The graduate student who founded the BurkTech Players recently earned a grant for rising leaders in theatre.
Clay Martin is in an industry that has been around since the ancient Greeks started discussing ideas. Theatre has a long, rich industry of introducing people and ideas to the world at large. Its members are consistently on the forefront of social change, always ready to push the boundaries of social norms and change the conversation.
These are the people – rising leaders who have created new avenues for theatre, redefined the artistic models and introduced new media and new markets to performance – who are recognized each year by Theatre Communications Group's (TCG) Leadership U. These industry leaders in training, plucked from hundreds of qualified applicants, earn $75,000 to partner with the top producers and directors in the country for 18 months, working on unique, creative projects outside the realm of what most college theatre graduates do.
This was him, Martin found out in August, two weeks after earning his master's degree from Texas Tech University. He was one of the “exceptionally talented early-career leaders” in which TCG wanted to invest, allowing him to spend a year and a half with one of the top regional theatres in the country, recreating his passion project: the BurkTech Players, a theatre company composed of students from the School of Theatre & Dance and the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research.
So, no pressure.
“It's not very often in theatre somebody basically says they're going to pay you because they want you to develop,” Martin said. “The reaction I had, even in the interview, was this was one of the most reassuring and heartening things I've ever experienced in my life – to know the industry I work in supports the ideas and passions I have for working with those who struggle to have a voice in this world and to help, through our work, to provide them one.”
Becoming part of Leadership U
Martin didn't enroll at Texas Tech three years ago intending to alter the intersection of theatre and autism nationwide. It just happened that as he was starting his program, construction on the Burkhart Center across the street was in the final phases of construction, and the School of Theatre & Dance was instituting a new class that required all students to bring their art to the community.
Martin walked across the street and introduced himself to Wes Dotson, co-director of the Burkhart Center. Together they developed a program for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to learn theatre from theatre students. In doing so, he became acquainted with young adults with ASD. One was Sam Shreffler, a Lubbock native and Texas Tech student who loved the stage. One of his crowning achievements at that point was his nationally televised audition for “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Working with Dotson, School of Theatre & Dance director Mark Charney and other graduate students, Martin created the BurkTech Players. It's the only theatre company of its kind in the country, but it's not the only theatre program designed for people with ASD. Martin reached out to the largest of those programs – Trinity Rep's Active Imagination Network (TRAIN), a part of Trinity Repertory Company at Brown University. He went to Providence, Rhode Island, to visit TRAIN creator Jordan Butterfield and see the ins and outs of the program.
That collaboration morphed into the TCG Leadership U grant application, which they applied for and won together. Martin will spend a year and a half at Trinity Rep, learning both the backstage production skills and working with Butterfield. TRAIN partners with autism groups to use theatre to help students learn how to converse, build relationships, enhance coping skills and increase their self-esteem.
“It's a perfect marriage because theater is a social medium, and people with autism generally have difficulty initiating and maintaining conversations,” Butterfield said. “Theater asks them to do that but also allows them to explore characters and use their imagination.”
That is the same experience shared by so many at the School of Theatre & Dance as they worked with students with ASD. Theatre professor Linda Donahue, who led the graduate student sections of the community theatre courses, remembered one particular moment when she knew theatre was helping students communicate.
“When Clay asked a very nonverbal student, one who hadn't spoken at all during the last hour, if he would like to have a line in the upcoming play, the student astonishingly and simply replied, ‘Yes. I want my voice to be heard,'” she said. “That moment was one of the most emotional moments of my life.”
The grant application process was not short; both Martin and Butterfield answered several essay questions, created a budget and had a conference call with close to 20 people as they explained their vision. This vision on its face was simple: Martin would go to Trinity Rep and replicate the BurkTech Players there.
In addition to the $75,000 grant to run the program and pay Martin's salary, he will get about $25,000 extra for conference travel, health insurance, professional development and a partial repayment of his student loans.
Martin will spend the first several months making connections at and around Brown, both in the theatre and the autism worlds. He'll recruit people who want to act, direct or otherwise be a part of a stage production. He also will work with Tyler Dobrowsky, the associate artistic director at Trinity Rep, to learn how artistic directing and dramaturging works at a major theatre, and he'll be part of a new play reading committee, through which he'll read plays that haven't been produced yet and make recommendations.
