These women of the arts hail from different disciplines, but they all have an indomitable spirit and a luminescent spark that makes them amazing human beings who are out there every day, doing amazing work.
Today we continue our series with Diánna Martin.
Of course you’ve heard of Diánna Martin – she’s one of our contributors! But her connection to The Happiest Medium started in a much different place … back with The Oath: I was a reviewer for Neighborbee, and I was left emotionally drained by her performance as Deck. I later met her socially at a few of the Off Off Broadway industry events before I was lucky enough to snag her as one of our writers here.
Now she is a dear friend, but in terms of the acting community she is so much more … She is the name and the face behind Martin Acting Studios – a legacy handed down from her father, Ernie Martin. Today, we celebrate Diánna the actress, and the acting coach who is carrying on the tradition she was born into. Here is her story.
Talk to me about being a woman who does what you do- just overall.
I come from an entertainment family. I was always a little ham who had a gift of gab and an outgoing personality…and a very active imagination. My life was a series of acting classes; life lessons were told many times with a preface: “Ya see, Diánna, it’s like in acting…” and I learned about Strasberg and Meisner technique and was on film/television sets and theatre rehearsal techs before I learned how to swim or ride a bike. I intended to be a writer, winning creative writing awards in high school and doing poetry readings in college; but I was always coming back to performing or being involved in entertainment, and eventually realized I had a gift for teaching. This has led to a personal renaissance over the last few years with my putting up shows with other artists, becoming involved with three dynamic and vibrant theatre companies, writing for this brilliant site (after a wonderful period of writing for The Fab Marquee), and becoming a staff member and judge for the Innovative Theatre Foundation. It’s all been fantastic.
My mother, Ann Wedgeworth, is a Tony-award-winning actress of film, stage, and television who studied with Sandy Meisner; my father, Ernie Martin, was one of Lee Strasberg’s top teachers and has gone on to have a nearly 40 year career thus far in teaching with a roster of students that fill the front rows of the Oscars (Dad, now 80, still coaches professional name actors who take time off from shoots for a refresher).
I love what I do. It’s a passion that grows the more I teach, the more I talk about acting, the more I am involved in the creative process or watch others do so. I literally fell into my parents footsteps on all counts…my mother is blown away that I’m directing more and more shows and readings now…(she wasn’t surprised about the acting or the teaching), and so is Dad. They come to everything I do. It wasn’t a choice for me…it was something that just became – it was an evolution, actually. Hey, I’m an artist, not a businessman, and I’m still learning how to get that part right…*laugh*…but it’s been brilliant the way that people have jumped on board. Whether it’s to offer advice on how to set up class packages, to help me set up my game plan for a school, to my buddy Michael Marwit designing my logo, Antonio Minino helping me figure out a PR strategy, or students (beginners to professional actors) contacting me to study. It’s a blast when people recognize that you are someone whose opinion is valuable, whose knowledge of the craft and eye for human behavior is matched with an ability to express it to others in a way that can make a significant contribution. When people ask what I do, and I list all the arts and entertainment I’m involved with, or have been involved with (for five years I worked in live television and was a radio DJ) they are interested; when I say I teach, they often seem surprised when I say acting is the subject (unless they are in the business). Even then, there is a quality of “you teach acting?” that makes me laugh; I suppose it’s because I’m such a kid…some people equate a teacher as a more stoic figure than what I think one should be. If you are teaching people a craft where they have to follow their impulses and express their emotions, then it should be a much looser, more freeing environment.
I joke that I’m like the Jack Black from School of Rock meets a helluva lot of experience in the field of acting. I can talk academic from here until next week, but I find that a less formal approach blended in heavily is the best way to bridge the gap between an actor trying to learn a craft who is stuck in their head, and one who is free with their work.
I teach a combination of Strasberg and Meisner technique that was handed down to me by my father, and tweaked with all the glorious information I gathered from the other brilliant teachers/coaches I’ve studied with…molded into my own way of sharing it and exercises I think are appropriate for the students individually. Topped off with a sprinkling of my own personality, of course. Every moment I learn something new is, for me, valuable; I look at it as “how can I incorporate this into my teaching” if I find it helpful. This applies to everything, including martial arts training I’ve started this year learning Muay Thai. A fellow teacher felt the same way when he started Jiu Jitsu…It’s not like I’m going to teach my students how to do Thai kickboxing, but how can I get them to free their mind and relax their body so their intrument can be free to work, while still being focused on their objective?
Sometimes I do have a maternal instinct with my students, no matter if I’m teaching teens or adults…a den mother, if you will. Other times it’s simply as a mentor. For me, being a woman has nothing to do with it…it’s just being a creative human. But I may be way off base.
Are there days it makes a difference – good or bad?
Only if I haven’t had my coffee.
Are there barriers you fought against in the past that are now becoming easier?
