When Michael Martin was 15 the Watergate scandal broke, and he developed an obsession with Richard Nixon and secret transcripts. Thirty years later that obsession has ripened into Verbatim Verboten, an evening of (mostly) covertly recorded private conversations transcribed and performed for our delectation: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman bickering on their cell phones, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles canoodling late at night, Tommy Lasorda chewing out Doug Rau on the mound. And of course, lots of Nixon.
The show started out in 1998 as a short-lived once-a-month series at the Red Lion Pub with a rotating roster of fringe performers. Martin resurrected it a few times in the late 90s, but as with most projects he's initiated in his life, he worked on it overtime only to lose money. Now Late Night Catechism producer Vicki Quade is giving the show a commercial tryout at the Royal George--with hopes of taking it national--and Martin finally has a shot at ending up in the black.
Martin, who's scraped by on odd jobs all his adult life, made a small name for himself in Chicago's off-off-Loop theater scene in the late 90s and early aughts with a series of monologues--Justine Bateman; Quentin T Do Amateur Night at the Apollo; Hinckley on Foster: The Hearing--that chronicled the lurid misadventures of celebrities. From his heady scripts, thick with historical, literary, and cultural references, you might expect him to have come from a family of postdocs, but in fact he grew up blue-collar in Minneapolis, dropped out of college after a year, and spent most of his 20s "busing tables, washing dishes, and hanging around the edges" of the leather scene. As his 30th birthday approached, he decided it was time to get serious about doing nothing: "If you bum around in your 20s people think you're a kid on a lark, but if you bum around in your 30s people think you're really a bum," he says.
Before it was too late, Martin spent a month in Chicago at Boys Town's Abbott Hotel, a particularly seedy spot in those days. Then, deciding that New Orleans offered even better slumming, he tried moving there--twice. "Both times the town chewed me up and spit me back home," he says. "It's a rough town if you're poor. You're hanging out in bars a lot, subsistence-level jobs, running with prostitutes and dealers." And his love life? "Psychosexual sadomasochistic game playing."
By the early 90s Martin knew he had to pick a life, so he picked theater. "I was mildly good at a lot of things--writing, speaking, organizing, promoting, holding hands," he says, "and theater seemed to take advantage of most of them." He moved to Chicago and got a job telemarketing for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The telemarketer at the phone next to him was Beau O'Reilly, one of the founding members of the Curious Theatre Branch. They quickly became friends, and when an actor dropped out of O'Reilly's play Let the Dolly Do the Work, Martin got the part despite his complete lack of experience.
He was a standout. "Doing the show was your standard come-alive kind of feeling," he says. Inspired, he wrote a play for Curious called Dominium, a massive, twisted fantasy about psychosexual sadomasochistic game playing. O'Reilly was slated to direct but pulled out the day rehearsals were to begin, and two actors in the cast went with him. So Martin took the show to the National Pastime Theater and produced it himself in '96--ending up with a critical and financial disaster.
"It was a credit-card show," he says. "It threw me into bankruptcy. I ended up sleeping on the floor in a warehouse on the west side. I was supposedly the night watchman, but there was really no place else I could go."
Over the next few years his monologues started getting respectable notices, but his audiences remained minuscule. He started his own theater company, Great Beast, in '97. But just when it had found a home in a space above the Inner Town Tap in Wicker Park, police raided the bar for lacking a public place of amusement license and the company was forced out.
In 2002 Martin gave up--or as he puts it, "downshifted whatever minor career ambitions I had"--and moved back to New Orleans with his partner, Eric. They bought a four-bedroom house for $53,000 and then discovered it had no water or electricity. "I was pooping in plastic bags," Martin says.
Then Quade contacted him and offered to buy the rights to Verbatim Verboten. "That paid for central air," he says. And though he got fired from his job waiting tables when he left for Chicago to direct the show, he thinks his life in New Orleans might finally be settling down.
"I'm married now and I'm in my 40s," he says. "It's more difficult to get into trouble. But I'll always be attracted to dark temperaments. I can't leave the gutter-punk life entirely."
Verbatim Verboten opens Friday, August 27, at the Royal George Theatre Center, 1641 N. Halsted, and runs Fridays and Saturdays at 9:30 through October 2. Tickets are $20; call 312-988-9000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.