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Directing 'Donuts'

TheatreWorks casting director Leslie Martinson runs the show in the latest Letts play

Standing tall, ready to address an expectant crowd, Leslie Martinson looks a bit like the captain of a ship about to sail. That is, if the ship smelled like a box of glazed old-fashioneds.

This room contains real doughnuts, prop doughnuts, a model of a doughnut shop, and drawings of clothing worn by people who go to the doughnut shop. The room also holds many of the people it will take to put on the new TheatreWorks production of "Superior Donuts": actors; producers; fund-raisers; costumers; scenic, sound and lighting designers; people who handle tickets; people who handle props. The stage manager. The artistic director. Oh, and the director, Leslie Martinson.

On this September afternoon at TheatreWorks' Menlo Park offices, this is rehearsal number one for "Superior Donuts," which will open Oct. 9. It does feel like a voyage is about to begin. Of course, much of the work has already started. The finely detailed set model by Tom Langguth, complete with an image of an elevated Chicago train above the doughnut shop, is but one piece of evidence of that.

But this is an inaugural moment for members of the team to meet, actors to get a glimpse of their new costumes designed by B. Modern, and the director to present her vision of the play.

"Superior Donuts," the latest play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Letts ("August: Osage County"), is, Martinson tells the crowd, her favorite kind of play: "a comedy that's also a journey."

The story centers on widower Arthur (played by Howard Swain), the grim owner of the weathered shop; and Franco (Lance Gardner), a kid with big ideas for reviving the business. Both characters have pasts, and the neighborhood is full of decay and racial strife. As they work to improve the shop, Arthur and Franco must also work to understand each other. They're 40 years apart in age, one white and the other black, with a broad personality divide to bridge. As Martinson said in an earlier interview, "One has lost hope, and one has literally nothing but hope."

While "August: Osage County" was a domestic play -- albeit a dysfunctional-family one -- "Donuts" finds its family in the donut shop, with relationships between employee and employer, merchant and policeman, clerk and customer. The relationships are what Martinson plans to focus on in this production.

But it won't be all family sweetness on the stage. Martinson grins at the rehearsal crowd and quotes from a Wall Street Journal review of "Donuts": "It's as if 'You Can't Take It With You' was rewritten by David Mamet." She gets a hearty laugh.

"This is the guy who wrote 'Bug' and 'Killer Joe.' It's not going to be all sugar-glazed," Martinson adds, referring to gritty earlier scripts by Letts. "Our job for the next month is to weave this stuff together."

It's a big job, but Martinson is no rookie. A resident of East Palo Alto who grew up in Palo Alto, she's been a senior staff member with TheatreWorks since 1984. She's directed many shows for the company and last year won an Individual Artist Fellowship in Stage Direction from Arts Council Silicon Valley.

Overall, Martinson is perhaps best known as TheatreWorks' casting director. She's worn that hat since 1993.

That means this director had a particularly large filing cabinet of resumes to draw from when she was casting "Donuts." As always, casting was a big piece of the show's process.

Typically, Martinson holds general TheatreWorks auditions for each season, where she sees many new faces. All the while, she's thinking about the shows and their specific needs.

"The first thought is, 'What is this play doing in the season?'" Martinson said in an interview. "Is it a family holiday show? Political piece? Indie-rock musical? ... Do I need Irish dialects, or somebody who can belt a D?"

Martinson added: "I've studied up pretty hard by the time we pick the plays; I know what the requirements are. Then I talk with the director and find out what they want to do with this show right now. ... There are a hundred ways to produce any play. What are they putting on top?"

After general auditions come readings for specific shows, where actors read for particular characters in front of directors, authors, Martinson and artistic director Robert Kelley. This could take several rounds.

But casting is not always so linear. Often Martinson will spot an actor and just get intrigued. With Lance Gardner, Martinson happened to see him perform when he was a student in the Foothill College Theatre Arts Conservatory. He had been an understudy at TheatreWorks in the past, but this time Martinson was struck.

Gardner went on to play Arthur in TheatreWorks' "Auctioning the Ainsleys" this summer, and will soon open as Franco in "Donuts."

Martinson said Gardner can handle the mix of relationships and hard edges that is "Superior Donuts."

"He's just the ticket for this kind of show," she said. "This is Letts' kinder, gentler comedy, but there's still some ferocious stuff that comes through."

As for the "Donuts" script, Martinson first ran across the play when it was at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where it was developed and premiered in 2009. She wanted it for TheatreWorks, and so did Kelley, who has called the play "twice as funny (as "August: Osage County") and still extraordinarily moving." After "Donuts" closed its limited Broadway run, TheatreWorks got it.

"The writing is just so tight," Martinson said of the script. "Everything in that play works in a couple of ways. It gets you your joke, it explicates the social situation and it gives you insight into a character."

She added: "Letts is also an actor. Something about the way he writes the timing of these jokes is super-playable. ... He hears the rhythm of the whole scene."

Another piece of Martinson's preparation for directing is research. Much of the research about the play's era, slang, references and other aspects is done by TheatreWorks dramaturg Vickie Rozell, who provides a big binder for the "Donuts" team to use as a reference throughout rehearsals.

While Rozell looks up facts and numbers, Martinson says with a laugh, "I'm just looking for something juicy." For example, a photo of a beat cop directing traffic in a Chicago winter might give an actor an idea about how to stand or how to move his hands.

Martinson read about the crime rate and gentrification in the Chicago neighborhood where the play takes place. She also learned a little something about sports betting, draft-dodging and Russian immigration, all of which figure in the script.

In the rehearsal hall, Martinson has hung an "idea board" for inspiration. It includes pictures of Chicago scenes, draft cards, Vietnam protestors and Homer Simpson with a doughnut. One never knows what image could spark inspiration on stage, or add another level of truth to the story.

"It's the director's job to help everybody create a world, a whole separate parallel universe on stage," Martinson said. "What the playwright has done is write a recipe. What the directors and actors and designers need to do is cook dinner."

What: "Superior Donuts," a Tracy Letts play presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Previews Oct. 6-8 at 8 p.m., with opening night Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. Runs through Oct. 31, Tuesday through Sunday.

Cost: Tickets are $19-$67.

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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