Saturday, July 01, 2006

INTERVIEW – MARTY BURNETT

Cuauhtémoc Q. Kish (CQK): When did you get to San Diego?

Marty Burnett (MB): I came to San Diego in 1979 from Omaha, Nebraska in my trusty Buick Opal.

CQK: I take it you were invited to participate in set design somewhere in the city?

MB: No; I had a brother living in the area and I just packed up the Opal and headed west. I snagged a job in sales and started auditioning for some smaller parts in the area. It was through Bill Bruce and Tim McOrry (Coronado Playhouse) that I was offered a staff technical job in set construction. They gave me a shot at it because I seemed to have a knack for tech design and construction.

CQK: You’re self-trained; that’s pretty impressive.

MB: I never took any formal classes but I watched and mentored with Professor James Baker (Grossmont College), who was an excellent craftsman. We actually formed a business to design and build sets called “Props and Drops.” We had business in Las Vegas, Chicago and other places.

CQK: Is that business still operating in San Diego?

MB: No, unfortunately James died a few years after we formed the business of a heart attack at the shop at the age of 58 and when he passed I gave up the business. It was overwhelming for the two of us, let alone trying to run it solo.

CQK: When did you begin your career at North Coast Rep?

MB: In 1992 John Brian Davis, who was a costume designer, introduced me to Olive Blakistone and I designed a Chekhov show with Rosina Reynolds for them.

CQK: While working at the North Coast Rep did the Blakistones, Shawn Murray or David Ellenstein leave the tech design up to you?

MB: Yes; pretty much so. The producers and directors all shared their unique vision of the show with me but that was the extent of it.

[Our thoughts wondered at times during the interview to some of the great individuals we have lost recently in the local San Diego theatre community. One of those was John Christopher Guth (December 30, 1965 – June 9, 2006). Marty made a comment that many in the local theatre never become wealthy as a result of their participation in theatre, but the work is fulfilling, exciting and something you continue to love.]

CQK: It sounds like “family” to Marty Burnett is the theatre?

MB: Although I have a brother who lives here and although I enjoy his family, I also think of family as the North Coast Rep’s Theatre School where I participate occasionally as an actor/mentor. It is truly amazing to see these kids progress from as early as eight and then accept a scholarship to some of the finest schools in the nation. Some of these kids are brilliant. I get great joy watching their artistic growth through the years.

CQK: How many shows do you design per season?

MB: When I started I did about seven shows. Now—with off-nights and the theatre school one-acts—it’s about 12 now.

CQK: This sounds like an impossible job for one man.

MB: Although I do much of the work myself, I get support from volunteers like Irving Applebaum who just passed away recently. He was putting in 40-hour weeks and logged in thousands of hours. We have some of the best volunteers of any theatre in San Diego.

CQK: How many Irving Applebaums does it take to get the set ready for use?

MB: The actual set design and building process is done by me, but I call out for help at various stages like the half dozen volunteers or so needed when we strike a set.

CQK: Is your process pretty much the same with every show?

MB: Yes; there’s the initial design, followed by the model and then I add color.

CQK: How often do you read the script prior to the execution of the design?

MB: Once.

CQK: Are you guided by the Board or the Artistic Director?

MB: I’m mostly guided by the budget. The Board has little or no say in the set design
while the director may ask for specifics like a muted feeling or the like. David Ellenstein asks that any design not call attention to itself.

CQK: Does your current contract restrict you from working other tech gigs?

MB: No; I’ve stipulated that when there is time available that I will have the ability to accept assignments from other theatres, such as the Avo.

CQK: Speaking of the Avo I recently caught a production in which Marty Burnett was caught “acting” on one of his set designs. Can you tell us something about that?

[Marty Burnett studied journalism in college with a theatre minor. He can boast being directed by none other than Edward Albee in a production of The Death of Bessie Smith. The play may have been forgotten by their audience, but Marty will never forget that “horrible” experience with one of our best living playwrights.]

MB: Sandra Ellis Troy told me that I was the mailman in On Golden Pond and I should do the part. So I did.

CQK: Name a few of your proudest moments in regards to set design.

MB: Tally’s Folley, Long Days Journey into the Night and Noises Off, although I’ve liked them all. One of the most challenging was No Way to Treat a Lady. And one that I liked but was not universally embraced by the critics was Terra Nova.

[MARTY’S PLEA: Marty implores the San Diego theatre community to consider a centralized unit for set design and props. He thinks a collaborative would greatly benefit the smaller theatres, minimizing costs and maximizing the available “ready to use” props.]

CQK: How would you describe Marty Burnett in three words?

MB: Funny, solitary and sexy.

CQK: What do you bring to San Diego theatre?

MB: Attention to detail.

CQK: What was your childhood ambition?

MB: To be a doctor; then I hit the wall and things changed.

[Marty has six brothers, three of whom are doctors while one is a lawyer; he is the only sibling involved in theatre.]

CQK: Tell us one of your fondest memories with the theatre community?

MB: Running to the Colorado River and enjoying the sun and the water with individuals like John Guth.

CQK: Any plays you are especially anxious to design?

MB: Shakespeare.

CQK: What’s a perfect day for you?

MB: A non-fat latte and a fresh muffin; a read-thru of the New York Times, and watching nature; birds, the ocean, the sky; sitting on a hilltop...

CQK: At the end of the day, what does the word accomplishment mean to you?

MB: Bringing a smile to someone’s face.

CQK: What’s your favorite theatrical word?

MB: Blocking.

CQK: And if you made a wrong turn and ended up facing the devil at the end of your life and career, what would you say to him?

MB: Can I have a front row?

Marty is a solitary man but open to the idea of sharing his life with another special person. But at this moment, he’s completely fulfilled with his job, a job that gives him great satisfaction. And we are so very fortunate that he’s content to share his huge talent with the San Diego Theatre Scene. Let’s enjoy this ride together and allow Marty to continue to bring a smile to our faces.

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