Martha Wilkinson, the nine-time First Night Award-winning actress (who's been singled out for honors by both The Tennessean and Nashville Scene, as well) who is one of the few actors in Nashville whose very name can lend starpower to the box office of any show she's in, is back onstage this weekend in Nashville Shakespeare Festival's World War II-era adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.
Wilkinson's career is so far-reaching-she's worked on practically every Nashville stage-that her influence on other actors who've worked with her is staggering. And as a director and an artistic director (a role she's filled for years at Nashville's venerable Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre) her impact on the theater community is more deeply felt that you might imagine from a cursory glance at her resume, which includes just about every role any actress (or actor, for that matter) would give their right arm to play.
So, in honor of Martha's role as "the ultimate diva of Nashville theater," we've come up with a poll, asking the $64,000 Question: What Martha Wilkinson role would you love to see her play onstage again?
We asked some of her colleagues to weigh in on what Martha means to her, which may help you make a more informed decision.
Janie Chaffin, who with her husband John Chaffin, lends her name to the eponymous Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre says, "Martha is one of a kind and her theatre talent is inspirational...John and I could not do what we do at Chaffin's if it wasn't for the talented Martha Wilkinson. She brings her special talent to acting, directing and all aspects of the theatre. Martha is as unique as The Barn. Martha holds a special place in our hearts and all patrons of the theatre arts in Nashville."
Nate Eppler, who has shared the stage with Wilkinson, been directed by her and who has created characters for her says, "Martha is definitely one of the people that helped shape Nashville Theatre in the past twenty-five years. Not to mention is the artistic director that gave so many of us (myself included) our first professional roles in Nashville.
"Martha's work as a director and producer is absolutely top-notch, but it's her work as a performer that puts her in the rarefied strata of the very best artists in Nashville. I consider myself very lucky to have worked with her onstage as much as I have. She's tremendously inventive, she has seemingly boundless energy, she's fucking hilarious and she makes it look effortless. I have never seen an actress so honestly connected to the audience. When she's on stage you can't take your eyes off her; even if you're on stage with her. All that to say, I'm not sure what role of hers was my favorite. As I recall she was pretty damn good in all of 'em."
Tennessee Repertory Theatre's Pat Patrick, who claims to be Wilkinson's biggest fan [which, I must respectfully challenge], says, "I remember my first introduction to Martha Wilkinson onstage: Steve Martin's The Underpants and thinking there is no one with better comedic timing and no one that could milk more laughter out of the line "every last one of them" the way this actress has. The following season, I saw that comedic timing layered with that "clutch the pearls" voice in Sweeney Todd, her Mrs. Lovett shaming Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone alike. I think of the painful emotion she delivered the word "today" in the song "The Road Ends Here" from John and Jen…her sassy turn as Rhetta in Pump Boys and Dinettes…her fierce versatility in The 39 Steps. And recently, she re-defined the role of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors with a "Somewhere That's Green" that still sends shivers across my skin.
"There are few actors that can bring the tools to the table that Martha Wilkinson does; talent oozes from her every pour. But there is one role she plays routinely that distances itself: that of a good and kind human being, that of a friend who has your back regardless, she of the booming laugh that can lighten the darkest of hearts. Actors and actresses alike aspire to bring what she does to the stage, but as human beings we should all hope to reach her level of humanity and heart that she dispenses willingly on a daily basis."
Actress Jennifer Richmond, who was directed by Wilkinson in Street Theatre Company's Avenue Q earlier this year, says, "I can honestly say I would not be the actress I am today if it weren't for Martha Wilkinson. I've had the privilege of both being directed by her and sharing the stage with her and I have learned more from her about rhythm, comic timing and what it means to be an actress than I ever did in school.
"When you are in a show with Martha the rhythm is so clear you just sit back, let her set the pace and fill in your notes where needed. She's a master-class in comic timing.
"She is a very versatile actress and she has taught me that being a versatile actress doesn't just mean versatility in roles but in spaces. You can't just stubbornly stick to one set of rules that you learned in college because, while it may work for one play or one theatre, that doesn't mean it will work everywhere. You need to be willing to break or bend your rules depending on what the show or venue needs. Martha's biggest strength is knowing exactly what the play and the audience needs and being able to give it to them at the exact right moment.
" I'd put Mar's Mrs. Lovett up against all those Broadway divas. She was fabulous as Barbara Fordham in Tennessee Rep's staged reading of August: Osage County. I can't imagine being any more moved if it had been a fully realized production. Also, Barb in Rear Widow at the Barn where she played the smouldering lounge singer/ femme fatal. I wish I'd been around to see her in Guys and Dolls because I hear people talk all the time about how she was the perfect Adelaide."
And, as for me, my respect for and complete and utter adoration of Martha Wilkinson goes further back than any of the other people I've quoted in this story. I remember her from Circle Players' Pippin, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the Avante Garage's Almost A Midsummer Night's Dream and a gaggle of other original musical comedies that made her a household name in Nashville.
But, more importantly, I know Martha Wilkinson as a dear friend, someone who has helped me through some very difficult times, who stood by me in through bad days, and who shared so many of the most important times in both our lives. What role would I love to see her do again? Any of them and all of them. I've never seen her give a bad performance or to ever just "phone in" a performance. She constantly strives to be better and to give her audiences what they want to see.
There's a reason every other actress in Nashville for the past 25 years has vied to claim her place in my heart as "my favorite." But no one even comes close.
- Nashville Shakespeare Festival will perform Much Ado About Nothing, an enduring audience favorite among the playwright's comedies, from August 16 through September 16 at Centennial Park. The play, which marks the festival's 25th annual Shakespeare in the Park production, will be performed Thursdays through Sundays and Labor Day Monday starting at 7:30 p.m. each evening. The pre-show entertainment begins at 6:30 p.m. with food and drink available for purchase at the park. There is no admission charge, but a $10 donation is suggested and greatly appreciated.