Martin de Maat was one of the few remaining improv teachers in Chicago who'd studied with Viola Spolin, the mother of Second City-style improvisational theater. His death last week in New York City left a lot of Chicagoans wondering about his legacy.
Improv classes always stress the importance of teamwork, but in reality most improvisers go for laughs. At first glance, de Maat, artistic director of the Second City Training Centers, seemed surprisingly charitable, open, and straightforward, a good-hearted mensch in the midst of an often competitive world. If anything was on his mind, he'd talk about it. He routinely discussed with his students his unrequited love for unattainable young men, and after he had colon surgery two years ago he described the experience to a class I was in. The details were so specific everyone was soon squirming.
"Talking with Martin was sometimes like talking to a very precocious ten-year-old," recalls Amy Seeley, a former student who now teaches at the Second City's LA training center. "We'd be walking down the street, and he would have to stop and look at everything. 'I had a chair like that once.' 'I like that color.' 'I like that shirt.' 'I don't like asparagus.' 'I don't like brussels sprouts.'"
While de Maat could be excruciatingly candid, he was also secretive. "For some reason I never tell people my real age," he once told me. A Sun-Times obituary last Sunday had to fudge it: "about 52," it said.
De Maat had another secret: he had AIDS. The Second City's official announcement attributed his death to "complications from pneumonia," by now a transparent euphemism, which was dutifully repeated in the daily newspapers. "Martin told me and a few others," says Mick Napier, a former student of de Maat's and the founder and artistic director of the Annoyance Theatre. "But he didn't want it generally known. He didn't want to put it out there, spiritually."
"Spiritually" was a favorite word in de Maat's lexicon, which always made him seem a little out of place at the Second City. A mud hen among peacocks, he was a gentle, caring teacher who spent his life among people who'd do anything to get noticed. For 32 years he taught the art of being funny to thousands of students at the Second City, Players Workshop, and Columbia College. Yet he was famous for not being funny. "He could say things that were funny in context," recalls Kim Clark, director of the Second City's writing program. "But he couldn't tell jokes or come up with funny things spontaneously."
De Maat would never be as successful as his most talented proteges. He was a different animal. This was already obvious on his first trip to the Second City, when he was just a boy. Delighted with the show, the young de Maat was eager to meet the actors who had made him laugh. He sat in a chair, his feet dangling above the floor, and looked up at Del Close. He said, "I thought you were very funny in the show tonight." Close, the cruel wit, snapped, "I hate children."
The line was a hit with the adults in the crowd, but it was still stinging in de Maat's memory when he recalled it 30 years later.
De Maat's parents were working-class; his dad was a janitor, his mother a nurse's aide. But his aunt, Josephine Forsberg, was an actress, and the Forsbergs and de Maats were close. His cousin Linnea Forsberg recalls spending hours playing with Martin and his older sister Patty. She was roughly the same age as Patty, but "whatever we did, Martin always played along."
It was Linnea's mother who first took Martin to the Second City. Josephine Forsberg had helped start the theater and would have been in the first company if she hadn't become pregnant. Forsberg later introduced Martin to Viola Spolin and the world of improvisational acting.
Spolin developed most of the theater games improvisers still play. In 1960 she returned to Chicago from California to teach these games to the performers at the Second City, the theater her son Paul Sills had cofounded with Howard Alk and Bernie Sahlins. At the time she was working on the book that became her seminal work: Improvisation for the Theater.
Forsberg was Spolin's assistant, charged with learning as much as she could before her mentor left. Spolin's games, which emphasized listening skills, cooperation, and playful self-actualization, promised to make highly skilled actors out of almost anyone. She loved to say, "This shit could change the world." When Spolin began teaching classes for children, Forsberg enlisted Patty, Martin, and Linnea. It didn't take long before Linnea, the current artistic director of the Players Workshop, dropped out. "I was boy crazy at the time," she says, "a teenager who wanted to date." Patty didn't stay much longer. Only Martin stuck it out.
The best conversation I ever had with de Maat was about his time studying with Spolin. It was also the first time we talked.
From the outset, I felt a deep, comfortable intimacy that was in keeping with a saying I'd heard around the Second City: "Talk to Martin, change your life." Over the years legions of improvisers sought him out for guidance. Speaking with de Maat, I understood why.
