sherman.Â A beautiful play. The first cast I had for my professional debut in New YorkÂ had Austin Pendleton, Ethan Hawke, Steve Zahn, Calista Flockhart and Anthony Rapp. That was a very exciting experience that kind of launched me.” His directing career took off, and he left college duties behind and even gave up acting. “I love directing; it is what I always should have done.Â It was so very exciting to discover it late.”
His career has been remarkably eclectic. He directs at almost every level of professional theater in New York and around the country. He has never been pigeonholed in one genre. He laughs, “I wish I had been pigeonholed with musicals like my friend Jack O’Brien. Then I’d have a lot of money.Â I have had the life I want to lead.Â Much is because I grew up in the repertory system, where I was exposed to all kinds of plays.Â That’s what I like to do and the reason I accepted the posts as artistic director of the Huntington Theatre Company and Williamstown [Theatre Festival, in northwestern Massachusetts -- Martin was one of the three artistic directors who succeeded Ritchie, after Ritchie left Williamstown for LA]. I could choose the plays I wanted, and I wanted to make them as varied as possible.”
After a mild stroke about two years ago, Martin determined he no longer had the strength to carry on administrative duties. He now gives all his energy to directing. “Directing has its own bad days, but it is in the service of something.” That service is keeping theater alive and fresh.
His one great concern about his beloved art form is “Pretension. Particularly the last 20 years of it.Â The theater has changed. Plays that would have been considered little more than an anecdote are now praised and some of the great plays, Shakespeare and Chekhov of course, but also the great plays of the 20th century, are subject to sort of re-invention in a way I think is completely destructive. A lot of window dressing.”
His passion for depth of artistic vision came from his own college days as a student of Carnegie Mellon’s legendaryÂ theater department in the middle of the 20th century. “What you were trained for at Carnegie was all of the beauty, the language and the classical background. There was a sort ofÂ aesthetic madness.” Would he be willing to take the leap back into acting for the right role?Â “Never, never, never!”
Burn This, presented by Center Theatre Group, opens April 3; plays Tue.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2:30 and 8 pm; Sun., 1 and 6:30 pm; through May 1. Tickets: $20-$65. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 213.628.2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org.