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Interview with director and choreographer Lee Martino

Chelsea-Anne interviews theater, TV, and film director and choreographer Lee Martino.

By New York City

Director and choreographer, Lee Martino

Lee Martino's eloquent depiction of the entertainment industry comes from the perspective of a professional choreographer. She has staged hundreds of musicals throughout the country such as Brigadoon starring Marin Mazzie, Li'l Abner starring Cathy Rigby, Damn Yankees, On The Town, I Love My Wife, The Fantasticks, Carousel, and Kiss Me Kate, to name a few. Her resume as a director and choreographer in theater, television, film, and live events is extensive, and she is recipient of four Los Angeles Ovation Awards, three Los Angles Drama Critic Circle Awards, and two Garland Awards. Some of her other work includes, Shall We Dance, On Ice, an NBC special combining Broadway Dancers with Olympic Ice Dancing Pairs, American Stars in Concert (with American Idol contestants Kimberly Locke, Melinda DooLittle, and Diana Degarmo,) Warner Bros. animated features The King and I and Alpha Omega, and the dancing Jenny Craig commercial.

Lee emphasizes that students should stay focused and should utilize their time with their professors. Lee also recommends that dancers stay in class, keep their instrument in shape, are collaborative, and are, above all, passionate.

What advice do you give to graduating students? "I tell them to stay focused and to keep their eye on the prize, to explore every opportunity and every avenue that is open to them, and to be open-minded."

Do you have any advice that you give specifically to dancers? "Yes, to stay in class, take as many classes as they can and to keep training even once they're out of college, even once they're working. Keep training. Keep your instrument in shape."

If you could go back in time and speak to your college self, what would you say? "I would probably tell my college self the same thing. I teach at a college right now. It's the same thing I tell my college students: to realize that your professors and your teachers in college are professionals and they are academics as well. To have a really clear, healthy respect for them but to not be intimidated by them. And to remember their humanity. A lot of time students get so caught up in, 'That's the teacher. I'm the student,' and they forget to be people with each other and that's really important. And to have a great respect for those people but to not be intimidated by them.

I remember so many times when I was in college, I was so in awe and so intimidated by my instructors because they were so fabulous in their profession that I wasn't always accessible enough. I like my students to be accessible. I like them to communicate with me, and if you're intimidated, you don't have a good, healthy communication."

What was your biggest mistake in your career? "Well, I hope I haven't made it yet! You know, I think probably the biggest mistake that I've made is worrying too much about what other people may think and not staying my own course. Sometimes you can be side-tracked by the fact that you're too worried about outside influences. I think that's a growing process."

Where did you get your first job in the theater, and what was your big break? "Boy, this is a hard question for me because I bounced around so much. My first job choreographing my own show was for a high-school, and my second big job was at Glendale Community Theatre, a community theater in the round. And after that I just took every job I could get to cut my teeth, to get my feet wet and to keep working the craft. I think one of the big breaks for choreographers is when you meet directors that you then get to begin to work with at bigger venues and with more professional people who do it constantly for a living. It's a slow, steady climb.

The big breaks come for you in different ways, when the opportunity is married with the preparedness, so you can rise to the occasion. I've been fortunate to work with directors like David Galligan who work all over the place, and he does so many benefits, and he's allowed me to work with so many stars, with so many celebrities who up your game. I think that you get your big break when the work speaks for itself. When people finally recognize, 'You know what? Their work is good. They're consistent, they deliver and they can do what I want.'"

What are three habits that contributed to your success? "I think your habits do become your characteristics. 1) Passion. 2) Discipline 3) And especially in the theater, Collaboration. You've got to have an open mind. Theater is a bunch of peoples' visions. I just did a show at Berkeley Rep, and it was collaborative from the writer to the director to the set designer to the lighting designer to the choreographer to the stage manager to the actors. I think that you have to have the passion for what you do. You have to have the discipline to put that passion into action, and you have to collaborate in order for it to work in the real world."

How do you get your first job? "I was assisting someone, a wonderful choreographer named Rikki Lugo who is a dear friend and taught me so much about how to be a choreographer. And she couldn't do a job. My father had just passed away, and I was dancing for her, and she said, 'You know, you need some new direction in your life. You need something else.' This is where the humanity of the people that you work with comes in. She said, 'go choreograph this show at this high-school,' and because I was in such a transition in my emotional and personal life, it was like, okay, what do I have to loose?

The humanity of heart has to come through. What I stress for people who want to be a choreographer is to gather as much dance vocabulary as you can. Take a lighting class. Take a costume class, so you can communicate with other members of the team, so you can understand where they're coming from, and then you can tell them what you need to make your own art work."

What are you working on now? "I've just finished working at Berkeley Rep, which is a great regional theater. Now I'm doing a show called, Life Without Makeup, which is the story of Rita Moreno's life. She's in it. We're doing a lot of dancing. She's fantastic. She's just a legend. We're working on that. It just opened, and I'm going back in two weeks to clean it up. It's going to move places. And I'm working on, Hairspray, for Musical Theatre West down in Long Beach. And I'm doing a show called, Life Can Be a Dream, an original show by Roger Bean, the man who wrote, The Wonderettes."

My Sum-Up I am honored to have spoken with Lee Martino. She is so understanding of the human spirit and of the stresses that college students face. Here are the tips that most resonated with me:

1. Stay Focused: For students, for dancers, and for students who are dancers, it is important to stay in class.

2. Be Accessible: Suggest grabbing coffee with your teacher after class so that you can discuss your passions and your industry in a place other than a class setting.

3. Stop Worrying: Focus not on how others will perceive you so much as how each decision you make will affect yourself.

4. Be Prepared: Instead of spending energy on wondering when your big break will come, focus on honing your craft so that when your big moment does arrive, you're ready.

5. Collaborate: Be sure you can support your passion and discipline with the ability to articulate your ideals to others, and, most significantly, be able to collaborate with others so that your vision can be carried out succinctly.


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