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April 15, 2005

Growing a garden under stage lights

A props master brings forth blossoms to convince
the most discerning opera-goer

Cleveland--Now that spring finally seems to be returning to Ohio, many are planning gardens and making first trips to garden centers.

Imagine being able to do that for a living. Such has been the good fortune of Terry Martin, props master for Cleveland Opera, who has spent the last several weeks scouring northeast Ohio for flowers, plants, and garden fixtures in his effort to create a truly authentic Japanese garden for the company’s Madame Butterfly, which plays at the State Theater in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square this weekend.

After doing considerable research to understand what Japanese gardens are really like, Martin set about transforming the sets from previous productions to create something that would be not only ravishing to the audience’s eye, but also satisfying to his own desire for authenticity. Even if only a few appreciate the difference, the native Ohioan explained, “getting it right” is very much part of his personal artistic creed.

Martin began to develop this attention to artistic effect back in his childhood in southern Ohio. Rather than play sports in high school, he traveled two hours every Saturday to Wheeling to study oil painting. When his family moved to East Liverpool, that talent led him to design sets in his high school theater department. He then majored in theater at Wittenberg University, whose small program let him acquire lots of hands-on experience that has served him well since.

Martin first came to Cleveland while still in college, working for three seasons at Berea Summer Theater. That, in turn, led to contacts with the Great Lakes Theater Festival and Cleveland Opera. At the former he met his partner, a stage manager. At the latter, he was able to focus on being props artist, with all the inherent challenges of pleasing, or at least mollifying, the sometimes temperamental individuals in professional theater.

Always searching for new challenges, Martin and his partner moved to New York, where Martin became assistant artistic director for the Education Department at Lincoln Center. That provided him with lots of practical experience in running a theater. When the New York theater world suffered a drastic drop in attendance after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, both he and his partner decided that Cleveland would be more practical, at least for a while.

Since then, as props master for Cleveland Opera, Martin has been dealing with the challenges of transforming the company’s own or rented sets to please not only new directors but also his own artist’s eye. While the opera theater is much larger than those in which he has worked for the “legitimate” stage, he has discovered that size is not always an advantage: He has to create props that are convincing both to the performers close up, and to those at the back of the top balcony.

He has also learned that opera-goers, for whatever reason, seem to pay more attention to prop details than other theater patrons.

If your flowers have not yet begun to bloom, or even if they have, you can enjoy the Japanese gardens that Terry Martin has created for Madame Butterfly, April 15-17 at the State Theater. For tickets, call 800-7666048.


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