I think my barriers are different than for some other people…as well as the open roads. Any issue I have had to deal with wasn’t so much about my being a woman, but about the apprentice/journeyman manner in which I learned to follow as a teacher, my pedigree and people’s prejudice in comparing me with my father. If you have a Master Acting Teacher/director as a father and an incredibly successful and brilliant actress as a mother, the standards are rather high (which is a good thing). However, sometimes people assume that you have fallen into this profession due to contacts or simply due to an unrealistic view of how good you are at what you do. There are a few who either studied with my father or know my parents who were quick to say “well, you’re no Ernie!” in relation to my teaching. The irony is that I have never said I was – I am simply his daughter who absorbed his lessons from teaching my whole life whereas many others only learned them in the studio. Although I quote him constantly, as he quoted Lee, and relate stories of what both my parents experienced to illustrate situations and concepts to students, I have my own style and my own way of teaching that works. I have my own methods, but I have taken the best seeds of knowledge from who taught me, and in the manner of any other journeyman/disciple I utilize what I learned. I’ve learned from fellow teachers and students of my father’s (like my friend, teacher/actor David Robinette) or from friends in the business (such as playwright/directors Alex Dinelaris and David Stallings) as well as my experiences with my students. It’s all a process. It’s teaching a craft, and in doing so there are also exercises and ways to teach it that have been proven incredibly effective, if you have an understanding of how that knowledge works. Some facilities/institutions I have taught prefer a specific degree for their teachers, for they don’t recognize the passing of the torch that many successful teachers have learned from outside of academic institutions. I find that frustrating, but not an insurmountable obstacle.
I have been rather fortunate, however. These “barriers” or issues have usually not been the case. People recognize that I do know what I’m talking about, that I have successfully taken the torch my father gave me to teach, and that I do have a gift for teaching and getting ideas across to students that can improve their work tremendously. Way more often than not, my pedigree is anything BUT a barrier; it has opened doors and people’s acceptance to at least listening to what I have to say. Then, once I have established my way of teaching and the craft I have to share, they decide if it’s for them or not.
The men that you interact with – do they treat you as an equal?
Most of the men that I meet in this profession have been tremendously helpful. I think that it’s rather telling that all of the people I have mentioned (who are but a few of the wonderful people who have helped me grow) with exception of my Mother (who offered a wonderful amount of insight about Sandy’s approach as well) are men. I think I have been very fortunate to know such gifted and giving individuals.
I think that the profession of teaching acting lends itself to more open-mindedness amongst people than not. There have been many female acting teachers, and one of the main schools of thought that came out of the Group Theatre was Stella’s. Women acting teachers offering important contributions to actors working today is not a new or novel concept.
That said, like most other professions, it is a bit of a boy’s club. I don’t think so much in the sense that women have to prove themselves but that there are simply more men teaching acting/running acting schools than women. But that seems to be changing. I can’t speak to issues such as any discrimination in purchasing space, long-term facility rental etc, or business practices, for I rent my space out from other facilites such as Night Owl Studios and The Abingdon Theatre Complex to teach (unlike my father who had a 5,000 sq. ft theatre/studio complex).
I was teaching before I knew I was going to actually start a business, and since I’m coming at it from the artistic point of view, I admit that I’m still figuring out all the logistics. I am a bit of that nutty professor. But there comes a point when you look to the people who have done it before you (and most of them are men, at least the ones that I know) and say “Hey, man – how did you do this? How did you make it work so you teach a solid craft AND actually walk away covering your expenses?” Hey, it’s all a learning process. I marvel at the men and women who have been able to create an acting school and have it rise like a phoenix. I am just trying to find the happy medium of how to do it effectively as a business for a continuous long haul.
I find men sometimes don’t know what to make of me. They have I have ways of expressing myself artistically and to my students that are not conventional ways a woman is “supposed to talk”. There are expressions I use that make me sound sometimes like a younger version of my father from the 70s when he taught for Lee. Many times I have heard from people who studied with both of us, who said they could hear my father as I spoke. It’s not my intent to sound like wee Ernie, but “Can you dig it?” is as much a part of my vocabulary as “Does that make sense?” and since I’m in the moment and expounding on things that I’m passionate about, it comes across.
Between teaching, acting, directing … writing … volunteering! So much! Tell us what’s up next for you Diánna.
In regards to acting itself, I think it’s important for actors and actresses to realize that no matter how good they are, they can never watch themselves work…so it’s still important to check in and get advice if you trust the source of the information. Al Pacino still studied and was coached by Lee after he became “Al Pacino” and I think it’s important, the same way a musican practices their instrument or a singer scales, an actor has to be on top of their instrument. No matter who they study with, it’s always good to go over the basics. I find this as an actress myself.
And it doesn’t matter what school of thought, ultimately, you choose. We all have our favorites that we utilize, but it’s always good to have a well-rounded craft and to keep in mind that we never stop learning – quantity, quality – and variety. Even if it’s to say “okay, that’s groovy, but it doesn’t work for me.” As long as you are passionate and you make the most out of a craft – and work hard at a craft, if it works for you, then mazel tov – it won’t matter what it is if it gets you where you need to be.
In regards to my current work: I took some time off this past year from teaching my private classes to focus on acting, directing, and my health but still taught at Hunter College and did private coaching. During that time I performed and directed three shows and two readings. I am currently in a play that opens at the June Havoc Theatre April 14, The Family Shakespeare by David Stallings, and then immediately after that I am directing Jim Tierney’s Carry On in June for Planet Connections. I will be starting class again this Fall, though, regardless of my acting/directing commitments; I have been itching to open a new monologue/scene study class for some time, especially in response to many students’ requests. I’ve been asked to do a few seminars as well, and will have my Hunter classes again, and hopefully a reading series I have been looking at getting underway for a long time will finally come to fruition…so Spring and Fall are going to be busy…as usual! I am getting everything in gear to focus on my school again, and find a way to juggle it with all the other commitments in the field that I have…for I often feel like something is missing when I’m not teaching my own class. I look forward to this coming year as I learn how to balance all of it, just taking it moment to moment.