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A new play explores the life and legacy of this "indie" theatre advocate
Usually a theatre critic can be found in his seat, trying to take notes without pulling focus from the onstage action. But in Chris Harcum's new play Martin Denton, Martin Denton, the reviewer is the one in the spotlight. "Martin Denton has done so much for independent theatre," says Harcum, who also stars as the titular character, a real-life theatre lover turned critic who founded the once very active nytheatre.com. Directed by Harcum's wife, Aimee Todoroff, and running at the Kraine Theater, this one-act is a celebration of an influential Off-Off-Broadway champion.
Originally a Marriott accountant in the Washington, D.C. area, the show-loving Denton would make frequent trips to NYC to see and write about theatre. With the help of his mother, Rochelle, Denton created nytheatre.com in 1997, an online hub that covered all local theatre, especially its smallest stages. Soon the two moved to Manhattan, and their site quickly became a go-to outlet for emerging arts journalists. But nytheatre.com -- which eventually expanded to include blogs, interviews, podcasts, and other forms of content -- grew into something beyond a place to read theatre criticism. It helped bring the diffuse Off-Off Broadway community together. In fact, many of its contributors were also artists working on the scene.
The seed for Martin Denton was planted last year at a dinner Harcum and Todoroff shared with their friend Denton and his mother. "Martin kept telling us all of these great stories and I thought, someone should do a show about this!" Harcum says. He interviewed both Dentons on three separate occasions, and tamed more than 400 pages of transcripts into a 90-minute two-hander. Denton himself served as unofficial dramaturg.
Though Denton has reviewed countless biographically inspired shows over the years, this is the first time his life has been used as fodder for a piece of art -- and he admits it's a strange feeling. "I understand now what it is like for a public figure to be the subject of a work," Denton says. "Chris is playing a version of me, his own dramatic interpretation of me."
Martin Denton reflects on a period during which the Dentons bore witness to not just an evolving theatre scene, but also to criticism's changing -- some might say diminishing -- role in it. And the Dentons changed with it. They archived nytheatre.com and shifted their focus to publishing, launching indietheaternow.com in 2011, a digital library where theatre mavens can browse 1,200-plus plays -- under the radar shows just like Martin Denton.
Denton hopes that audiences who attend his namesake play will be inspired to check out his site. "I hope the play draws attention to the work and the artists that can be found there," he says, ever the indie theatre promoter. Harcum, however, hopes viewers will also be touched by Denton's life. "Martin worked hard to promote independent theatre and expand arts coverage," he says. "This is a story about a man who was passionate about something but eventually had to step back and let go of what he loved a little. His journey is not that different from an artist's."
Doug Strassler is a writer and critic based in New York City. He contributes regularly to TDF Stages.
Top image: Chris Harcum and Marisol Rosa-Shapiro. Photo by Cilla Villanueva.