Martin Wilkins still remembers what his parents told him in 2002 when he graduated from Duke University and decided to pursue a career in theater: “If you get down the road and it doesn’t work out, at least you’ll know you tried.”
But Wilkins never had to rely on a backup plan. As the producer in residence at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, in charge of new play development, the Mint Hill resident has carved out a career in the arts and is particularly happy to be back in Charlotte.
“My parents were very supportive,” Wilkins, 34, said. “They knew I was very sensible and that law school was my backup plan.”
Wilkins first got the theater bug while a student at Charlotte Latin School, where he played saxophone in the school band and performed in school musicals.
He majored in music while at Duke but also explored theater studies. During his junior year, he spent a semester in New York City studying the public policy of the arts. “I also saw lots of musicals and plays,” he said.
After graduation, Wilkins interned at the now-defunct Charlotte Repertory Theatre in the production department. He said he relished seeing how a professional show comes together but wanted to be more involved in the rehearsals.
“I became curious about why certain decisions are made,” Wilkins said. “It really made me want to direct.”
In 2003, Wilkins left Charlotte to pursue an Allen Lee Hughes Directing Fellowship at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. He spent the next four and a half years in the Washington, D.C., theater community, where he met emerging playwrights and immersed himself in play development.
He served as assistant director to Charles Randolph-Wright – a fellow African-American Duke graduate who is director of “Motown” and served as a mentor to Wilkins – and many other award-winning directors.
Among them was Wendy C. Goldberg, who asked Wilkins to serve as her assistant in her first two seasons as artistic director of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference. While there, Wilkins observed the development of plays and musicals, including the Tony Award-winning musical “In The Heights.”
His work there sparked a passion for new-work development and working with emerging playwrights.
“Directing a reading of a new play was a great way to develop my own creative process, rather than mounting a full production,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins moved to New York in 2007, where he spent five years freelancing as a director of new-play readings. One of the new plays he worked on was “The Mountain Top,” now on Broadway.
“I saw it from an early draft to its full life,” Wilkins said.
That experience will serve him well in his current role. Wilkins has been awarded a grant from the National New Play Network to oversee the theater’s nuVoices Festival, when four new plays are showcased and the theater commits to mounting a full production of the winning play.
Wilkins is the consultant for the world premier of the play “River City,” which won last year’s nuVoices Festival and opened Sept. 3 at Actor’s Theatre.
“What I love about directing is that you are the one who has the vision, who brings the piece together,” Wilkins said. “You are not the one performing, but you are still an integral part of the performance.”