Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Titling the Memoir

Finding a title is hard.

I wrote thousands of reviews back in the day, and I never faced this problem: on nytheatre[dot]com the title of the show was all that was needed for a headline. But what I am working on now is a book--my memoir; stories from my life--and it needs a proper name.

I started with "Living the List." The idea was that my book was going to be like a bucket list, a parade of anecdotes and incidents that collectively comprised a "bucket list" that I might have constructed for myself if I'd had any inkling of how my life was going to turn out. There was even going to be a self-help-ish moral: don't MAKE a bucket list, just LIVE it. Hence, "Living the List."

This turned out to be a great way for me to jump-start a project that I had wanted to do for years but had not found a way into. But it was not quite what the book ultimately wanted to be about. 

I wasn't writing a self-help book. I was writing about my own journey in life.

So, without using my name, how to find a few pithy words that mean me?

My first impulse was to use the description of myself that I always loved best. It was coined by playwright Kirk Wood Bromley, who, in an interview, said that I was "an engine of enthusiasm for the art." That has always seemed to me to be exactly right in depicting my role in the indie theater community. So, "Engine of Enthusiasm": that was definitely it.

Except that alone, on a cover, without context or explanation, it didn't seem to make sense. Back to the drawing board.

Another idea soon struck my fancy. In junior high school and in high school I had been voted "Most Likely to Succeed" by my classsmates. I thought it would be cool to contrast the likely conception that they had about what that success would look like with what my success ultimately was: that instead of becoming the wealthy and powerful corporate magnate that I seemed destined to be, I became the champion of alternative downtown theater. Subverting norms, that sort of thing; a little irony. I liked it.

But a quick scan on Amazon showed me that only about twenty dozen other authors liked that title too. Nobody would ever find my "Most Likely to Succeed" among the myriad memoirs, biographies, and business books bearing the same moniker.

Ok, what I really need is something specific to ME. Something that is unmistakably Martin.

In my book I recall a pivotal moment in my theater career, when I hosted the opening event for the New York International Fringe Festival for the very first time. I raced to the stage and screamed to the audience "ARE YOU READY TO FRINGE?!?"

Maybe that's the title: "Are You Ready to Fringe?" Or, better: "Ready to Fringe." 

But if you aren't a theater festival person, won't you think a book with that title might be about someone in a radical political movement? Or, maybe, about crocheting?

Still not there.

Sometimes, the answer to your question is literally in front of your face. When I made my Instagram account a few months ago, I needed a very short pithy description of myself, my "tagline," so to speak. I wrote, without thinking much about it: Indie Theater Guy.

I don't know why it took me so long, but finally I remembered it. And once I did, it was like: OF COURSE that's the title. Because, come on, Indie Theater Guy is like my BRAND.

And so, here we are. Indie Theater Guy by Martin Denton. 

(My friend Kelly McAllister actually texted me as soon as he saw it to tell me how perfect he thought it was.)

The hardest part of making this book is now complete! We're about a month away from publication.

Check out the Indie Theater Guy website for updates and info.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023


 On my goodreads author profile there's a place to indicate "influences." I thought hard about who I should list there, and I decided I'd share some of those thoughts today.

Of the seventeen books I am credited with creating, sixteen are anthologies of plays that I edited as part of NYTE's publication program. For those books, the main influence on my work is clear: John Gassner. His play collections were the first ones I ever read--checked out regularly from our public library when my sister Nita and I were children. I'm afraid he's mostly forgotten now (here's the piece about him on Wikipedia) but his impact on the work I ultimately did in this field is incalculable, in terms of both inspiration and the ineffable elegance of his books. 

