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Off Broadway

Talking With or About Jane Martin

Talking With or About Jane Martin

Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 1981 New Play Festival (this was a few years before it became the Humana Festival), included a bill of short plays (this was before the “10-Minute Play” genre, which ATL pioneered, became a fixture in contemporary playwriting). One of these plays was a lengthy monologue entitled “Twirler,” whose author was Anonymous. I wrote about this in my chapter on the Humana Festival, but I’m mentioning it again because this is where the saga of Jane Martin begins.

Jane Martin

We were in the Victor Jory Theatre, ATL’s smallest of their (then) two theatres, in which the audience sits on three sides. The lights came up, and there before us was a woman dressed as a majorette, holding a baton. She proceeded to tell us how she came to baton-twirling, but she never became a True Twirler until her hand was crushed by a horse called Big Blood Red. “People think you’re a twit if you twirl,” she says, “but they don’t understand it’s true meaning because it’s disguised in the midst of football. It’s God-throwing, spirit-fire.” She describes a bizarre ritual the True Twirlers enact at the winter solstice in a meadow outside Green Bay, where they stand barefoot, wearing white robes. Their ‘tons are 6 feet long, with razor blades set in the shafts, and as they twirl, their blood drips down onto the snow. “Red on white, red on white. You can’t imagine how wonderful that is. I have seen the face of God thirty feet up in the twirling batons, and I know him.” There was stunned silence at the end. I looked across the stage at the people on the other side, who were dumbfounded. We realized we had just witnessed the debut of a major playwright.

In those days, newspapers in major cities all had theatre critics, most of whom attended the ATL festival. There were also several international critics, such as Irving Wardle of the Sunday London Times. When the reviews came out, they focused on this extraordinary experience, and many speculated on who Anonymous might be. When the plays in the next year’s Festival were announced, everyone was excited that one was entitled Talking With, a bill of eleven monologues, performed by eleven different actresses, one of which would be “Twirler,” by Jane Martin, the pseudonym of a Louisville writer. Well, Talking With became the sensation of that year’s Festival, and the speculation as to who “Jane Martin” might be increased. Some thought she might be Beth Henley; others, Marsha Norman.

I got my boss at Samuel French to acquire the rights to Talking With. This was the one deal he let me negotiate (with Jon Jory – more about this later), which was then done at Manhattan Theatre Club, with “French Fries” replacing “Cul-de-Sac,” which featured a woman attacked by a potential rapist. She pulls a handgun out of her purse, forces him to cut off his penis, and ends with her marching him off to the nearest police station, where “I want you to tell them exactly what happened to you.” Predictably, several critics decided that Jane Martin was a man-hating feminist, which was why “Cul-de-Sac” was dropped. We later included it in an anthology of short Jane Martin plays, entitled Summer And Other Plays.

Actors Theatre did a bill of Jane Martin one-acts, two hilarious comedies called Coup/Cluks, in their regular season. When I found out that Dramatists Play Service had acquired the rights, I called Jory to express my great disappointment. I think it never occurred to him that Samuel French might want to publish them. He apologized and promised that Samuel French would have right of first refusal for all subsequent Jane Martin plays, a pledge which was honored thereafter, much to the dismay of the other publishers.

In several Festivals up until the one in 2000, there was a new Jane Martin play, and all were the most memorable events of each year. Some were hilarious comedies, such as Cementville, about a troupe of very low-level women professional wrestlers, Middle- Aged White Guys (see my Humana Festival chapter) and the last Humana Festival play, Anton In Show Business, a brilliant satire of professional theatre with a cast of 6 women, playing both female and male roles; some were extraordinary dramas such as Mr. Bundy, about the impact on a community when a sex offender is released from prison into their midst and Keely And Du (see my Humana chapter), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, losing out to Three Tall Women.

I have to say, I saw a lot of wonderful plays at the Humana Festival, but my faves were always the ones by Jane Martin. Speculation continued as to the true identity of this extraordinary playwright. Finally, most people assumed that the Jane Martin plays were the work of Actor’s Theatre’s Artistic Director, Jon Jory. I have a different theory. Here goes:

“Jane Martin” (or, “Miz Martin,” as Jory called her) was exactly who he said she was, a mysterious Louisville woman who didn’t want her identity known. She wrote “Twirler” and most of the other pieces which comprise Talking With. She may have been involved with other plays, such as Coup/Cluks and Vital Signs, another collection of monologues, though shorter than the ones in Talking With. She was not involved with subsequent Jane Martin plays. How do I know this?

