A Conversation with Leslie Martinson and Jeffrey Lo

The five years of directing collaboration between Associate Artistic Director Leslie Martinson and Company Manager and Casting Associate Jeffrey Lo can be summed up in one sentence, aptly coined by Lo:

Proof that warrior water painters are still superior.


Acting as assistant director, Lo has collaborated with Martinson on Superior Donuts, The Pitmen Painters, Time Stands Still, Warrior Class, and most recently Water by the Spoonful. This month, they will begin rehearsals for their sixth production, the stirring drama Proof. We recently sat down with Lo and Martinson for a conversation about their directing process, partnership, and the resonance of Proof to today’s Silicon Valley audience.

TWSV: Proof marks your sixth collaboration as director and assistant director here at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley! How did this partnership begin?

Lo: I think Leslie brought me on for Superior Donuts on blind faith.

Martinson: No! We had coffee!

Lo: Here’s how the story goes. My first job out of college was in the 2010 New Works Festival here at TheatreWorks. I was a sound board operator for the readings of Red Clay and Variations on a Theme. I had moved back home to the Bay Area from UC Irvine the day before and was just relishing in the fact that I was working at a professional theatre. On a dinner break, I was quietly eating my food when I overheard Leslie telling one of the actors that her next project was Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts. Now, I am a huge fan of Tracy Letts’ work, so after that evening’s staged reading had finished, I approached Leslie in the lobby.  I told her: “Hi, my name is Jeffrey. I am a new sound board operator here. I overheard you were directing Superior Donuts. I love Tracy Letts’ work. I’m sure you already have an assistant director, but I studied writing and directing. If there is any way I can be involved with you on the project I would really love the opportunity.”

And Leslie kindly gives me her email address and tells me to send her my resume and information in, and I respond with, “Actually, hold on.”

I run back to the sound board where my bag is and I grab my resume and materials which I always carry with me and hand it to her. And THEN we had coffee and five shows.

Superior Donuts 2 credit Tracy MartinLance Gardner in 2010’s Superior Donuts. Gardner will be returning to TheatreWorks this season to play Hal in Proof. Photo by Tracy Martin.

TWSV: Can you describe your individual directing styles and why you complement each other so well?

Martinson: In the rehearsal room, I am interested in the life and forward motion of each scene. I want to see that the actors are concentrating on the moments. We have to know what’s not decided or what’s at stake at any given moment.

Lo: Watching Leslie, I’ve seen a dialogue between all of the artists to figure out how you are going to create something. She creates a great balance of research and preparation, while allowing every artist in the room to create and be an artist.

Martinson: The trickiest play we’ve done together was definitely Water by the Spoonful. For the first act, two completely separate plots are going on in alternating scenes. The audience does not know how the two stories come together until the final line of the act. Our job at the directing table was quite different than the job of the actors. They were only within their reality of a given scene. They knew the backstory, which the audience didn’t know. We had to make sure that the emotional shape of the first act had a flow so that one scene led to the next, regardless of the fact that the characters in one scene were not in the next one.

Goldstar Water by the Spoonful

Sabina Zuniga Varela and Miles Gaston Villanueva in Water by the Spoonful. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Lo: Leslie knows that I am an artist and that I’m also learning. I have a comfort level with Leslie to share my opinions or any ideas that I have and Leslie will take some of them.  If she’s not looking to incorporate any of my notes, she’ll always tell me why, making it a learning experience. I’ve always found that very helpful.

Martinson: Sometimes in rehearsal you try something and think you’re being creative, but you end up having to go back to what we call “Directing 101.” Any time I’ve gone on a loop and gotten myself in trouble, I always turn to my young Padawan and say “She has to cross on her own line. Directing 101.” It becomes a learning experience for me.

Lo: With Leslie, I’m comfortable saying: “This is a stupid idea, but I need to say it out loud.”

Martinson: And it is rarely stupid and often helpful.