We talked for two hours, and he packed a lot into the time. He told me about his troubled childhood in Oak Park, though he was vague about why it was troubled. He said he wandered around Oak Park crying.
"How old were you when this happened?" I asked, imagining a confused, self-pitying adolescent not unlike myself at 15.
Nine? It seemed too young to be facing deep existential questions.
He said his aunt Josephine had saved his life by making him take improv classes with Spolin. Though he didn't know it at the time, he had found his life's work.
De Maat began working at Second City as a teenager, washing dishes in the kitchen and imagining a life on the stage. He studied theater at the University of Iowa, but college made him miserable and restless. Returning to Chicago, he began to teach improv at his aunt's school, the Players Workshop.
Soon he moved to New York to try his luck as an actor. He appeared in several shows, but supported himself with nontheatrical jobs. He worked for a while as an advertising art director, and he helped his uncle, filmmaker Rolf Forsberg, on a few documentaries, including The Late Planet Earth and Under Fire, a film shot in India about an untouchable who had risen to prominence by creating an organization to deliver Bibles. While in India he asked the National University in Kanpur to award him a PhD in communication arts; they agreed, based on his "life experience."
The classroom kept calling him. He returned off and on to teach at the Players Workshop, which for a long time was one of the few places to learn Spolin's theater games. Then in the late 80s he was invited by a former teacher, Sheldon Patinkin, to join the staff of the recently created Second City Training Center.
Soon after joining he became artistic director of the training center and set about reforming a program that had somehow gotten bogged down in negativity. The center prospered, turning out a generation of young, quick improvisers, such as Napier, Seeley, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Brian Stack, Miriam Tolin, Sean Abley, and others associated with the groups Jazz Freddy, Lois Kaz, and the Annoyance and Factory theaters. Years earlier a young David Mamet studied with de Maat before moving on to writing.
De Maat related all this information simply and humbly. He never inflated his role, unlike more needy improv teachers, like Del Close. He explained in a calm, reasonable tone that his foremost duty was to encourage strong improvisers.
I was charmed, and within a year I started taking classes with de Maat, hoping to know him better. I wasn't much different from most of his students, who constantly sought the approval he was always willing to give. He would tell his classes: "I am giving you permission to succeed" and "You don't have permission to disrespect yourself" and "I don't give you permission to fail." Studying with de Maat was comforting, and his students progressed quickly over the usual hurdles. In improv circles, he had achieved cultlike status.
Talking to his former students and colleagues, you'll hear the same praise repeated: he was very giving, very supportive, very positive. Second City producer Kelly Leonard recalls that after highly competitive auditions de Maat would sit on the steps and talk to every single person who didn't make it. "He would tell them why, that it was probably OK and the right thing to happen at this time."
De Maat met everyone with a hug and repeatedly greeted students with "welcome home," as if the Second City were a safe dormitory and private club. He was eager to validate, but there was something desperate in his eagerness, as though he wanted the validation he gave others but never received it.
Seeley recalls de Maat addressing her class at the Second City's Los Angeles training center: "You have the right to follow your dreams. I'm giving you permission to follow your dreams." It was advice he had given many times, only this time he got choked up, Seeley says, "when he got to the point about dreams."
"I remember thinking," says Seeley, "'Martin, who didn't give you permission to follow your dreams?'"
He was so insistently positive he sometimes came off as a fake. His eagerness to put on a happy face did not sit well with some people. Before becoming a devoted follower, Seeley thought de Maat was "a freak." She says, "I thought he was full of shit. I didn't get why he had to hug everyone."
When the Factory Theater--made up entirely of graduates from the Second City--put on their notorious anti-Second City show, Second City Didn't Want Us, de Maat was caricatured as a self-obsessed bubblehead, spouting empty Est and New Age platitudes.
It was a funny imitation, performed by a former student who had learned a lot about comedy from de Maat.
The Chicago improv scene of the 1990s was shaped by two teachers, Del Close and Martin de Maat. They used opposite techniques to arrive at the same end.
Close embraced the dark side, dabbling in the occult and reveling in his wild druggy bohemian past. He ripped his students to shreds, interrupting improvisations with bitter criticism.
De Maat saw the light. "He was our Yoda," Seeley says before correcting herself. "He is our Yoda, because Yoda was there for Luke even after he died."