Summer is when the fun will really start. His budget includes money to bring guest artists to Brown to help get the program going. Those guest artists will be familiar faces from Texas Tech, including theatre students, Shreffler and David Siegel.
“They're going to come up as professional artists to work because there's no one who can make someone feel more empowered and comfortable doing this for the first time than those two individuals,” Martin said. “If any person on the spectrum thought they couldn't do theatre, they only need to see Sam and David.”
The power of theatre
One of the dozen questions Martin had to answer in his grant application was this: “What is the biggest thing wrong with American theatre today, and how would you fix it? Answer in 500 words.”
That's a broad question and not much space to answer, but he summed it up: That the industry continues to see acting and directing as mutually exclusive.
“In fact, they're integrally intertwined in the future of theatre,” he said. “I see myself as a hybrid artist who pursues my art at a professional level in a way that promotes and advocates for socially worthy causes.”
That outlook prepared him to find opportunities to work with different groups and give voice to people who were previously silent in the theatre world. This philosophy, of giving voice to ideas and allowing them to be discussed, to encourage people to think outside of themselves, is the purpose of theatre. Yes, it should be entertaining. But theatre that only entertains misses its mark.
“To better understand and collaborate with people's cultures is exactly what theatre does,” he said. “It's a discussion ground and communal spot for cultures, and it has the potential for a broader impact on our society and has throughout history. It was pretty much the original reason why people got together back in Greece, to start talking about ideas. It's where philosophers came from.”
Using the skills and talents of both theatre and dance students and students with autism allowed the members of this company to expand their horizons. Theatre and dance students have a better understanding of people on the autism spectrum. Students with ASD gained greater confidence in their skills and abilities. The community got the opportunity to challenge their misconceptions about autism.
It is, Charney reflected, true collaboration – each member contributing his or her best.
“At the end of each semester, the BurkTech Players take over a theatre or dance space and perform – from plays they've written to dances they've choreographed, from puppets they've created to talk show formats they've realized – and what a success it's been, not only for the students, but also for audiences and parents who are fortunate enough to see dreams come true,” he said. “The arts can heal, and these young people committed to collaboration and sharing their affection for theatre and dance prove it every day.”
Arriving on this path
Clay Martin has always been a part of theatre. As he grew up, he also found he was no stranger to the spectrum of development disorders. Growing up he struggled with a learning disorder that went undiagnosed for years because he tested so well. His mother, who now works for a bookstore but started life doing social work for people with disabilities, became his advocate.
“It was hard to diagnose me with learning disabilities or to advocate for opportunities and understanding of what some of my challenges were, and she did that,” Martin said. “My mom and dad both had passion and experience doing that.”
His career prior to Texas Tech gave him insight in the intersection of theatre and the autism spectrum as well. He worked at The Lost Colony in North Carolina with six-time Tony Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long, whose sister had autism but loved theatre and wanted to take part. In talking with her and others in the theatre community who had autism, he recognized theatre was a way to pull people out of the isolation that frequently is a byproduct of the disorder.
When he came to Texas Tech in 2013 and discovered the Burkhart Center going up across the street, he found the opportunity to become a leader in this field. For four semesters he worked with about a dozen students to bring the plays of famous writers to the stage, put on original plays and choreographed their own dances. The audience filled the theatre every time, viewers ready for an entertaining, well-done performance. They got it every time.
“It's a growing interest in the field, and that's the reason for my selection in this,” he said. “There's an ever-reaching impact of this project on the theatre industry. Every theatre in the country could have this program, especially every theatre attached to a college, which are many.”
Martin is leaving it in good hands, with Shreffler acting as co-artistic director and other longtime students taking his place. He's optimistic about the next step; his experience at Texas Tech showed him love of and desire to participate in theatre stops for no disorders. He is concerned about recreating one facet of it, though: Sam Shreffler.
“That I don't know if I'm going to be able to replicate at Trinity Rep,” Martin said. “I don't know if I'll ever find someone like Sam, who's leading the company within a few years. He's proven to me that is absolutely something I should look for.”
But, he reminds himself, “if there's one the first time I tried, there are others.”