Michael Martinez describes his young self as a “strange kid. I had trouble finding my place in this world.” That suddenly changed at Saguaro High School when he walked into drama class. When he found the stage, he finally felt at home, “a home where I could be myself and celebrate my differences, celebrate theater and create music.”
When he graduated from the University of Arizona with a music degree in 2001, he walked right into Tucson’s Live Theatre Workshop and landed a job playing piano, finding his stage home for good. He became more involved in the theater as a musician and while teaching at Tucson’s Fine Arts Youth Academy, the Opening Minds Through the Arts project, and directing contemporary music at First United Methodist Church.
Completing his master’s degree in public administration for nonprofits in 2011 brought two worlds together perfectly. “It’s the perfect storm — the business piece and the artistic piece. It creates a wonderful business model,” says Martinez. And, it readied him to step right into the role as Live Theatre Workshop’s executive director.
Martinez says that at the core, he tries to replicate what he experienced in high school: “To create a place for kids and adults to grow, be creative, be safe and to get into someone else’s shoes, and think outside their own world and experiences.”
The nonprofit theater produces inclusive, accessible and affordable professional theater and education that aim to entertain, instruct and enlighten children, adults and families. The theater’s program series intentionally is designed to build a theater culture throughout Tucson and build a new generation of theater lovers. “Tucson is an excellent theater town,” says Martinez, “and older patrons are wonderful. But, the effort is to make theater a community-wide event so we’ll make sure it stays this way.”
To that end, the theater’s year-round education program is a central focus. Professional weekly stage productions, weekly classes plus summer and winter drama day camps led by professionals introduce theater to about 600 participants annually.
The theater’s foundation and donors also make possible workshops, artist in residence programs and free programs and performances at about 15 underfunded Tucson schools. “Kids are introduced to and learn to love theater through these programs, and many continue on to take classes and even advance to become performers in the shows themselves,” he adds. It’s growing the next generation of theater lovers.
He describes the collaborative and family environment the theater has fostered. “High school drama teachers teach the summer programs with school kids. High school seniors exit the classes, head into UA, come back for internships or return when they graduate. They are already part of the family,” he says. Martinez sees value and growth in the children exposed to theater, beyond self-confidence. “That feeling good about yourself is an antidote to many social problems,” he adds.
Martinez has grown the nonprofit with strategic intent. “The organization is solvent and growing. But, it is outgrowing the existing space, especially for education,” he says. Patrons love the small, intimate theater space. “We need auxiliary space for education but want to maintain the vibe. We are planning, studying, communicating with donors, patrons and parents to understand and maintain the success of the place,” he notes.
For now, Martinez has shifted some of his focus to both the past and the future. When his parents, Lisa Garland and Alex Martinez, married, his Catholic father converted to Judaism. “That made me a little different growing up,” he recalls. He discovered old tintype photos of his paternal great-grandparents in Mexico, which looked like some were wearing yarmulkes. He thought that couldn’t be, until an aunt delved into family genealogy.
“She found we are 45 percent from the Iberian Peninsula with a high percentage of European Jews on the Catholic side,” he says, chuckling.
As he enters his 40s, he has been exploring that heritage, finding birth certificates and tracing maiden names. “It’s mysterious, addictive and delightful,” he says. In addition, it fuels his desire to return to Segovia, Spain, where he previously studied, with a new strategic intent.