“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 some 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 five Shakespeare plays for 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 Marc Antonio, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”
After each of the auditions preceding mine were delivered, the director had not made a single comment. As I walked down the aisle and onto the stage for my audition, the silence was palpable. I performed exactly as I had prepared it. At the end of my audition, I was greeted by applause from my rival actors, the director enthusiastically rushed down the aisle, shook my hand, and exclaimed, “You little devil!”
Being physically unsuited for the role of Antonio, I was not cast in that part. But something wonderful happened backstage during the performance of Julius Caesar. The man who played Marc Antonio and I were standing in the wings waiting for our first cues. Just before he made his first entrance, he whispered to me: “You should be playing this part.”
I was physically suited for the role of Puck, played it at the festival, and something else happened that was wonderful. Alone on stage at the last of the festival’s performances,
I delivered the last lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream just before the final curtain of the festival. As the audience applauded, I heard a separate applause coming from the wings. The cast had gathered there to applaud me. To this day, when I see one of my alumni on film or television I whisper, ‘Thank You.’
The mental anguish generated by the hopeless search for an acting job is like wandering without a purpose…worse…a sort of loitering, a ritual popularly called, ‘The Rounds.’ Hot pavements, freezing temperatures, heavy rain…meaningless ‘cattle calls’ in trade papers enticing ‘us’ with purported casting calls…being an actor without the faintest hope of landing an acting engagement…not even a one-day film extra…let alone doing a TV commercial. All that and worse: being grateful for weekends because the rounds ritual was practiced only weekdays.
Late one Friday I had done my ’rounds’ and was about to go home but changed my mind.
I forced myself to go to one more theater agency with which I had registered but never had visited. As I entered the office, an agent was on the phone speaking tensely. I thought I should just leave, but having come this far, I thought I’d stay just to hand him my resume as soon as he would hang-up.
A dramatization in scripted form
ME: I dropped by to give you my resume, and I ─
[AGENT picks up script, and hands it to me.
Triumphant Music Under, preferably the
‘Hallelujah Chorus’from Handle’s Messiah]
[Silence as I leaf through the script]
AGENT: This is Friday afternoon. The show airs live Sunday morning.
Are you good at memorizing?
ME: (cool) Yes.
AGENT: (Stares directly into my eyes) Are you sure you can do it?
ME: (Confidently) Yes.
AGENT: (Holding his stare) How sure are you?
ME: (Firmly) Absolutely.
[Music Under swells]
I’m in the dressing room at an ABC TV facility (channel 7)…I love the smell of greasepaint and the rush of excitement when the Stage Manager enters the room and announces, “Two minutes, Mr. Martone!” He ushers me to the position on stage where I was to begin my performance. When the narration begins I’m inspired by the moment and stand on my head although that’s not scripted. But that is what children and puppets do.
After the show, the narrator ─ who was also the star of the show ─ enthusiastically congratulates me. She tells me this was the last show of the season. She also tells me that next season she would like me to co-star with her every Sunday of the next series. Going home on the subway, I intensely began to memorize the lines. I thought that at last I would break the ‘no name’ barrier.
Subsequently, I discovered that was not to be. The actor whom I replaced as Pinocchio didn’t show because he knew that there was not going to be a next season. Apparently, the agent had not yet mentioned that little detail to the star of the show, let alone to me.
The day after the show, one of the agents with whom I had registered called me. Praising me highly, she said, “You’re amazing!…Where have you been!” I didn’t tell her, “Registered in your files.” She asked me to come to her office. I did. We had a really good talk, but nothing ever came of it. That was not her fault, but possibly was mine because I should have kept visiting her. I’ve never been good at business.
Bottom line: I maintained my ‘no name’ status throughout my career.
In 1976 I was hired to coordinate a series of International Nights at Eisenhower Park and host two of them, British Night and Italian night.
Although I carefully avoid what may be inaccurately construed as name-dropping ─ although it is not that at all ─ 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. Having provided lighting cues for the lighting crew several hundred feet from the stage, I went to the dressing rooms backstage and changed into an all-white ensemble, including its shoes.
During the show’s overture, I guided Mr. Richard to his opening entrance to the stage. Before his cue to enter, he expressed concern about being miscast in this show’s milieu. I respectfully reassured him that he would please an audience on any stage and that this audience would love him.
