Texas Tech University

Hitting His "Marks"

Shawn Ward

September 17, 2019

On a hot, sunny day in Lubbock, one where the sky was its typical baby blue with a few picturesque clouds dotted about, I was set to meet and interview Dr. Marks, a man I'd heard much about. There was so much to ask him. After all, a career of over 40 years in theatre working with several of the most renowned companies and universities in the country is no easy feat. So once we sat down, I started at the very beginning (a very good place to start).

Jonathan Marks:

I saw a play with my big sister in it. It was Cyrano de Bergerac and she was one of the first ones on stage, then a whole lot of other people came. I thought 'Someday I'll do that if I'm lucky.' It looked fun and incredible to create this thing out of a normal place, transformed into something magical. My first experience doing theatre was in eighth grade. In Latin class I co-wrote and appeared in Useless. Through high school I did other plays; writing, directing, acting, and reviewing.

I went to Yale, and pretty soon within the first few months I was in a play, and that continued. It was a place where I found success. They told us 'Look to the right of you and to the left of you; one of you may be gone and one of you may be President of the United States.' It turned out to be true. Oliver Stone [Academy Award winning filmmaker] was one of the first out of the class. George W. Bush [43rd President of the United States] was also in my class.

As an undergraduate Dr. Marks served as the Vice President of the Yale Dramatic Association (Dramat), the second oldest college theatre organization in the country. He went on to complete his Bachelors of Arts in English and French and decided to continue his education in theatre.

JM:

I was accepted into Yale School of Drama, but first had a Fulbright in France studying experimental Grotowskian acting with someone who had learned directly from him. Once that was finished, I entered the doctoral program for Dramatic Theory and Criticism. Very soon I was acting in plays with the Yale Repertory Theater.

Dr. Marks received both a Master of Fine Arts and later a Doctor of Fine Art in Dramatic Literature and Criticism. He was hired at Yale as faculty, where he worked for about eight years before moving on to the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. After a while, he joined A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco, also taking his time in the Bay Area working with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Magic Theatre, San Francisco State University, and Stanford University.

JM:

I came to Texas Tech in 1995 and believe it or not, some people believe that was a long time ago. I was just lucky I guess. I chose it over the Alley Theatre and one of the big reasons was dry heat over living in a swamp. But also, I thought maybe my educational side would prevail. I had been working in both practical theatre and education and I had to pick one side or the other. So I picked the educational side with the prospect of someday getting tenure. Tech was the first job I had with the opportunity for tenure and it turned out well.

During his time at Tech, Dr. Marks has been associate chair of the School of Theatre and Dance, head of acting/directing, and a graduate advisor. He also served as Interim Dean of the College of Visual & Performing Arts from 2005 to 2007. His work spread to the Office of the Provost, where he was the Director of the Quality Enhancement Plan and the Ethics Initiative for several years.

JM:

This was a place with surprising assets and potential. I am just amazed to see to what extent that has eventuated. Going from 'it's getting better' to making big strides for where we are. Now I'm looking at the new building as a dream come true. It is the impossible dream that we had for many years and we thought it would happen when we were all gone, perhaps. I'm hanging on to prove that not true, because I'm not totally gone yet!

The building Dr. Marks is referring to is the first expansion of the Charles E. Maedgen Jr. Theatre, which includes new classrooms, rehearsal spaces, and a black box theater. The second phase to renovate and expand the original building will take place in the coming year. The official ribbon-cutting and dedication of the new Theatre and Dance Complex will take place on October 4th. Later that day will be a performance of Doctor Love written by Moliere and directed by Dr. Marks, followed by a reception to honor Dr. Marks' retirement. Doctor Love will be the first production to perform in the new space, which runs from September 26th to October 6th.

JM:

I had not only the honor of being the first one to direct in this theatre, but I was able to choose what I wanted to do. Doctor Love happened because I've been putting it on my list for years. Years! In part [I chose it] because it was such a challenge. I didn't want to do something I thought I could do.