Close was easily the more intellectual of the two. De Maat's strengths were empathetic and emotional. He was a great listener, and he could read a person quicker than anyone I've known. This made him an extraordinary teacher of improvisation. He always seemed to know exactly what to say to break through a student's block or what game to prescribe to change the temperature of a class.
He was a born teacher and his students recognized it. But for a long time his work at the Second City was overshadowed by Close's classes at the ImprovOlympic. "Del had a better press agent," says Napier. But it ran deeper than that. At times de Maat actually seemed afraid of drawing attention to himself. And even when he wanted the attention, he didn't get it.
He is all but absent from the recently published book The Second City: Backstage at the World's Greatest Comedy Theater, written by Sheldon Patinkin, his former teacher and employer. I remember his outrage as he described the pages devoted to other, lesser alums. He noted a spread devoted to Close and the ImprovOlympic, while pointing out that not a single paragraph described him or his work training improvisers. He told me he thought Patinkin unconsciously couldn't bring himself to acknowledge his former student, but I think something more was in play. In a sense de Maat was never a full member of the club.
He was clearly an insider. His association with the Second City went way back. "He told me stories of sitting in the dressing room with Barbara Harris in the early 60s, watching her darken her eyebrows," Kim Clark says. But part of him remained that hopeful, stagestruck boy. He never performed on the theater's main stage, and he never had his 15 minutes of fame on TV. Most people don't light up when they see his photo in the Second City lobby.
Then again, it might have nothing to do with the Second City. A year and a half ago, when I approached de Maat with the idea of doing a Reader story on him, his reaction was strange: a hesitant, unenthusiastic "Well, OK, sure, OK." He said, "I've blown it so many times before when people have wanted to write about me. I guess, yes, it is time to do this." Then he disappeared.
He took forever to return calls and canceled lunch appointments (once he did this as I arrived at the Second City). Another time a planned one-on-one interview turned into a six-person lunch party at which he was unusually quiet. Finally, last October he called to say he was ready to sit down for the story. He said he wasn't motivated by professional jealousy--he just wanted to "get it down."
As we sat talking on the front porch of his place on Belmont, I had a premonition of sorts. Whenever I made some reference to passing time--at one point I rather tritely said I was glad to finally capture his take on improv "for the ages"--de Maat would pause and become moody and silent. When he did respond, he spoke at great length in a roundabout manner, full of extraneous details.
Listening to the tape three days after his death, it was hard not to read a lot into these long Beckettian silences. I ask a question. Long pause as Martin thinks. Then comes a tangled, highly digressive answer to a simple question.
At one point I ask him what it was like to study with Spolin. He answers by first providing a sociological study of postwar America; then he tells me how the Second City fits in. He never gets to my question.
After two hours we barely cover his first year with Spolin. At several points he tells me deeply personal things and then asks to take them off the record. Dutifully I back up the tape and record over the candid bits, hoping in some future interview he will put them back on the record. Then it's time to go. I pack up my tape recorder, and he promises we'll meet again.
That was the last I saw him.
In retrospect, perhaps I approached him too aggressively. He was like a cat; he had to come to you. If you stepped too close when he wasn't expecting it, he would back away. My biggest mistake was assuming that he was as simple, approachable, and positive as he pretended to be.
"Martin was a complicated guy," Clark says. "I don't think I could understand him in a thousand years."
He pretended to be a rock, but he was really like a newspaper photograph, crystal clear from a distance but up close fuzzy and indistinct. The more I learned the less I knew him.
"Martin was a searcher," says Napier. "He worked harder at life than anyone. He was always looking for another answer."
On the morning of February 15, my phone won't stop ringing. Everyone I know in the improv world seems to call to say that after weeks of struggling with pneumonia de Maat refused further medical attention and died.
That evening I surf the Web for information about him. One site shows a large portrait. I click on the photo to download it and my computer crashes. I try to reboot, but something is wrong. My screen goes black for a second. When it comes back, the entire screen is filled with the picture of Martin, hand on his cheek, looking at once friendly and vaguely wary. My first impulse is to shut down the machine, but something mischievous seems to flash in his eyes. I decide to leave my computer on for the rest of the night, realizing this is as close as I'm going to get to Martin de Maat.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Barbara Brower.