He thanked me and then 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 privilege to be a comfort to that legendary actor.
On Spanish Night a Flamenco group was to open the show. I’m a flamenco fan. Although I was officially the Program Coordinator, not its Director, I couldn’t resist directing this group. I knew that they were going to just walk 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 and I asked them if they would allow me to direct them for a theatrical opening. They were very pleased by my suggestion and consented.
Remembering that there was a scrim panel behind the stage’s back wall, I asked two of them to place the scrim upstage center. They quickly did that.
I then told them that when it was dark enough, all except their singing guitarist would unobtrusively assemble behind the scrim, one at a time, as the audience gathered. The musician would wait in the wings for a cue from me.
The opening number
The stage is dark. On my cue, the dancers assume frozen classic flamenco postures. On that same cue, the guitarist/singer enters in the dark, strumming his guitar as he delivers a classic chant. Flood lights gradually fade-in to reveal the frozen dancers. At the end of his chant, lights bump to full, which is the dancers’ cue to start dancing. (As discussed during our hasty ‘rehearsal,’ the choreographer had created a ‘dancing bridge’ designed to move the dancers out of the scrim and seamlessly glide into their well- rehearsed opening position.
Their performance was thrilling. I enjoyed being a small part of it.
A GOOD REVIEW 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 review is one that pans a show except for a single component of it. Of course I was relieved when I read the review but I was not shocked. I already knew the show would fail.
Following, is a brief recounting of an experience all too common in the theatrical profession, especially when one has ‘no name.’
A composer/lyricist team asked me to direct an all-musical revue titled , Antiques, which would consist entirely of songs the they had created over the years. In effect, the musical was still in its embryotic form.
At our first work meeting we agreed that the songs selected from a pool of songs would be those that each of us agreed should be included in the show. More importantly, their sequence must be determined by me alone. That’s what a director does for original revues.
As Margo’s best friend, Karen, put it, our “flame flared and burned hot” within and amongst each of us. I didn’t need to remind the authors that the arrangement of songs must be the director’s prerogative. And they very much appreciated every major decision I made unilaterally.
THE ANATOMY OF A DEADLY DECISION
When the musical was completed, its 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 many 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. The show was to be filmed before a live audience at the Mercer Arts Theater Complex in Greenwich Village, New York City, a ‘city’ within a city.
At that time, Avant Guard Theater – aka Theater of the Absurd – was at its peak. The complex was predominantly a venue for shows of that genre. Antiques was basically upbeat. Mercer Arts was not exactly the best venue for a cheerful musical. In deference to the theater trend at that time, I placed a song at the beginning of the show that would be the perfect opening number for trendy critics. That’s also what directors do.
When the authors returned from California the sequence of songs had been altered in violation of my director’s prerogative. The authors had not understood that my control over the order of songs was not arbitrary. Shows that have a good opening have a better chance to succeed even if they sag somewhat at their end; shows that have a bad beginning are less likely to succeed even if they improve somewhat toward the end of the show.
I knew from the beginning that Antiques was not a sure winner. I tried to squeak it through to get at least a fair review, but Mr. Shary’s juggling of songs assured a negative review.
[Note: From the 30’s through the 60’s, Cue Magazine was the standard for city magazines throughout the world.]
ANOTHER GOOD REVIEW IN DISGUISE
“As a result the current reading at Shubert Alley is tedious despite the skillful performances by Mario Martone and Mary Simon.”
─The Village Voice
Ironically, despite that bad review for the show, my experience at café theater was a beautiful one…Shubert Alley, a pleasant venue in the heart of Greenwich Village…candle light…the warm embrace of theatrical lighting, the respectful silencing of tea cups 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 cast as Leader of the Chorus in a production of Oedipus Rex. As I lead the chorus down the aisle at the beginning of the show, 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 my path reached the stage platform, I swerved in a sharp right angle in order to mount the steps to the stage. After the show, the actor immediately behind me on the entrance line excitedly said to me, “When you turned, I thought I was in ancient Greece!”
It was wonderful to know that I can convey something as abstract as the birth of theater without speaking. That’s something that can’t be taught at a University or any school of theater. His excitement assured me for life that I can 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 about a hundred plays and musicals, each one of which still burns hotly in my memory and whispers to me, ‘Mario was here.’