Ella Martin is one of those women who I describe as “elegantly intelligent.” By this I mean that she doesn’t Ethel Merman-broadcast her knowledge and wits, but nor is she remotely a wallflower. She just is as she is, and it only takes you seconds to find out how lovely that “is” is.
Beyond being an elegantly intelligent writer, director and actress, Ella is also the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative Study Director, spearheading the collection and communication of the quantitative evidence that female playwrights are drastically under-represented on Los Angeles stages. She leads that charge, and works on her thought-provoking plays, from space we peep in upon…
Ella: (laughing) I’m glad!
Me: Usually I ask people to rate how much they’ve “cleaned up” their workspace for me. But when you sent me photos, you labeled them “before Feng Shui” and “after Feng Shui”—which speaks to a whole new level of clean up!
Ella: I was working with the desk in its “before Feng Shui” state for about 6 months. The “before” photos were actually taken in December 2010—long before you asked. Things were pretty sprawled out and “disorganized.” You’ll notice there is a wig behind the screen. I like to keep my ideas around each other, literally, even if they are conventionally considered “unrelated.”
Me: So what brought about your change of Feng Shui heart?
Ella: Things were getting kind of difficult to find. I couldn’t stand it anymore.
Me: In the spectrum of what we’re seeing as “before” and “after,” where does your desk usually reside when you’re writing?
Ella: Actually, the “after” photos you see were taken in May, and fairly close to what I have going on today. That said, I’m not actually much of a desk-writer. I have never been that into desks, except at “work.” When I’m writing, I sometimes put an idea down on a blank “Pages” document or whatever, and let that sit for a while. . . But most of my “hard work” is done first by hand, then put into the computer, and then printed out for a reading or a go-over/revision.
Me: Really! I wouldn’t have ever expected that “process” from you.
Ella: I am one of those “last kids” who wasn’t raised on computers, so I still think better when it comes to writing down my thoughts physically, fingers to pen to paper. It’s hard to really justify why I feel so strongly about this, but then again no one’s asking me to, so I think we’re good.
Me: I agree.
Ella: I should mention that I am pro-environment, and try to print as few drafts as possible. For a long time I actually did not have a printer, and would only print a new draft of a script when things got to a really advanced stage.
Me: That’s really interesting to hear, because that’s how I operate too—and it also started from a place of being paper-conscious. I think this is somehow inter-related to us both being very tactile book-lovers—this notion of valuing a piece of paper. And I see so many terrific books on your bookshelf!
Ella: Thank you! I love my books! I have always been a big reader.
Me: The first things that popped out for me are your Sondheim book and “Barber of Seville”—musical theater related.
Ella: Actually those books are really “family-related” for me. My parents are classical musicians who met in an orchestra pit on the national revival tour of “Camelot” with Richard Burton.
Ella: And I’ve loved and admired Sondheim from an early age. He is a genius! One of my favorite things to do as a kid was watch the VHS of “Into the Woods” with Bernadette Peters, Tom Aldredge—whom I later saw live in “Twelve Angry Men” on Broadway— Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, and so many other wonderful, wonderful performers. I have always loved fairy tales, and the idea in “Into the Woods” that if you turn things around enough you may stop learning what you expected to learn and discover that new/other things are also true. . .Hard to explain.
Me: I actually think you just explained it really well. What about “Barber of Seville” is family-related for you?
Ella: It’s a libretto/CD set that I borrowed from my younger sister, who is studying to be an opera singer—she’s very good! I’m also a director and directed my sister (Meagan Martin) and a talented young baritone named Louis Fiol in the Rosina/Figaro duet from the opera for the Santa Monica College Opera Workshop. I spent a lot of time studying the opera and the period and choosing a direction for us to move in for the project. It was a lot of fun. SMC really has a wonderful program, for anybody who is interested in opera or music. Plus, Rossini is magical to me. His rhythms are fun and in the hands of a spirited and focused performer each bel canto embellishment takes on delightful, specific meaning.
Me: That’s awesome, Ella. I had no idea you’d done that. Now I feel like I want to ask you about every single book on those shelves!
Ella: In general most of the books you see are stage/music/ “language”-related. There’s a shelf dedicated to projects I’m working on or interested in writing—stuff to do with the medieval European period is particularly interesting to me right now, though some iconic American stories are over there as well—“The Great Gatsby,” a book of poems by Emily Dickinson… Plenty of things to think about forever!
Me: I know the feeling.
Ella: The top shelf, which is “overflow,” are plays I’m interested in staging with my theater company, Theatre Mab Town Hall. Plays like “Europe” by David Greig, or “Inherit the Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. We also do lots of original material. We’re fairly new but we have a show coming up later this month that is all new work and I am really excited about it.
Me: When and where is the show so we can plug it here?
Ella: “Mab Nights” will be held in Santa Monica at the Church in Ocean Park, on 235 Hill Street. They’re happening Monday July 25th [Sara’s editor note: this is tonight!] and Monday, August 1st. Doors open at 7:30pm for live music with Liz Eldridge, poetry by Joanna Bateman, and painting by visual artist Zach Brown. Theatrical performances begin at 8:30pm and last for roughly an hour.
Me: Plugged! And, readers beware, it seems like Ella Martin also has a lot of things in the hopper…
Ella: It’s funny. One of the things of Feng Shui—and I tried to do it to my whole apartment, not just my desk—is that you’re supposed to keep everything clear/ uncluttered. And you’re not supposed to make things chaotic for yourself by having too many things swirling around you. But as you can see I held onto a lot of different ideas I’m still excited about exploring.
Me: Tell me about the series of tschotskes on your side table. They seem like they are each there with a purpose or meaning—another tenet of Feng Shui, isn’t it?
Ella: (laughs) Isn’t it odd how that worked out? You know, they are there because they are a bunch of similar things I discovered I had that go together. I’ve always been impressed with people who are able to set up their living spaces in a clear, organized way, and who are able to put things together in meaningful ways. For me, I just realized I had things that sort of went together according to me. Some of those little things are family-related, or stuff I found when I was a kid that I thought was really meaningful. The matchbox is from Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, this incredible company that came to UCLA to do Chekhov’s “Ivanov” a couple years ago: Shout out to the now-no more but absolutely incredible UCLA Live! International Theatre Festival! That production really made an impression on me as a “creator” and I like to be reminded of it.
Me: That’s a really lovely notion.
Ella: Basically, I try to surround myself with things I like and that remind me of things and people that make me happy. I prefer to do that with actual “things,” rather than photographs of people or things. I can endow “things” with memories, whereas lots of family/friend photographs seem to be telling me what they are. And in a room as small as mine is, I like a little space to imagine.
Sara Israel is a writer and director living in Los Angeles.