“Nothing is forever in the theater. Whatever it is, it’s here, it flares up, burns hot and then it’s gone.”
─ Karen, “All About Eve”
I learned and practiced theater as an art, but was unable to break the strongest of all barriers against a successful career: I had ‘no name’ other than my own. Despite that I’ve had a great time as actor, director, and acting teacher. Following, are snippets of my virtually phantom career.
[Note: At one time or another I’ve posted articles on my website that have already referred to a few of the following experiences in different contexts, not necessarily in chronological order.]
The New York University auditorium was filled with theater art students tensely waiting to be auditioned by the Dean of the Drama Department who was to direct a Shakespeare Festival consisting of five Shakespeare plays to be performed during a single week in commemoration of the Bard’s birthday. Each of us had come prepared with a soliloquy of our choice. I selected a passage from Julius Caesar delivered by Marcus Antonius, better known as Mark Antony. The passage begins with, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.” After each audition ahead of mine, the director made no comments. As I walked down the aisle and on to the stage for my audition, the silence was deafening. My audition went exactly as I had prepared it. At the end of it, I was greeted by applause from my ‘rival’ students. The director enthusiastically rushed down the aisle, shook my hand, and exclaimed, “You little devil!”
Being physically unsuited for the role of Mark Antony, I was not cast in that role. But something wonderful happened during the performance of Julius Caesar. The actor who played Mark Antony and I were waiting in the wings for our first cues. Just before he made his first entrance, he whispered to me, “You should be playing this part.”
The “little devil” was suited for the role of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Alone on stage at the end of the play and the festival, I spoke the last lines. The audience gave us a standing ovation. As they applauded, I heard a separate applause coming from the wings. The cast had gathered there to applaud me. To this day, whenever I see one of them on film or television, I whisper, ‘Thank you.’
The anguish generated by the search for an acting engagement was like wandering without a purpose…worse than that…a feeling that I was loitering. For example, I remember the despair I experienced when I’d sit in the lobby of the NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center in New York City’s theater district. The lobby served as an unofficial meeting place for aspiring actors doing their ‘Rounds.’ The lobby served as a place to warm up, cool off, or exchange purported ‘hot’ casting call tips. I was made aware of that lobby by an NYU alumnus who was among the cast members who applauded me at the end of the Festival audition. Burt had done the rounds long before I started to do them. He gave me tips about the rounds. For example, he said, “most job seekers don’t share casting information with actors who are the same type as they are. It cuts down the competition.” We laughed about that that absurdity. But we also shared serious thought about the rounds. Burt landed lots of film work as an extra. I said, “I have never been selected as an extra.” He said, “That’s because you stand out in a crowd.”
I remember the time when he and I were waiting on a ‘cattle call’ line. The line was so long it surrounded a Manhattan block. He pointed to a garden balcony at the top of the building and said, “The real casting is done up there.”
Hollywood films often depict aspiring actors searching for work on unforgiving hot pavements, in freezing temperatures, drenched in heavy rain, or even poor enough to be hungry. Very moving. Very Academy of Fine Arts. Very romantic. But the stark reality is that acting agencies are never really open. The secretaries at the front desk are there to keep actors from seeing agents who are busy making deals on the phone with producers, wealthy investors, or sipping drinks on some balcony or other.
In the deliciously bigger-than-life film, All About Eve, there is a scene between two characters which is much closer to casting reality than Hollywood pretends it to be.
[Note: The 2-line dialogue below directly follows Eve’s devastating threat to reveal a secret to Margo that would cause Margo to break her friendship with Karen forever… unless Karen remains silent about her well-intentioned secret.]
KAREN: You’d do all that just for a part in a play?
EVE: I’d do much more for a part that good.
Late one Friday afternoon I had done my rounds and was about to go home. But at the top of the steps leading to the subway, I changed my mind so that I would not feel guilty through the weekend for not making that one last stop.
I forced myself to go to one more theatrical agency with which I had registered but had never visited. As I entered the office, a solitary agent was on the phone speaking tensely. I thought I should leave, but having come this far, I decided to just hand him my resume and leave.
A dramatization in scripted form
ME: I dropped by to give you my resume and I…
[AGENT picks up a script and hands it to ME.
