Remembering Michael Martin | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Remembering Michael Martin

From Chicago to New Orleans, the performer, playwright, director, producer, and raconteur created deep connections.

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Michael Martin - JOE MAZZA
  • Joe Mazza
  • Michael Martin

When word spread last week that actor, director, and playwright Michael Martin had died unexpectedly on April 26 at age 63, several of the posts on his Facebook wall expressed the same sentiment. 

"I'm so very sorry. I never met him in person but looked forward to interactions here on FB."

"We never had a chance to meet but his postings were an important part of helping me stay focused the past few years."

"Like so many others, I only know Michael on Facebook. I'll miss his posts and will grieve the loss of the hope that one day I would visit New Orleans and just maybe get to meet him in person."  

In fact, the number of strangers mourning the onetime Chicagoan’s death appeared to outnumber those of us who actually knew him (full disclosure: Martin and I had been friends for almost 25 years). 

No wonder; he had more than 4,000 Facebook friends. He would send friend requests to—and accept friend requests from—anyone willing to engage in his online salon, where he often posted status updates multiple times a day, offering incisive comments about topics such as politics, social justice, and pop culture, in between showing his contempt for Facebook (which he dubbed “Feckbook”) and cataloguing the mundane everyday events such as trips to the corner Walgreens. He drew the line at friend requests from pets, however.

If Martin can peep the comments on his Facebook page from the great beyond, I imagine he'd bask in the adoration. But maybe he'd also raise an eyebrow at the outpouring of affection from people who had never even met him. He loathed superficiality and performative gestures.

Like countless other artists, Martin's death came just as he seemed to be hitting his stride professionally, after years of pursuing his passion while paying the bills with jobs such as waiter, groundskeeper, and housecleaner. He played a prominent role in the 2020 independent film Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which had garnered several awards at film festivals as well as a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. One film critic had even talked about mounting a campaign to get Martin a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work in BNEP. He had recently wrapped work on a short, The Butterfly Keeper, in which he played one of the two leading roles. 

Though Martin had lived in New Orleans for the past 20 years, he grew up in Minneapolis and took theater classes at the University of Minnesota before settling in Chicago in 1993. When he first moved here, his job as a telemarketer at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led to a lifelong bond with a fellow telemarketer, Beau O'Reilly—a founding member of the Curious Theatre Branch. When an actor dropped out of a play O'Reilly was producing, he cast Martin in the role. 

Martin went on to found his own storefront theater company, Great Beast, as well as writing, producing, and acting in multiple productions during his time in Chicago. His work often drew critical acclaim (including positive reviews in the Reader), but he continued to hold down an office job as a paralegal at a small law firm during the day. 

In his most successful show, Verbatim Verboten, actors performed scenes pulled from real-life material: e-mails, recorded conversations, surveillance tapes. The revue specialized in revealing scandalous tidbits, often about public figures such as Richard Nixon or Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. The show even attracted the notice (and ire) of Tom Cruise, who—the story goes—had his attorneys send Martin a cease-and-desist order for acting out a private phone conversation between Cruise and Nicole Kidman. As a result, the usual actors did not perform the Cruise-Kidman piece that night; instead Martin read the letter from the attorneys to the audience as a big middle finger to Cruise.

Martin often used his fascination with celebrity as inspiration for his solo work. In Hinckley on Foster: The Hearing, he embodied John Hinckley, who had attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster, speaking as Hinckley in front of a panel of psychiatrists to convince them he was ready to re-enter society. He also wrote and performed a sequel, Martin on Hinckley on Foster: The Home Visit, in which Martin—as himself—pretended to visit Hinckley after his release. He parodied Quentin Tarantino in Quentin T Do Amateur Night at de Apollo, portraying Tarantino while wearing a prosthetic chin, skewering the director for his treatment of Black actors and characters in a profanity-laced monologue. He even wrote and performed a play about actress Justine Bateman (fittingly called Justine Bateman) in which he examined the role Bateman had played on the 80s TV sitcom Family Ties, with obvious adoration for Bateman's talent, which had attracted considerably less notice than the work of her costar, Michael J. Fox.

Martin was a voracious consumer of theater, movies, and TV but valued substance over style. For example, he skipped the recent Oscar ceremony but once applauded the sitcom Roseanne (the original show that debuted in 1988, not the current reboot) for the show's depiction of a working-class family. Martin, the eldest of eight siblings in a blended family, said Roseanne was the first time he'd seen a family like his own portrayed realistically on network TV.

By early 2000 Martin and his husband, Eric Martin Webb, were contemplating a move to New Orleans. But the city didn't exactly roll out the red carpet. When Martin visited New Orleans to scout out a place where he and Webb could settle, an attempt to fend off a mugger left him with a broken arm. The mugger made off with Martin's satchel, which contained copies of his resume; Martin landed in the ER, where a doctor inserted a pin in his arm before pointing him, doped up on painkillers, toward a bus back to Chicago.

