Setting a new course for the Delaware Theatre Company
● By Kerigan Butt
By John Chambless
Bud Martin knew all too well what he was getting into when he agreed to take over as the executive director of the Delaware Theatre Company two years ago.
"I was shocked that it had gotten to the state that it had," Martin said during an interview last month at the theater, where he was preparing to open the door-slamming farce, "Lend Me a Tenor."
“One of the things that's really been a challenge to a lot of non-profit arts organizations, especially if you have an artistic director who's been there for a long time, is they either run out of good ideas, or they just start programming the kind of shows they want to direct,” Martin said. “I thought a lot of the problem was [Delaware Theatre Company] lost audience because the prior artistic director’s selection of plays was very eclectic. I find that an awful lot of arts managers don't know how to run a business. They keep thinking that they're either going to sell a bunch of tickets, or some great angel is going to come by and give them a bunch of money."
While the economic recession didn’t help the theater’s attendance, Martin pointed to the fact that, with declining ticket sales, the previous DTC administration stopped spending on marketing, booked small, cheaper shows with only one or two people, and the audience found little to draw them in. Corporate support for the arts was also trimmed as the economy worsened. The vicious cycle nearly capsized the theater.
Faced with having to cut several hundred thousand dollars from the DTC budget, Martin trimmed the full-time staff from 23 to 14, but brought in only one person from outside the organization, Andy Truscott, to handle marketing and development.
“What I did was make people work smarter, re-energized them, and what they love is they all feel that they're part of the success," Martin said. "I get go-getters and I let them go. I’m thrilled with the team. I think they're great.”
Martin is a veteran theater producer and director who has worked on Broadway, and used his decades of experience there to take advantage of the huge pool of theatrical talent that is only a short train ride from Wilmington.
The contrast between New York and Wilmington, in terms of the theater, is that “the talent pool in Philadelphia and New York is much bigger,” Martin said. “Actors that I bring in from New York are shocked at how close it is. When we're running the show, they can go home on a Sunday night after the show and not be back until Wednesday morning for the matinee. It's a great opportunity. The location is terrific."
The theater’s state-of-the-art facility is a big plus, as are the restaurants, apartments and a large hotel that are popping up along the Wilmington Riverfront. Martin hit the ground running last season with “The Outgoing Tide,” a drama about a family coping with Alzheimer’s disease, along with a lively revival of the classis musical “South Pacific.” They were the two highest-grossing shows in the last five years at the theater.
He has instituted 7 p.m. curtain times on Wednesdays and Thursdays, so that the office workers downtown can grab some dinner, see the show and make it home in time to get up for work the next day. He has networked with corporations in the city to encourage use of the theater’s facilities for meetings. In October, he booked a standup comedy night with two New York comedians and sold out the theater.
“Beforehand, when I was introducing them, I asked how many people had never been to the Delaware Theatre Company before," Martin said, "and more than half of the audience raised their hands. So I stood here as everybody was leaving, handing out brochures," he added, laughing.
As a producer of the one-man touring comedy show, “My Mother’s Italian, My Father's Jewish, and I'm in Therapy,” Martin brought the show to Wilmington in May and found that 80 percent of the audience had never been to the Delaware Theatre Company before.
Armed with decades of information about what draws an audience to a theater, Martin has been able to apply some Manhattan lessons to Wilmington demographics. “The largest demographic of ticket buyers is women over 50,” he said, which led to the theater’s presenting “Love, Loss and What I Wore” last year with a big-name cast.
Martin brought in a world premiere production of Patrick Barlow's “A Christmas Carol” last holiday season, and it will be reprised in New York City this year. The production of “The Outgoing Tide” at DTC was only the third production of the show anywhere. It went to New York as well.
"People still come to me and say 'The Outgoing Tide' was the best thing they've ever seen," Martin said. "So I think we proved can do world premieres that are headed to New York. And we can attract name talent."
Having worked with an impressive range of stage actors and actresses, Martin is able to collaborate now and then.
Michael Learned, who co-starred with Peter Strauss in “The Outgoing Tide,” is beloved for her role as the mother on the TV classic “The Waltons.” Opening next season for the DTC will be “Love Letters,” a warm, romantic show featuring the return of Learned, along with Ralph Waite, who played her husband on “The Waltons.” Martin knows that regional audiences will turn out for celebrity appeal, and he’s happy to oblige.
With all of his producing duties and managing of the cash flow, Martin said directing shows is his reward. “Directing is my first love,” he said. “But maybe I don't take direction well," he added, laughing. "One of the first times I wanted to be a director was when I was an actor in college and I didn't think that a director was very smart, and I thought, 'No, we should be doing it this way.'
"My job as a director is to create an environment where the best people can do their best work," he said. "It's not about telling people what to do. It's about how to help them make the right choices. The first day of rehearsal, I usually tell the cast, 'Whoever has the best idea in the room wins.' It's about collaboration.”
In December, Martin will direct “The Story of My Life." The two-man show, written by Brian Hill, with music and lyrics by Neil Bartram, “reminds me of me,” Martin said. “It’s about two guys, it's about the importance of friendship in our lives, it's about what happens when you're very close to someone for a very long time and then our lives take us in different directions.”
Martin served as one of the producers of the show when it moved to Broadway, but it was criticized as being “small and sentimental” and not appropriate for Broadway, which usually succeeds only with big, familiar musicals and comedies. When Martin reprised the show at Act 2 Playhouse in Phiadelphia, though, it won a Barrymore Award and was critically praised.
“It works so much better in a small venue," he said. "The reason I picked it here for Christmas is that it's about two guys who get together every Christmas Eve. One of them becomes a famous writer and moves out of town. The other guy stays to take care of his sick father. The guy who's a writer makes a living writing stories about his best friend, and realizes that's what is the most important thing in his life."
This February, the theater will present “The Exonerated,” a drama focusing on six people who have been wrongly convicted and put on death row. “Wilmington is a bit of racially charged town," Martin said. "It's got a huge legal community. So I found this play that had been done in New York about 10 years ago. I thought, 'There's a way for me to engage a lot of people about a subject that is controversial and challenging.'"
Martin has lived with his wife in Kennett Square for 18 years. They have three grown children and six grandchildren. “I raised my kids in Media, and as soon as they were all in college and out of the house, I had always to live in the country,” he said. “I bought a horse farm. Half of my house was built in the 1770s. It's great. We have 33 acres, a handful of horses, we foxhunt, we ride regularly.”
The location allows him quick access to Wilmington as well as Philadelphia and New York, but it’s far enough away from the hubub of the city.
"Wilmington is great," he said. "For people who come in from out of town to be able to go to Winterthur, and Longwood, and be able to be around the whole Brandywine Valley area, they love it. It's beautiful."
For more information about the Delaware Theatre Company's season, visit www.delawaretheatre.org.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.