Triumphant Music Under, preferably the
‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah]
[Silence as ME leafs through the script]
AGENT: This is Friday afternoon. The show airs live Sunday morning.
Are you good at memorizing?
ME: (cool) Yes…very good.
AGENT: (stares directly into my eyes) Are you sure you can do it?
ME: (confidently) Yes, I’m sure.
AGENT: (holding his stare) How sure are you?
ME: (firmly) Absolutely.
[Music Under swells]
I’m in a dressing room at an ABC facility (Channel 7). I love the smell of greasepaint and the rush of excitement. The Stage Manager enters the room and announces, “Two Minute Warning, Mr. Martone.” Beautiful words.
He ushers me to the position on stage where I was to begin my performance. While the opening narration is delivered over a loudspeaker, I’m inspired to stand on my head, an unscripted act of ‘bravura.’ After all, that’s what children and puppets do. There was no director, so all the movements were mine. My performance was exactly as I had planned it to be.
After the show, the narrator, who was also the weekly star of the series, comes down from the booth and enthusiastically congratulates me. She also tells me that next season she would like me to be her co-star through the next season’s 13-week run! Handel’s Hallelujah rings majestically in my mind…this time, performed by a Westminster chorus.
But my joy was short-lived. Subsequently, I learned that the actor whom I replaced as Pinocchio didn’t show for the TV broadcast because he knew there wasn’t going to be a next season. That’s why the casting agent was agitated on the phone when I walked into his office. That’s why he was desperate for a replacement. Apparently, he had not mentioned that small detail to the star of the show, let alone to me. But of course I would have done the show anyway. Doing it gave me a much needed lift. I enjoyed every moment of it.
The very next day, an agent with whom I had registered months before, called me. Praising me highly, she said, “You’re amazing!…Where have you been?” I bit my tongue to avoid saying, Registered in your casting files. She asked me to come to her office. I asked, “When?”… “Now!” We had a really good talk, but nothing ever came of it. Theatrical relationships are like quicksand. In retrospect, I should have kept seeing her. But I’ve never been good at business.
For America’s 1776 birthday, I was officially hired as coordinator for the entire International Nights at Eisenhower Park, Long Island, New York. In addition, I hosted two or three of those nights. There was no director for the performers, but I couldn’t resist unofficially doubling as director. Following, are two examples of my directorial support for the performers.
Although I carefully avoid what may be construed as name-dropping, I’m compelled to acknowledge firsthand Cyril Richard’s inimitable sense of humor. When he arrived at the theater I was still wearing old dungarees, a threadbare shirt, and sneakers, the staple uniform for the rough and tumble work coordinators do at open-air venues.
Having provided lighting cues for the lighting crew, I went to the dressing rooms backstage to change my working clothes to an all-white ensemble, including white shoes. I then positioned myself in the wings to guide the performers through the show. Doubling as coordinator and hosting a show without rehearsals, is like being a hamster on a wheel.
During the Overture, I guided Mr. Richard to an entrance leading to the stage. Moments before his entrance, he expressed concern about being cast in the show’s milieu. Being an actor myself, I knew exactly how vulnerable he felt. I respectfully reassured him that he would please an audience no matter the circumstances and that this audience would love him. He was relieved, thanked me, and suddenly lightened up. “You look different in that suit!” I responded, “Well, now I’m playing a different role.” In mock deep concern, he said, “But is it you!” We laughed, and it was his cue to enter.
It was my pleasure to comfort that legendary actor.
A flamenco group was to open Spanish Night. Although I was officially the coordinator for the entire series of International Nights, I couldn’t resist directing some performers whenever I had a moment to do so.
I knew the group was going to just take their positions on stage before beginning to dance. But I wanted to give them and the audience something better than that.
I gathered them on stage about an hour before the audience would begin to arrive. I asked them if they would permit me to provide them with a theatrical entrance. They were very pleased with my offer, and consented.
Remembering that there was a scrim panel behind the theater’s back wall, I asked two of them to place it Upstage Center. They did that eagerly and quickly. Then I told them that when it was dark enough, all but the singer/guitarist would assemble behind the scrim ─ one at a time.
The opening number
On a cue from me, the singer/guitarist enters in the dark, strumming his guitar and chanting as lights slowly fade-in to half, revealing frozen dancers in various dramatic poses. At the end of the chant, the lights bump to full and the dancers begin to dance.