Despite the mugging, the couple moved to New Orleans in 2002, and Martin eventually acquired another satchel to hold all his scripts. He always had something in the works—usually multiple projects. A wry Facebook post from a few weeks ago captured his ambition and optimism perfectly: "It's utterly charming, isn't it, how I just keep making schedules I can't possibly keep and setting goals I'll never achieve? I think so, yes I do."

In New Orleans Martin launched a new theater company, Four Humours. He founded an annual theater festival, InFringe Fest New Orleans; collected a Big Easy Theater Award for his role as George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf; worked for a time as theater critic for the NOLA Defender; and tirelessly supported local artists by promoting their work, attending their events, and connecting them with others if he thought it would help. He took small parts in TV shows and movies, expressing amusement at the roles that casting directors had been asking him to audition for, of late: bar patron, gas station clerk, homeless guy.

Michael Martin as "Flamingo Dude" - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Michael Martin as "Flamingo Dude"

Martin also immersed himself in the spectacle of New Orleans, often participating in the Gay Easter Parade as Flamingo Dude. While Webb would sit atop an open convertible, dolled up in a sundress and a floppy hat as his alter ego, the glamorous Tru DeMille, Martin would walk behind the car clad in a suit covered with flamingos, stopping frequently to take photos with parade goers.

A picture of Martin even became an international meme shortly after the 2020 presidential election. When one of Trump's attorneys went on TV and promised to "release the kraken," British tabloid The Sun tweeted an image of Martin in a pool, dressed as an octopus—a photo taken during an avant-garde theatrical adaptation of the Kevin Costner film Waterworld called Waterworld: The Aqua Play. For Martin, who criticized Trump on the daily (and had even pulled together a cast to perform a reading of the Mueller Report on July 4, 2019), having his picture used to lampoon the election conspiracy theory was a kick. 

Just days before his death, Martin was texting with a collaborator about several projects he wanted to tackle this year, now that he and Webb had gotten their COVID-19 vaccinations and theater venues were starting to reopen. Martin wanted to begin planning the next InFringe Festival and a revival of Verbatim Verboten. He had bought plane tickets to Chicago so he and Webb could support their longtime friend O'Reilly at his May 15 record release party. He was planning to teach again this summer at a children's performing arts program through a nonprofit called LAYAYA— a little-known role he had held since 2013. (The company has announced plans to raise funds to purchase their building and rename the theater for Martin.) His final Facebook status captured his insatiable desire to entertain and be entertained.

"Why do I feel guilty when I have nothing amusing to report?" he posted.

When one of his roommates announced on Facebook that Martin had died of unknown (but likely natural) causes, the news was tough to grasp—in part because of Martin's constant presence on social media. It was hard to believe one of his snarky posts wouldn't pop up on everyone's newsfeed again momentarily.

Martin had recently taken a job as a night clerk at a hotel and had left for work around 10:30 the night of April 26. When he didn't call Webb to let him know he'd arrived safely at work, and Webb's phone calls to Martin went unanswered, Webb and a friend worried that Martin had encountered another mugger and carried out a frenzied search. They arrived at the hotel to find police and an ambulance outside. 

It seems fitting that Martin's death involved a dramatic ending shrouded in mystery. And in what now seems like an eerie coincidence, Martin chose An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening by Theater Oobleck's Mickle Maher as the last show he performed in Chicago, in February 2019. (Martin often returned to Chicago as part of the lineup in the annual Rhino Fest, produced by Curious Theatre Branch and Prop Thtr.) The play features Dr. Faustus alternately ranting at and apologizing to the audience for an hour, bidding everyone farewell as Mephistopheles looks on. In the play's final moments, Faustus heads offstage and then cries out as he meets an unseen end.

In the days after Martin died, a friend shared a post he'd written last October, ruminating about what kind of memorial he'd prefer upon his death. At the time Martin was reeling from the sudden loss of a friend and fellow BNEP cast member, Peter Elwell. After saying he wouldn't want a traditional funeral (he wasn't religious and it would be too expensive, among other reasons), Martin expressed his desire for "a medieval or Dark Ages send-off." The concept was vintage Michael Martin, encapsulating both his flair for the dramatic and his compulsion to poke fun at over-the-top emotional displays.  

"I'd like to see rending of garments and convulsing and gnashing of teeth," he wrote. "Dead plants thrown in the air. Feral cats running around. Children hiding in fear. Savage looting of my huge stockpile of worldly goods. Fire everywhere. If someone can do a GoFundMe, please hire professional wailers.”

Several organizers are planning memorials in New Orleans and Chicago. Some of Martin's previous collaborators in Chicago are talking about staging a new iteration of Verbatim Verboten using as-yet-unperformed material, with proceeds benefiting Webb. And as of this writing, a GoFundMe page has raised more than $35,000, which should pay for plenty of professional wailers.  v

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