Melba Martinez's legacy at Mary Moody Northen Theatre
"Small" isn't a word for which Melba Martinez has much use. She may accept it as a term for her physical stature most of her students at St. Edward's University towered over her but otherwise it doesn't fit who she is. Martinez is all about big. She likes big plays with big themes. She dreams big dreams. And she takes big risks to see them realized. That's apparent from her 11-year tenure as artistic director of the Mary Moody Northen Theatre. Tackling epic works like the nine-hour Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Kentucky Cycle. Linking the theatre program at a small Catholic university in Texas with one of the country's most prestigious theatre companies. Supporting the creation of ensemble-based original work by students. Making academic theatre grounded more in cooperation than competition.
Considering the relatively modest size and resources of the St. Ed's theatre department, Martinez's push to transform the program into something grander and more challenging might have been setting her up for a big fall. But in the last several years, her approach began paying off in big ways: more students of a higher caliber joining the program; richer, more consistent work by them onstage; more unified work among the students developments recognized with three Austin Critics Table awards for ensemble acting and eight recipients of the "Deacon" Crain award for outstanding student work; more students graduating to advanced degree programs at top schools such as Carnegie Mellon and jobs at prominent theatres such as Actors Theatre of Louisville; more graduating into the ranks of the leading artists in Austin's theatre community (e.g., Lee Eddy, Jenny Larson, Bradley Carlin, Elizabeth Wakehouse, Andrea Skola, Brent Werzner, Jeffery Mills); and the big one a relationship with the Saratoga International Theatre Institute (aka the SITI Company), leading to an annual residency featuring cutting-edge training in the physical acting methods of Tadashi Suzuki and Viewpoints approach of Anne Bogart, regular guest work by SITI Company member J. Ed Araiza, who directed students in the creation of original works such as The Medea Stories, c/o the grove, and The House ambitious projects, some of which were among the most adventurous and compelling theatre being staged locally.
Courageous as they were, Martinez's big gambles may have contributed to her dismissal. In July, she was notified by Dean of Humanities Louis Brusatti that he was taking the artistic directorship of MMNT away from her. Conflicts over budgets, relations with other faculty, and direction of the program are cited by insiders as causes for the move. (The university declines to comment on the reasons.) Martinez responded by resigning. Despite her 22 years on faculty and her deep connection to the school and students, she felt dishonored, too much to stay.
Now, reports of blood shed over academic politics tend to be on the order of "Dog Bites Man" too common to really qualify as news. Still, here we have someone whose history with the university is unusually extensive and who played a critical role in advancing a program to national prominence. Her departure and the act prompting it have provoked passionate responses from many people who worked with her, both students and colleagues, who saw her contributions to St. Edward's as having a profound impact on the students, personally and professionally, the department, and the city.
"She was the heart and spirit of the program," says Jeffery Mills. "As an 18-year-old, I was sure I needed to go to NYU or NCSA [North Carolina School of the Arts] or Juilliard to receive world-class training. I'm not sure to this day what brought me to St. Ed's, but I know what made me stay: It was Melba Martinez and her huge heart. She had the courage and vision to attempt the impossible. She provided my peers and me with world-class training and a real opportunity to be successful in the professional environment that awaited us."
"Melba looked out for us," notes Lee Eddy, whose solo show Ladee Leroy was remounted at MMNT this summer at Martinez's insistence. "She would find ways to make sure that you could afford to go to an expensive private school. She would feed us after long techs, figure out ways to pay us for summer productions, bring in artists from the community that would teach us and love us like she did: Vicky Boone, Michael Costello, Annie Suite, Babs George, Scott Thompson and Richard Byron, J. Ed Araiza, the various guest actors. They were gifts to us, and I'd like to think that we were gifts to them. She provided her students with these opportunities to learn outside a method, to experience the joy of acting without boundaries, to find out what we had inside of ourselves that we could draw out through this art."
Brent Werzner echoes that sentiment. "Melba is a risk taker, which many people today find frightening and unstable. However, the risks she took were always with the intention of bringing out the best in her students, faculty, and department. She took a risk just casting me in Death of a Salesman. I had never acted in Austin, let alone for four years prior to the production, and I was an English literature major. But I auditioned for her, and she took a chance on me. Her risk propelled me into my career as a performer. I can firmly say that I wouldn't be the individual that I am today, or the artist, without her support. She has always been a consummate supporter of the students. The students and their education on stage and off have always been her number one priority."