One year in the mid-1980s, I met a member of the ATL staff who seemed very mysterious to me. I asked her if she was Jane Martin, which she denied. We became friends, corresponding frequently. In one letter, she told me that she had decided to leave Actors Theatre of Louisville and try her fortune in New York. She had rented a room in someone’s apartment in New Jersey (Jersey City, I think). She had gotten a ride up to New York, and I offered to let her stay with me and then I would drive her out to New Jersey. Well, we drove out there and they guy she had rented a room from turned out to be really creepy, and her “room” was little more than a closet. Forget this, I told her, you can stay with me until you find another place; which she did – for two years. She continued to deny that she was Jane Martin, but I learned that she had had a falling out with Jon Jory over a play he had commissioned about Kentucky coal miners, which was why she left Louisville. Why do I think she was Jane Martin? Two reasons. First, she needed a job so I offered to make copies of her resume for her, in which she listed that she had been a Rockefeller Award recipient. This award was to a playwright for a one-year residency at a theatre. The year she had the Rockefeller Award, Jane Martin was Playwright in Residence at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Second, she was concerned that she had no health insurance. She had let her coverage through the Dramatists Guild lapse, so I decided to renew her coverage as a present. I called up the Dramatists Guild, who told me that they had no record of her ever having been a member. I asked her about this and she went white, stammering, “I was a member … under a different name.” So, it’s pretty clear to me that my friend was, in fact, the mysterious “Miz Martin.” This was further confirmed by her parents who told me that, much to their dismay, she had signed over her Jane Martin copyrights to Actors Theatre of Louisville in order to get the rights back to her Kentucky coal miners play. She refused to come clean about Jane Martin because she feared the wrath of Jon Jory, who she needed as a reference.

But what about all the other Jane Martin plays, and whatever happened to the original Jane? As to the first question, here is my theory. “Jane Martin” was actually a committee. Jory headed this committee, one of whose members was ATL’s Literary Manager, Michael Bigelow Dixon. Another was probably Marcia Dixcy, Jon’s wife. The committee would meet to decide what the next Jane Martin play would be. One year, they decided that it would be about America’s fascination with fantasy entertainment and they decided on a play about a ragtag group of professional women wrestlers (Cementville). Another year, they decided to do a play about the abortion issue (Keely And Du). The committee would come up with the characters and a scenario, different members would write different parts, and Jory would put the whole thing together. Why didn’t he just reveal the truth? Because he knew, rightly, that the work wouldn’t be taken seriously if it was known that it had been created by a committee. Hence, the “Jane Martin” gambit.

As for the original Miz Martin, we broke up after two years. I am sad to say I broke her heart – but that’s a whole other story. She got an M.F.A. in playwriting from a major playwriting program, moved back to Louisville and eventually wound up living in northern Florida. To my knowledge, she never wrote the coal miner play, or anything else. Every once in a while, I hear from her and she tells me she’s writing again. I doubt it, but we’ll see.

Jon Jory left Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2000. Michael Bigelow Dixon left the same year to become Literary Manager of the Guthrie Theatre which, predictably, began doing Miz Martin’s plays. After Michael left the Guthrie, I think Jory just took over writing the Jane Martin plays by himself, perpetuating the myth that Miz Martin was exactly who he said originally that she was.

Why aren’t the Jane Martin plays better known? Because Jory and ATL’s Managing Director Sandy Speer (the “Jane Martin Cabal” – Speer is listed in the copyright notice in all the plays as “Trustee”) refused to allow them to be done in New York, petulant that the New York critics had begun slamming plays which had premiered at the Humana Festival. Pisses me off.

Two or three years ago, I asked Jon if Miz Martin had any new plays in the works. “No,” he said. “She has retired and is living in a yurt in Siberia.”

Off Broadway

For over thirty years, Lawrence Harbison was in charge of new play acquisition for Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the publication of hundreds of plays, by new playwrights such as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller and Ken Ludwig among many others; and the acquisition of musicals such as Smoke on the Mountain, A…My Name Is Alice and Little Shop of Horrors. He has edited over 100 anthologies for Smith and Kraus, Inc. For Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, he has edited several monologue, full length, 10-minute and 5-minute play anthologies. Currently, he is editing books solely for Applause. He has set up a new division for Applause to publish and license individual full length plays, as well as the World Premiere Club. His column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” appeared in the Chelsea Clinton News and the Westsider for several years and then moved to www.smithandkraus.com. In December of 2019, it began running on the Applause website, www.applausebooks.com. It also appears on his blog at www.playfixer.com and on www.doollee.com, the international playwrights database. He also writes occasional columns for Theatre Record, a London-based magazine. He was a member for many years of two NYC press organizations, the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk, and served on the Drama Desk Awards Nominating Committee for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons. He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com). He has also served as literary manager or literary consultant for several theatres. He taught playwriting in the Theatre Dept. of the University of Michigan in the winter semester of 2016. He holds a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.A. from the University of Michigan. His book, How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, a collection of interviews with playwrights, was published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books in March, 2015. His latest anthologies of monologues and 10-minute plays were published in December, 2019 by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books.

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