My seventeenth book--which will be published in a couple of months--is a memoir. Now I've read a lot of memoirs in my time, especially by people involved in show biz and the arts. Many of these served as negative examples to me. For example, I love Hermione Gingold's How to Grow Old Disgracefully but the book, while quite funny, doesn't always feel completely candid or forthright (as opposed to true, which it may well be). Stephen Sondheim's two volumes Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat are invaluable accounts of his professional career and absolutely worth reading, but so much of the man is missing from them. (And yes, George sings, in Sunday in the Park, "I am what I do"; but we all know there's more to a human being than that.) Julie Andrews's first memoir Home is a book I never finished: she reviews her childhood in more extreme detail than I really needed to know. Similarly Joel Grey's Master of Ceremonies is so squarely focused on his sexuality and sex life that the parts of his life that I was most curious about (i.e., his career in theater) were given relatively short shrift.

So, I had lots of ideas about what NOT to do. As for what I did: Well, I have been writing for public consumption for decades. Thousands of reviews, plus lots of incidental articles, profiles, interviews, think pieces, blog posts, what-have-you. I have developed a style over all this time, and it's one that's very natural to me. (Who influenced my reviewing style? Frank Rich, Ethan Mordden, David Richards, Harold Clurman; all the likely suspects, I suppose.) Those who I asked to read the early manuscripts of Indie Theater Guy all agreed on at least one thing--that the book sounds like me. That is exactly what I was hoping for.

Stylistically, I can point to one recent memoirist whom I think I have at least subconsciously been guided by, and that's Andrew Tobias. I recently read two of his books, My Vast Fortune and The Best Little Boy in the World Grows Up, and both are characterized by a lightly humorous, breezy, informal, somewhat self-deprecating style that I enjoy very much and that I think may have affected how I approached the task of writing my own book.

Finally, structurally, Indie Theater Guy owes a gigantic debt to Patrick Dennis's Auntie Mame. Even Nita, who introduced Auntie Mame to me, reading it to me (with great expressiveness and style!) when I was perhaps five or six years old, didn't notice that the structure of my memoir is appropriated from Dennis's framing device. His book is a series of recollections of larger-than-life extravagant adventures (those of his aunt, whose life he compares to that of a Readers Digest heroine billed as the "most unforgettable character"). It will be hard to say this humbly, but: so is mine. 

Check out the official Indie Theater Guy website for more info about the book and related projects.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

How I Came To Write a Memoir

So I've written a book. It's a memoir: not the story of my life, but stories from my life. The fun ones, about indie theater. It's called Indie Theater Guy.

Ever since we shut down nytheatre[dot]com and The New York Theatre Experience, Inc. and Indie Theater Now I've pondered what I might do to hold on to the two decades of my life that they encompassed. There are a couple of tangible markers: the sixteen play anthologies that live on in libraries and on book shelves; and the League of Independent Theater. But what about the rest of it?

It seemed to me, for a long while, that the way to process my experiences was to collect all of my reviews into a book. But eventually I realized that while those thousands of reviews comprise a lovely kind of history of New York theater, they don't tell my story at all. 

And I came to understand that it was my story that I needed to tell next.

A chance occurrence gave me the inspiration for how the book could be structured. It took me about three weeks to write the first draft, and those three weeks flew: I was more productive and satisfied doing this work than I have been since the heady days when we launched our website, our podcasts, our play anthologies. When I came out the other side, with a book that I thought might be worth reading, I felt validated, energized.

I recently learned about Erikson's stages of psychosocial development. The basic idea is that as people grow and age they progress through eight distinct phases. In the final stage, which happens around the age of 65 (I'm 61), you reflect on what you've done in your life and ask the existential question "Is it okay to have been me?"

It turned out that in writing this book I was asking that existential question. And I was well pleased with the answer.

The memoir is an account of the journey I took, from being a theater-loving kid (and then man) who decided to make a website about New York theater as a way to learn how the Internet worked, to becoming, well, Indie Theater Guy. It's a collection of adventures with a community of artists who enthralled and inspired me. It's reminded me how much all that happened in those two decades meant to me. And it's made me eager to come back for Act Two.

Indie Theater Guy is going to be available first on Kindle, for release on March 8, 2023. It's available for pre-order now.