Earlier, I had asked their choreographer to provide the dancers with a dance pattern which would ‘bridge’ the dancers out of the scrim and seamlessly ‘glide’ them into their rehearsed prepared opening positions. That’s what directors do.
I enjoyed being a small part of their thrilling performance.
A GOOD REVUE IN DISGUISE
“Mario Martone is a first rate director in search of a show. His lively staging is vastly superior to the soggy material. The players work at a rapid pace under the direction of Mario Martone.“
─ Emory Lewis, Drama Critic (Cue Magazine)
The ‘next-best’ kind of revue is one that pans a show except for a single component of it. Of course I was relieved when I read the revue, but I was not shocked. I already knew that Antiques would fail.
About three months before Antiques was presented, the composer and lyricist for Antiques asked me to direct an all-music revue that would consist entirely of songs they had created over the years. In effect, the musical was still in its embryotic form.
At our first work session we agreed that the songs selected would be those that each of us agreed should be in the show. More importantly, their sequence must be determined by me alone. That is a director’s prerogative. Within and among the three of us, Karen’s flame “flared and burned hot.” As we worked, the authors appreciated every major unilateral decision I made.
THE ANATOMY OF A DEADLY DECISION
The authors found a producer, Dore Shary. He had a name. He had been a very successful screenwriter, so much so that his name appeared on the opening screen credits for several major films during Hollywood’s Classic Era.
One afternoon, the musical’s authors told me that Mr. Shary invited them to Hollywood to discuss the musical. He told them he would produce the show with a live audience at the Mercer Arts Theater Complex in Greenwich Village, a theater and art district in New York City.
At that time, Avant Guard theater, a.k.a. Theater of the Absurd, was at its peak. The complex was predominantly a venue for shows of that genre. Mercer Arts was not exactly the right venue for Antiques, a basically upbeat musical. In deference to the theater trend at that time ─ especially in Greenwich Village ─ I placed the only grim song in the show at the opening of the show in the hope that it would placate trendy critics. That’s also what directors do.
When the authors returned from California, the sequence for the songs had been severely altered in violation of my director’s prerogative. As I surmised on the day the authors told me Mr. Shary had invited them to discuss the show, I surmised that I wasn’t invited because Mr. Shary did not want me there. He had other plans.
When the authors returned from California the order of songs had been altered in violation of my director’s prerogative. It doesn’t matter whether I like a song or not. What does matter is objectively making the right choices. That too, is what directors do. I knew from the beginning that Antiques was not a sure winner. I tried to get at least a mixed review, but Mr. Shary’s juggling of the songs assured a negative review.
Years later, an excellent director read the bad revue the show received in Cue Magazine. He told me that revue would have been a good clip added to my credits portfolio. Hence, the ironic caption above, A Good Revue in Disguise.
[Note: From the 30s to the 60s, Cue Magazine was the standard for city magazines throughout the world.]
ANOTHER GOOD REVUE IN DISGUISE
“As a result the current reading at Shubert Alley is tedious despite the skillful performance by Mario Martone and Mary Simon.”
Despite the bad revue for that reading, my experience at café theater was magical…Shubert Alley, a pleasant venue in the heart of Greenwich Village…candlelight…the respectful silencing of teacups and mugs when the show was about to begin and, best of all, I knew I belonged.
A REMARKABLE REVELATION
Shortly after NYU, I was Leader of the Chorus in a production of Oedipus Rex in Manhattan. As I led the Chorus down the aisle at the beginning of the play, I was inspired by my love for ancient Greek theater. I imagined I was an actor at the ancient Theater of Dionysus…the Acropolis…the masks…the birth of theater. When I reached the stage platform, I sharply turned right in order to mount the steps to the stage.
After the show, the actor who marched immediately behind me on the choral entrance excitedly said, “When you made that sharp turn, I saw your face and I felt as though I were in ancient Greece!”
It was wonderful to know that I could convey something as abstract as the birth of theater without speaking a word. That is something that cannot be taught at a university or any school of theater. That actor’s response to my turn assured me for life that I could act.
THE PHOENIX RISES
I never got a name, but however few and obscure my acting experiences have been, I’ve had a full and wonderful career as a director for a hundred plays and musicals, each of which still burns hotly in my memory and whispers, “Mario Was Here.”