The play is undeniably by one of the great playwrights of the world, but that pretty much nobody ever does. And the reason they don't is because they haven't figured out how. He's one of the few playwrights in history who truly understood theatre from the literary and practical point of view. He became famous and was given royal patronage on the basis of his royal farces, which had no scripts. This script is a kind of throwback to those improvised theater days. He created it in four days and was nonetheless very proud of it. Not solely because of the text, but of all the elements that made it a theatrical piece. In those four days Moliere infused the event, the script, and what I can learn about it. [All this] with as much of his spirit that makes his plays great and many of the philosophical concerns that permeate his other plays, but without the literary side. Yet it's still got all of his stuff and I consider that valuable.

If you try to do the play just according to the script, the way you do with plays, it's not going to work. He wrote a piece called To the Reader [as a preface] where he said 'Don't read this play unless you can imagine everything else that goes with it.' To me, that means don't do this play unless you can re-imagine it. If you try to do the stuff as dramatic literature, it's going to be rotten. He recognizes this in his note to the reader. What we're doing is reducing it down to its scenario. Boiling down the script and re-imagining it in a way that it's for today and also having a foot in his world. It takes place in the imagined world of theatre. We have a prologue based on his that says pretty much that. It says we are the theatre arts, you should follow us, and thanks for this sumptuous surrounding. So the prologue kind of morphs into saying enjoy our new palace, we're glad to lead you into it.

The play may seem in many ways contemporary. Fantastical, but if you read the script it's amazing how close it really is. In those days doctors characteristically went about town on mules, so there were doctor jokes about mules. That doesn't really go over today. What we were doing was finding some kind of bizarre equivalency and we got kind of creative about that. In other words, Moliere was writing a topical script, in part, about living people that were known to the audience. That is not relatable in any way, which is part of why it's not done. So we went to other foolish places that will possibly get laughs.

For various reasons I had the smallest casting pool I've ever had. Usually we have several plays casting at one time, but we had our own dedicated casting and not many people could come to it. And so I cast it and let it be known that we might have to cast more people in the fall when we had the pick of the whole department.

Ultimately, Dr. Marks decided not to cast more people. He credits two reasons for this:

JM:

The one thing I say I'm good at in theatre is casting and exploiting the talents of the people I work with. We all [stage manager, assistant director, etc.] got together on the casting, it wasn't just my brain. We've got some good people. We always have, but maybe things have stepped up around here.

doctor loveWhen you go into rehearsal and you're told, even before you go in, we're not going to have a script, people tend to get seized up and anxious because it's not the normal way to do it. I took the French text and translated it on the spot. I said 'Ok, that's the play, now do it.' The thing is, this cast took to it and went all the way with it. It's not a normal way of working. We're reinventing theatre as we're doing it. They're just all in and enjoying it! We had a workshop in April where we worked four or five nights a week seeing if the play could be done and how. 11 o'clock rolled around and they still wanted to be together. They were in there all the time creating. I told them 'Forget about casting in the fall – forget about it.' We didn't need to. So it's been a great experience and I don't want to stop.

After a long and fruitful career, Dr. Marks has many moments he thinks on fondly.

My old office door is now the entryway into the new building. People have said that they go through my office door and it's like magically entering a whole new world.

Well, now I see that directing plays has been the most fun and probably the most educational. People seem to imagine that they got something from being in these plays and I almost believe that's true.

I just received a Facebook request from somebody I didn't recognize. I had to look to figure out who she was. I found that she had become a theatre critic because she had aced my class in dramatic criticism in 1983. It was an awesome feeling.

So what's in store for Dr. Marks in retirement?

JM:

A nap. I don't know. There's going to be a big retirement event during the course of the show. After that we'll see. I've got a new hobby, which is going to doctors and therapists. It's filling my retirement so far. Oh yes, my wife is very comfortable here. She knows her way around. We have a comfortable home, some friends. It's a lovely place to be.