999 Words

Bonjour High Drama: in conversation with Michael Martini

In 1985, “Running Up That Hill” was an obscure synthpop single by Kate Bush, an artist relatively unknown outside of a certain very artsy and very English crowd.

Cut to 2022 when the popular series Stranger Things included the song in its soundtrack and catapulted it past Harry Styles to become the most streamed track on Spotify, introducing Bush to an entirely new generation of global fans. It’s what might be described as the ‘new normal’ of popular culture, in which a new context breathes new life into a work of art.

“I felt like I was fighting a battle or something, but now because of that TV show, everyone’s into her,” says the Montreal playwright, Michael Martini — whose latest work entitled Landscape Grindr premieres this week at La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines — of his own Kate Bush obsession. “I feel finally very redeemed. She’s not a terribly well-kept secret, but I’m glad that the baton is being passed, in a way.”

Although Martini is among the last group of graduates of Concordia’s now-discontinued Playwriting programme, he draws creatively more from cinema and music. “I don’t really enjoy reading too many plays,” Martini admits. “I’m not into what I would call ‘TV theatre,’ with lots of dialogue and really psychological characters.”

Still, Kate Bush was one of his earliest inspirations: “I just fell in love with her taste for cacophony,” Martini says, “and key changes, and time signature changes, and narratives that weren’t about falling in love at the club, which seemed to be so ubiquitous, otherwise. That’s when I started writing — little songs and stories at first, and eventually, plays. I also had an ‘aha’ moment with the films of Robert Altman. Like Nashville, where characters are more or less improvising, and Altman is creating layers out of those improvisations, and then suddenly somehow everything comes to a boiling point.”

Montreal’s hottest new production, Landscape Grindr is an interdisciplinary piece and Martini’s most ambitious work, incorporating aspects of video and dance and expanding upon conventional notions of drama.

“The language of the show is not strictly the codes of theatre,” Martini explains. “We’re aware of how different artistic audiences are encountering this work. It is a longer show — it’s about two hours long — and it’s carried forward by a text that I’ve written and that people are enacting. The show is about connections between environmental justice, the #metoo movement, and personal questions of sexuality. Those three different aspects all hinge on questions of: What is nature? What is violence? What is change?”

Martini has been steadily carving out a niche in Montreal for his singular style of satirical yet poignant theatre. Though Martini originates from west of the Quebec border, where he developed a love for a certain absurdist humour.

“My family is from Pickering Village,” says Martini, “the historical part of Ajax, Ontario. It’s quite bizarre. It looks like a ski village made out of cardboard. But it is directly beside a farming community called Greenwood, where they have lots of little pioneer villages and old historical churches and homes. When I first started as a teenager, I was doing English pantomime. There were these plays put on by our community in kind of a Monty Python spirit. Lots of puns, lots of audience interaction, and very DIY. And I think when I look back, that’s really stuck with me. These little plays that were done in pioneer villages around Christmastime. That spirit is still with me.”

Although Martini has enjoyed the support of MAI’s Alliance program and of the Playwrights Workshop Montreal, staging Landscape Grindr has required patience and persistence.

“The timeline of theatre is very tricky,” explains Martini. “It’s very rare that it’s very fast that things happen. In the case of this show, I started writing it in 2017. I did little things here and there with it, trying things out, reading things aloud. But I didn’t have a real full-length script until 2019. And finally, by 2021, I was able to get a technical residency to explore the show. Through all that, it was booked for 2023. So that is a huge challenge, not just logistically. It’s fine when things run at a slow pace. But artistically, I find it a huge challenge to connect to material that starts to collect age, to remain interested in the same things, to honour the ideas you had.”

“I’m moving forward with a sense of humour and kind of a social energy,” says Michael Martini. Photos: Félix Bonnevie

Nonetheless, honouring ideas is what brings them to fruition, and Martini is determined to share his vision with the Montreal community that has supported him through thick and thin.

In 2021, Martini lost nearly everything to a devastating apartment fire. Fortunately, he and his two roommates escaped unharmed, but the majority of Martini’s belongings, including years of writing, were destroyed. In response, the city’s theatre community rallied around him, starting a Gofundme campaign that exceeded its fundraising goal, and assisting with the enormous monetary and emotional toll. This feeling of camaraderie buoys Martini and keeps him excited to share his latest piece with an audience. “I’m moving forward with a sense of humour and kind of a social energy,” he says. “It’s a pretty DIY atmosphere. Everyone’s welcome.”

Landscape Grindr is the culmination of nearly five years of work, and catapults Martini into a completely new context. “You can feel that energy when you are waiting to do something and share something you’re proud of,” he says. “It takes up real estate in your head. And it’s a huge release to share something. I love the community that you build when you’re working on a show — with the people who are in it, but also the people who are interested to come and see it. There’s a really unique sense of conviviality. I love that feeling of a little huddle before a show. I think it’s really beautiful. That certainly carries me forward.”◼︎

Landscape Grindr runs April 11th, 13th, 14th, and 15th at La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines, 3700 Saint-Dominique Street.