The Artist Formerly Known As: Owen Martel

It was a rainy Saturday morning when filmmaker and playwright Owen Martel ’09 and I sat down for our interview about his recent work Given, a piece Martel describes as being “set within a bleak world with an Orwellian dystopian feel,” follows the story of a clerk who discovers himself in the midst of a life-threatening scandal.

So, I hear you’re a playwright.

Actually, this past play is really the first I’ve ever written. I’ve only been in theater classes where we had to do short little sketches. It’s the way a lot of theater classes work here; each assignment usually lasts only a week or two, so they expect you to produce something about five minutes long. The tendency is to come up with some dream-like image, and you don’t have to try to sustain a story or develop a character-arc. It’s more the blunt mood impact. This is the first time I’ve had to worry about making scenes logically, to connect one after the other over the course of 90-minute long stories.

What induced you to make the jump and write your first full-length play?

I knew I had a solid first act in mind, and I felt like I had enough material that I hadn’t originally intended to be part of the same story that suddenly seemed like it clicked into the world I had created in the first part of the story, which is years old by now. So last year I was in New Zealand [at the University of Otago] and I had the chance to take a playwriting class. I also had the chance to shoot the first act as a video, so there was both the encouragement and the time set aside to work on something at this scale, which you don’t really have here. It’s against the Williams mentality to have a project that long.

I wanted to ask you about your experience here at Williams. How do you feel it’s affected your creativity?

When I showed up here, I thought I was going to do a lot of creative writing because that’s what I did in high school; I wrote short stories. When I got here, I sort of stymied in the creative writing department, so that shifted me over increasingly into the theater department. I naturally don’t feel like a theater person, but the nice thing there is that they take the production side very seriously and they have a lot of creative classes.

The play you’ve been mentioning working on in New Zealand was originally a one-act. Can you describe that experience?

It was performed two years ago during Winter Study. As a sophomore in high school, I wrote this short story about a clerk who works in a warehouse and discovers that someone is stealing boxes and won’t stop. That story sat for a while, and then during my sophomore year, I took Theater 228, a production class offered every two years. – I ended up taking this short story and re-imagined it as a dance-mime musical. It was a collaborative decision to take it in that direction; I was working in a group with choreographer Colbye Prim ’09, musician Ian Jessen ’07, and director Cary Choy ’09 who all had equal say, so this hybrid thing was a way to come together. We put that on, and it went fairly well. So the one-act was really the first time I’d ever done any sort of public theater piece as a director.

And then off you went to New Zealand. What drew you there, and how did this affect your work?

I had wanted to go to New Zealand for a while, ever since I was small. Also, I feel really strange when I can’t go running in the mountains; something feels missing, so since New Zealand has mountains, it seemed right. It turns out that none of these reasons were actually important once I got there. The things that mattered were being in a larger community on a larger campus. It was a very small city, but still urban. There were material advantages that you don’t have here; I couldn’t have shot the video here. – It’s set in this subterranean labyrinth in a warehouse vault. We were in this three-purpose church; first it was a church, then a café, now it’s being used as a dance studio. Every time we went we had to cover up all the windows so it was pitch black inside. The set was made up of about 250 packing crates, and we had to move them in and out of storage for every shoot. Moving the crates took two hours each way, and then the shoot took two hours, so there was a lot of time in the dark.

There are some obvious differences between directing a one-act on stage and producing it as a film. What were the biggest challenges for you?

It had to be physically real. The 250 crates were no small matter. It made it a lot easier for someone who wasn’t used to directing on a personal level because I didn’t have to negotiate this tricky psychological terrain of how to get a person deeply into character. You could take lots of short shots, with certain light levels shining right on a face. The lighting was huge, because so much of the video is close-ups on faces. Then you have to make sure the tone of the voice is right, and it becomes much more like two people trying to play an instrument. At one point I recruited a retired busker to play one of the older characters who at one point said, “Oh, I understand exactly what you’re doing, I have to act with a certain pitch to my voice, like I’m playing my fiddle.”

All are welcome to attend a reading of Martel’s play on Friday at 7:00 p.m. in the ’62 Center’s Directing Studio.