Reed Martin—Sonoma-based writer, performer and codirector of the Reduced Shakespeare Company—is a classically trained actor, former circus clown, singer, author and pretty fair accordion player. Martin’s eclectic background makes him a perfect fit for the RSC, which originated as a pass-the-hat act at Novato’s Renaissance Pleasure Faire and celebrated its 30th anniversary in August. Known for comic onstage reductions of huge subjects (the Bible, American history—and now the history of Christmas), the offbeat troupe is best known for creating The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). Its new show, The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged), premiered at Napa Valley Conservatory Theater in September.
How did you come to join the Reduced Shakespeare Company?
Back in college, I’d met Jess Winfield [one of the three original members of the troupe] and we did a number of shows together. I went on to UC San Diego, doing Shakespeare at the Old Globe. Then I ran off and went to clown college. In 1989, after two years as a professional clown with Ringling Brothers, I was ready to leave the circus, and that’s when Jess called and asked if I’d be interested in joining the Reduced Shakespeare Company, as a replacement for [founder] Daniel Singer. I was classically trained, and I was a clown. It seemed like my two bags of tricks matched pretty well.
What was it about joining the RSC that appealed to you?
I’d never actually seen the Reduced Shakespeare Company perform, but from what I’d heard, it sounded like New Vaudeville, which was something I really enjoyed—Bill Irwin, Penn & Teller, the Flying Karamazov Brothers, all of that. When I first joined, it just seemed like a fun thing to do for a while, but I didn’t expect it to become a full-time job. [Laughing] I’m still not sure it’s a full-time job, actually.
Of your various talents, which one do you think factored the most in landing you this gig?
Honestly, I think one of the reasons I got the gig was that Jess knew I could write funny. In college, he’d seen some of the work I’d written for the stage. When I joined, the only show they had in their repertoire was the Shakespeare show, and theatres were beginning to ask if there was anything else they could do. Still, it wasn’t until June of ’92, after Jess left the group, that we finally began working on our second show—The Complete History of America (abridged). We have a total of eight shows now, and I’ve cowritten all but the Shakespeare show.
In the last several years, you’ve dabbled in acting outside of the RSC, with roles in shows at ACT and Magic Theatre. What have you gained from those experiences?
I’m so used to being the writer, producer, director and actor. It’s just nice to only have to wear the actor hat. And it’s been great to do work at some of the places that I have admired all my life but could never work with because I’ve been too busy doing my own thing. I’d love to do more shows with ACT and Magic Theatre. With the RSC, I travel a lot. A lot. It’s kind of fun to stay close to home.
In addition to performing and touring, the RSC licenses many of its show to other companies. Over the last several years, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) has become one of the most widely produced shows in the world. Now, theatres all over seem to be presenting comic reductions of classic works. Is the RSC responsible for this trend?
Critics have certainly accused us of that. We’ve also been accused of contributing the shortened attention span of theatre audiences. Of course people’s attention spans are shorter these days, but I don’t really think we can claim to have caused that. I do know we’ve inspired other writers and producers. Mark Brown, who wrote a small-cast version of Around the World in 80 Days, is an unabashed fan of ours, and he’s told us that we inspired the way he wrote that play. The 39 Steps seems a bit like something that could have been inspired by us, at least to a degree—a four-person reduction of a larger work, with lots of physical comedy, stupid jokes, anachronisms. We may not be directly responsible, but after doing our brand of comedy for 30 years, I think you could make the case that the RSC is somewhere in the DNA of those other shows.
As a comic actor, who are your most important influences?
I’d have to say Bugs Bunny is one of my big influences, but also Buster Keaton, Monty Python, the Marx Brothers and Spinal Tap. You know…the greats.