“Martha” – A Play about the Fierce Modern Dance Icon

“Martha” – A solo play about legendary pioneer of modern dance, Martha Graham. A fierce, witty, trailblazing feminist, who refused to let age define or confine her opens at Whitefire Theatre.

The NoHo Arts District dot com team is a huge theatre fan. Afterall, we do have 20 in one square mile, the highest concentration outside of New York City. But when you combine theatre with dance, we can’t resist spreading the word. So make a Sunday evening date with “Martha” to get a peek into the life of infamous dancer Martha Graham. The show runs March 12 – April at Whitefire Theatre.

“Martha” lets us into the soul of this artist revealing the struggle, the joy, the pain. Being a creator is difficult, since there is not a clear path to follow for success. Graham paved her own way, and the play takes us on the journey of a true original.

Martha Graham simply refused to quit. Her influence on dance, which is often compared to Picasso’s influence on modern art and the impact that Frank Lloyd Wright had on architecture, has unequivocally transformed the art form. She pursued her vision with unwavering dedication in spite of the difficulties and challenges it brought to her life. Which were many.

“Each one of us has all of life in us, and it is our choice to decide what we will reveal. How many drops of blood have gone into making you? How much memory is in that drop of blood?” – Martha Graham

The playwright, actor and director answered some questions to give us a behind-the-scenes look at Martha.

For Ellen Melaver, playwright:

Playwright Ellen Melaver has had her work produced at Williamstown Theater Festival, SPF, New Georges, Teatronetto in Tel Aviv, and Le Cirque Roman in Paris. Her play, Little White Mice from Broken Homes, was commissioned by Juilliard and Calendar was published by Smith & Kraus. Readings and workshops have been hosted by theaters such as Cherry Lane, Pittsburgh Public Theatre, Florida Stage, Marin Theater Company, The Zephyr Theater, and Westside Arts. Television work includes pilots for Spyglass, Touchstone, CBS, and Fox, and she was a staff writer on What About Brian (ABC) and Paul Reiser’s Love Bites (TBS). She is a graduate of The Juilliard School.

What made you create this solo show Martha?

Well, originally it came out of a class on one-person shows, and I was choosing between Martha Graham and Georgia O’Keeffe. For O’Keeffe all I had was an opening bit where she holds up her painting of a flower in one hand and a photo of a vagina in the other, and dismisses the whole trope that they look the same. I still think that’s a little funny, but you know, it’s not a play.

For Martha I could easily imagine a whole dramatic story. I also came to the project with a love of her work. I first saw her company at a time in my life when I was thoroughly immersed in theater — writing, directing, stage managing, seeing plays all the time, and I was probably a little sick of it. So, when I saw the Graham Company I was transported by their passion and the sheer beauty of the movement. Best of all, it was a very emotional and visceral experience, rather than intellectual — I think partly because it’s made of music and dance rather than words, and partly because I just didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know if it was good or bad, if they were dancing well that night or not — and that was blissful.

What is your background?

Southern fried Jew, now back in the shtetl of Brooklyn. Dance experience (prior to MARTHA) consists of Virginia Reels on Georgia Day in 3rd grade and the Horah.

What would you like audiences to know most about this amazing woman?

The fact that she created a whole technique. I think people — if they know her at all — think of her as this flamboyant and iconic diva, but most people have no idea that she created this language for generations upon generations of dancers. Before her, modern choreographers couldn’t reliably repeat the dance sequences they created, nor could dancers study dance the way they can now.

Additionally, it’s important to know that she survived and thrived as an older artist. And an older dancer. That in and of itself is revolutionary.

