Interview: Monique Martin (SummerStage)

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Monique Martin is the Director of Family Programming for the Arts and Cultural Division of the City Parks Foundation in New York City.

What that really means (in part) is that she's responsible for putting together what might just be the biggest performing arts series for families in the country, the incredibly diverse in medium and style SummerStage Kids series.

After hearing Martin talk about booking kids shows at this year's Kindiefest, I thought that her views on what makes for a successful show and series would be of interest not just to musicians but also to fans and families who might be interested in bringing family music to their own communities.  My conversation with Martin exceeded even my expectations.  Do read on.  (And, if you're a presenter and you're interested in helping to create new works of art, make sure you read to the end and drop Martin a line.)

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories? 

Monique Martin: I grew up in Berkeley with a dad, who was an amateur jazz musician.  He'd play piano -- jazz, bluesy stuff, boogie-woogie, make up songs.  He was also a beautiful whistler -- such a sweet sound, I have a very strong memory of that. 

My parents were music lovers, and we all played piano.  My mom was a theatre enthusiast -- we'd see touring Broadway shows and buy the show album.  Dreamgirls  and others.  We listened to soul music, like the Jackson 5, the Spinners and James Brown.

Did you try to imitate your dad whistling? 

Yeah -- we'd have whistling contests.  There's another form of whistling my dad did, too, where you're blowing into your thumb knuckles and it makes a similar sound of blowing into a conch shell or certain birds.  We'd try to imitate him with those.

  How did you get to New York producing concert series? 

I moved to New York City to work in theatre -- I was a stage manager on Broadway for ten years and also worked off-Broadway and with national and international touring productions.   Then I worked in the music industry as a music tour manager.

I then worked as a theatre consultant and did some PR and Marketing.  It was through that that I started curating shows -- Joe's Pub and elsewhere -- and cut my curatorial teeth.  I worked with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which was one of creators of the River to River Festival in response to 9/11.  I was mentored there by [then-Executive Director] Liz Thompson on presenting shows within a festival setting. 

For those readers who are not in the New York area, can you tell me a little bit more about SummerStage? 

The series is produced by the City Parks Foundation, which encourages New York City residents to become stewards of their city parks.  It's part of the Arts Division, which seeks to brings arts to communities that might have limited access to arts interaction generally. 

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City Parks Foundation presents 1,200 programs in 700+ parks over the year, including sports programs, educational, dance, music and theatre programs.  The family series includes over 100 programs from June through August in 35 parks. 

How do you measure success of a show or the series -- are there different definitions of success? 

Within a song, what can they (the audience) take away?  What is the learning experience -- not in a moral sense, but did you learn that you can clap in rhythm, did you see an instrument that you've never seen or heard live before, learn a new word or two in another language?  I don't come from an arts-in-education background, but I'm looking for artists that are not performing by rote -- I'm looking to see if they really have an understanding of who they're performing for, and care.

With funders, the question is, "what is the long-range impact of the performance?"  Education is not shrinking at the same pace as other funding streams.  The long-term impact of interest could be building community, is the community engaged.  So how does one establish a residency within a festival setting?  I've begun having artists return, so instead of the "fresher, better" approach to festival programming, you build on what you did last year.

 There's a tremendous amount of diversity in the SummerStage kids' lineup.  Is that a function of being in the diverse New York City environment or a deliberate effort on your part? 

It's a combination.  I feel like it's my responsibility to bring in artists who might not have thought of performing for kids.

I'm looking for musical, genre and cultural diversity.   For example, there's a Family Day this Saturday, and I've got a guy who does juggling and magic, as well as another juggling duo.  One of the artists was concerned about why there'd be two juggling acts on the same day, but they're very different -- one is very energetic with lots of audience participation, while the other is more about math and how it informs synchronization in juggling.

Sometimes with jazz artists or poets, there's not the respect for this family audience, they'll feel offended -- "am I washed up?"  I tell them that it's like low-hanging fruit -- these audiences deserve good performances.  There's something beautiful about the freshness of young audiences.  I inherited this program and there had been some artists that had been there for years performing the same show over and over.  I've gone to the effort to broaden the artist pool.

As for New York City itself, there are immigrants from all over the world, but it's not just as simple as booking Spanish acts in Spanish-speaking communities.  For example, the Sunset neighborhood in Brooklyn has lots of different Latin communities, but there's also an Asian community and residents from the Caribbean.  Once a community partner, after seeing a calendar, asked "Are you kidding?  Three Latin acts?  What about country?  Roots?" 

The world's more global now; it's the responsibility of the presenter to ask, "how can we reach deeper?"  It's good for everyone.

It reflects my music growing up.  Yes, we listened to a lot of jazz and R&B, but also music from Mexico, Africa and classical. 

What is the response from artists who stretched, expanded into the family shows? 

All are blown away by the enthusiasm of family audiences.  There's no filter, no qualms about walking out if it's boring.  They're surprised and delighted by the honesty.  Some of the artists are thinking about the show itself; others as a pathway, "Great.  Now can I get on the main stage?" 

What are your future plans for the series? 

One thing I'm interested in is contemporary circus.  There's no fourth wall, it's created to be engaging.  So we're putting on the first International Contemporary Circus Festival, with troupes from places like Columbia, Brazil, San Francisco, Montreal. 

Even before I got here [SummerStage], I was interested in non-traditional artist collaborations.  I want to know, "What would you love to do?"  You see someone like Laurie Berkner, who has appearances with orchestras.  She has the luxury of thinking big, but I don't know if that's just a result of her success or how she thinks as an artist.   

"What is your wildest dream?," I would ask an artist.  I would love to see an opera but broader, like the Lemony Snicket show.  How can we make something on that scale accessible to everyone.  I'm interested in a big show that can travel throughout the five boroughs.  Not just your normal 45-minute concert.

If there are other presenters who would be interested in creating a show like that, they should get in touch.