WC - 1st Rehearsal

Martinson and Lo in rehearsal for 2013’s Warrior Class with actors Pun Bandhu, Robert Sicular, Delia MacDougall, and the production team.

TWSV: Why is Proof relevant to today’s Silicon Valley audience?

Martinson: There’s this phrase that describes the academic fields of science: “the STEM fields.” It stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The phrase that I’m fond of is STEAM – for the power created when “Art” is added. We explore the way those other fields work through the arts. This play is about a young woman who is underestimated by everyone except her father, and now her father is not around. She knows what she knows, including her own worth, and that’s still not enough. At some point you do need validation and support from the people around you. I think the notion of being under too much pressure is rampant in Silicon Valley.

Lo: I think this is also a play that explores the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated field.

Martinson: I know what you mean, but I guess I have trouble calling it a “male-dominated field.” The field, mathematics, and the ideas have no gender. I remember in my high school calculus class being told by my teacher that I had “the highest grade of the girls.” This is math! Your grade is your grade! That teacher believed that he was telling me I did as well as could be expected, given that I was a girl. In Catherine’s case, she just gets ignored.  The cultural bias, both about her gender, and about her schooling, is such that she simply gets neglected and ignored.

TWSV: This production of Proof features a cast of African American actors. How did that come about?

Martinson: Well, part of our mission here at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is to create theatre that looks like the Bay Area. In any case, in casting, the first person to come to mind to play Robert was L. Peter Callender, with whom I had worked on our production of Radio Golf. He’s a tremendous actor with just the right combination of genius and madness. L. Peter is an African American actor, so we cast an African American family around him, which fits well with the Chicago setting of the play, and adds some layers to our production. We’re already watching Catherine face the challenges of a young, American woman working in mathematics. As a young, black, American woman, there’s another set of cultural norms and expectations to negotiate her way through as well.  It also suggests a backstory about why Hal, the doctoral student, has such strong loyalty to his mentor, Robert. While the University of Chicago has a long history of admission and recognition of African American scholars, we can still imagine that a young man of color might find only a few role models in his department.

RadioGolfTWReview3 Mark Kitaoka

Aldo Billingslea and L. Peter Callender in Radio Golf. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.

TWSV: Can you describe your process when working with your design team?

Martinson: There is a large amount of research involved in the design process. It was very clear to Annie Smart, our scenic designer, and me that this play is shaped in a way that focuses internally. In contrast, when Eric Flatmo and I were working on Water by the Spoonful, we were very clear that the motion of that play was upwards. That play was about was about standing up and ended with the characters climbing to a waterfall. Whereas with Proof, we were clear it was taking you through the emotional and mental pressures inside Catherine’s mind. We’re making scenic choices that help us look in.

Water By the Spoonful 1_Kevin Berne

Zilah Mendoza, Patrick Kelly Jones, Anna Ishida, and Anthony J. Haney in Water by the Spoonful. Photo by Kevin Berne.

TWSV: Why should young people see this play?

Lo: The play is very accessible to people of all ages. At different points in your life, the relationships between the characters in this play will mean something completely different to you. There’s a really compelling look at the relationship between two sisters. In addition, there is a romantic relationship that I find really funny, a father-daughter relationship, as well as a mentor-pupil relationship. I think it explores a lot of relationships that younger folks will connect with, but also feel as though they’re getting a peek into another world that they’re not a part of.

Martinson: Everyone should come see this play because it’s brilliant. There are three characters in their twenties and it’s unusual to have a play with three strong characters in their twenties. Catherine, Hal, and Claire know who they are, they know what they’re doing, and it’s still tricky! They still run into trouble. I think that young audience members will relate to this. It is funny, illuminating, and brilliant at the same time, so come!

Water - 1st rehearsal

Martinson and Lo in rehearsal with the cast of Water by the Spoonful.

Proof opens October 7th – get your tickets now!

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