Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 1990
Mick Jagger said “You can’t always get what you want,” but Martin Gerrish has proved that you can. What he always wanted was a small, intimate theater where he could “direct good shows and have control over the quality.”
He formed Octad-One Productions in 1976, but it wasn’t till this year that he obtained a permanent home for his group — a rent-free space in the newly refurbished Marketplace at the Grove. He got the girl he wanted, too, back in Bucksport , Maine . And 45 years later, he and Elaine are still married. It’s one of those fairy-tale theater relationships — only it lasted. He acts and directs; she creates the costumes. They build sets, paint scenery and take great pride in their little community theater. It’s a long way from Bucksport where, in the late ’40s, Gerrish was employed in tanneries and grocery stores. At age 24, he had a job in a paper mill, “working 15 minutes an hour and trying to look busy the other 45. Having sinus attacks and stomach problems.” And then, some strange force prompted him to write a minstrel show. He produced it with a group of locals, age 15 to 75, and it was a great success.
That was it: He was hooked on theater. His father, a foreman in the paper mill, said “Whathehell do you wanna do that for? Why give up a good job?” But fathers and sons have been known to part ways on professional pursuits. So Gerrish, by this time 25, with a wife and four year old son, went to the University of Maine and the University of Arizona to study theater. “I went in to be a director,” he says, “but I kept getting shoved into acting.”
Almost 40 years later, Gerrish is still getting shoved into acting. He recently won an Aubrey Award from the Associated Community Theatres for his portrayal of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. But directing is still his preference. “You never know what you’re doing when you’re acting,” he confesses. “As a director, you can stand back and see what you’re doing, see what you’ve done.”
What Gerrish has done is spend lots of years teaching other people theater — at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, then at a junior college in Reedly, California, about 30 miles from Fresno. He directed Hamlet there, on a production budget of $40. That’s when Elaine got into the act, creating “pretty decent costumes” with fabric from J.C. Penny. In 1961, Gerrish was hired to start a drama department at Grossmont College . He stayed for 25 years.
At first, he was the drama department. He taught 18 units of speech and telecommunications courses, produced/directed four shows a year, built sets and worked on costumes. “I never realized it till now,” says the tall, distinguished, white-bearded Gerrish, “but I guess I was pretty radical. I did plays no one would touch in a community college then: Elizabeth the Queen and Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan. But the politics were unbearable. In a school environment, you often have to sacrifice what you think is artistically right to keep the peace.”
But he stayed on, filling in his nonexistent spare time acting at the Mission Playhouse, and during the summers, at the Old Globe. The Globe’s Executive Producer, Craig Noel, calls Gerrish “a true craftsman; a wonderful performer and an imaginative director.” In one hectic two-year period, Gerrish had 22 good-sized roles to learn, including 11 understudies at the Globe. He can’t remember all the names and dates, but Elaine cheerfully recalls every one. She, by the way, spent 13 summers in the costume shop of the Globe’s Shakespeare Festival.
By 1986, it was time for Martin Gerrish to retire from Grossmont, to pursue his lifelong dream full time. The question is, how does he avoid the same political hassles and philosophical battles that he had on the campus? “I formed the company, and I wrote the constitution,” Gerrish chuckles. “It says I’m President for life.”
The group’s name stands for the original eight Board members plus Gerrish. Octad-One includes former students like Don Pugh, who’s been in 10-15 Gerrish-directed plays. This year, Pugh won an Aubrey Award for his direction of Death of a Salesman — starring Martin Gerrish. “Martin and Elaine to me are pseudo-parents,” the 28-year old Pugh admits. “I never really had a father; Martin was a tough teacher, but one with a heart.”
Ten years ago, Gerrish began putting his heart — and soul — into free, pared-down productions of summer Shakespeare-by-the-Lake (next to the East County Performing Arts Center ). All his work is gratis, but it’s gratifying. Octad-One’s 1990-91 season begins this month with Gertrude Stein and a Companion, a two-woman piece Gerrish directed for a short but well-received run last year at Progressive Stage Company. (It plays at the Marketplace September 7 through October 7). “It’s a very pleasant comedy,” Gerrish explains. “Not smart or sarcastic. It just centers on a good, warm, strong relationship, and people seem to love it.”
That seems to be what Martin Gerrish has, too — a good, warm, strong relationship — and things just as he wants them. Last year, the Gerrishes took their first vacation in 30 years. “When your vocation and your avocation are the same, there’s just no separation,” he says. “Years ago I made a decision. Theater’s been my life ever since, and Elaine’s life ever since she decided to live with me… Now it appears I’m where I want to be.”
©1990 Patté Productions Inc.