Christina Carlisi as Martha Graham in "Martha" www.nohoartsdistrict.com
Photo courtesy of Charles Dougherty

Christina Carlisi, actor and dancer:

Christina Carlisi (Martha) has worked as a dancer along side notables such as Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Stanley Donen, Gower Champion, Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart, and Kenny Ortega. She has toured the world for Disney Productions and starred as the ballerina in the acclaimed production of Tamara in Los Angeles. Selected stage credits include Burn This, The Rivals, Juno and the Paycock,(Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award Nomination – Best Actress) Lady-Like (Drama Logue Award – Best Actress), Reckless, Shivaree (Drama Logue Award Best Actress), Seascape, The Boor, The Immigrant, Trojan Women, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Recent film and television credits include All About Steve, The Soul Collector, Wave Babes, Hear No Evil, and ELI (Winner Best Short – Comic-Con). (Web Series) Luke 11:17 (Series regular, nominated for two Webby Awards), (Television) Bones, Supernatural, Rizzoli & Isles, Criminal Minds, CSI, Glee, Six Feet Under, Ugly Betty, NYPD Blue, Providence, Picket Fences and Crystal Empire (series regular).

As a dancer, what was it like playing the infamous Martha Graham?

Well, first and foremost, it’s an honor. And if I think about it too much, terrifying!

As a dancer, I connected to her love of the body and to her mantra that “every movement is a form of communication.” As an actress, I understand Graham’s sheer love and passion for dance, and that quest for the limitlessness of the body’s capabilities. There are elements of dance in “Martha,” although it is not the driving force in the play. This piece is as much about Martha Graham the woman, as it is about Martha Graham the dancer. She created a technique that altered the face of dance. What sacrifices did she have to make during that creative process? Why, at 32 years old did she decide that she was going to start a modern dance company, even though there was no such thing as modern dance?

Were you surprised by anything you learned about her life?

When I first read the script, what leapt off the page for me, was Martha Graham’s sheer grit. Her unwavering belief that she had something to say through dance, something the world could not do without, and only she could say it. And that passion, that fierce almost religious calling to an art form, is what I am trying to explore through this piece.

Martha Graham was an extraordinary woman. A strong, determined feminist who dared to be unconventional, visceral, even confrontational (certainly emotionally) in her work. She was brave, dedicated, and vulnerable and she danced until she was 74! It is quite a journey and an honor to step into the role of “Martha.” If I can tap into a fraction of the passion this woman embodied, I will have arrived at the beginning of my journey.


Stewart J. Zully. director:

Director Stewart J. Zully has helmed new works by David Lindsay-Abaire (Pulitzer Prize winner, 2007), Romulus Linney, Peter Tolan (Analyze This, The Larry Sanders Show), Rolin Jones (Weeds) and Marco Ramirez (Orange Is The New Black, The Royale). Most recently he directed the Los Angeles premiere of White Guy On the Bus, by Bruce Graham, at the Road Theatre. He garnered a Scenie Award (Direction of a Comedy – Intimate Theater) for his work on American Wee-Pie, by Lisa Dillman. Regional directing credits include the East Coast Premiere of Kent R. Brown’s In The Middle of Nowhere (recipient of the Julie Harris Award), three new works at City Theatre’s Summer Shorts Series at The Arsht Center in Miami, part of America’s Short Play Festival in conjunction with Actor’s Theater of Louisville. Stewart co-wrote the feature film Perfect Opposites, which stars Piper Perabo, AaRon Paul (Breaking Bad), Joe Pantoliano, and Jennifer Tilly. The movie is based on the stage play A Piece of My Heart, by Matt Cooper, which Stewart directed at The Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles.

What made you interested in directing Martha?

Tina and I have been friends for over 25 years yet had never worked together as director and performer. When this project presented itself, it was perfect. It has been on her mind for years, as I was just moving back to LA from the east coast, and as the timing was perfect. The play truly marries her talents, being a former professional dancer and seasoned actress, it’s a role perfectly suited for her.

Did something surprise you about Martha’s life and career?

Martha Graham’s stamina! Her strength to refuse to give up reminds me of a professional athlete who sdoes not want to retire. Graham did not want to stop dancing, so she continued into her seventies. Most dancer’s careers are done by their 30s, tops, but not Martha.

I think her fortitude and determination made her the giant talent that she was. An American original, who paved the way for so many that come after her, she is certainly on the Mt Rushmore of dance icons.


The Whitefire Theatre 13500 Ventura Blvd Sherman Oaks, CA 91423


March 12 – April 16 Sundays at 7:30PM


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