"Melba gives her students confidence and support in a way that I believe is rare in most university settings," Elizabeth Wakehouse says. "One of the most valuable gifts/lessons she has given her students is a sense of community. Under Melba's leadership, students really work as a team. Each student has a responsibility, not only for the growth and advancement of herself, but to the artists they're creating with."
That sense of community is among the most powerful legacies of Andrea Skola's experience at St. Ed's. "For the last year, [MMNT business manager and frequent Equity guest artist] Annie Suite has had a saying posted to her door: 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.' Over the last year, there were several times that I found myself and my teammates referring to this quote to sum up what we felt we were attempting at that theatre. We wanted to change the way people were looking at educational theatre. We wanted to have a voice. We wanted to do work that spoke to people, moved people. And Melba presented us with those opportunities. Sometimes working insane hours, juggling eight different jobs, but all the while ensuring that we had every opportunity we ever wanted. I can't count the number of times that my association to MMNT has gotten my foot in the door, let alone qualified me for various theatre jobs, from construction and electrics to design and acting. It is because of these opportunities and experiences that I stand proudly next to Elizabeth, Lee, Jeff, Brent, Brad, and the many others with whom I worked, created, risked, failed, succeeded, and learned."
That doesn't mean life at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre was one long group hug. "Melba can be very difficult," testifies J. Ed Araiza. "We had many disagreements and arguments about sets, lights, rehearsal schedules, but it was always about the work and how to make it better, about how to best make the students able to learn and grow.
"There was something very special about St. Edward's for the time I was lucky to be there. I and my mates in the SITI Company have taught, worked, performed at universities and institutions all over the country, and what was obviously different about St. Edward's was Melba Martinez and her students and her/their willingness to be open to something new, different, and very difficult something outside themselves and previous work about a challenge. Many schools where we teach, we find uninspired students who are usually reflections of the programs and staff; we meet professors who have little interest in our work or anything outside the scope of what they have been teaching and studying for years. There is resistance to something that is rigorous, strenuous, and obviously not meant for everybody that was another argument with Melba, who felt everyone in her program should be exposed to the Suzuki training. Making art is not always easy not everyone is meant to sing at the Met but perhaps Melba felt everyone should try and aspire to that. She certainly wanted her students to aspire to more than your average 'college drama department,' much more."
A number of students saw Martinez as filling a parental role, but one among them could literally claim the director as her mother. Adriene Mishler is Melba Martinez's daughter, and she grew up in the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, attending countless rehearsals and performances of university productions. "I always have felt like I had 50 siblings," Mishler says, "as she always served her students as a mother away from home." At a time when many others daughters would've been eager to break free from this world dominated by their mom, Mishler, who aspired to study theatre, stayed. "After high school it seemed silly to go elsewhere when I could work with members of the SITI Company at a program that had already garnered my total respect. Why would I go to New York when I could earn my Equity points while attending school? My heart lay here at a school where the bar kept getting higher, the challenges harder, and the amount of love expanding ... here with my mom, so I stayed."
Now, unfortunately, many of the reasons that Mishler cited for staying are gone: the SITI Company connection and their Suzuki and Viewpoints training, J. Ed Araiza and the creation of original work, and, perhaps most crucially, Martinez. That led the contributors to this story to express concern for the future of the program and sympathy for the students who came to St. Edward's for opportunities and experiences that may have vanished between semesters. They wonder whether the creative challenges and collaborative spirit that distinguished the program under Martinez's leadership can continue without her. Possibly. Still, that little woman has left some big shoes to fill.
This is not a death knell for the theatre department at St. Ed's or a memorial for Melba Martinez. It is an acknowledgment of 22 years of service, of a decade in which rare vision and daring changed an institution's life and our community, largely for the better. The page of history is turning, but before one era gives way to another, tribute to what's passing is merited. As the playwright noted, "Attention must be paid." For a time, Mary Moody Northen Theatre, that theatre on a hill, from which one can see and admire so much of the city, could be seen and admired by much of the country. For that, Melba Martinez deserves our thanks.