The Last Days of Martin de Maat

I did not know Martin de Maat. To me, he was just a black and white photo on the Second City Training Center student newsletter.

Martin is best known for the quote, “You are pure potential.” It’s a lovely thought, and it encompasses all that improvisation can be.

As I was clearing out some old papers, I found all my student newsletters and I thought it would be a fitting tribute to share each of the “Notes from Martin” that graced the front of the newsletter. They are presented below exactly as they appeared.

March 6-May 14, 2000

Although the purpose of the Training Center includes preparing talent for Second City’s stages, we do not want to forget that the program has two other equally important goals – the exploration and advancement of the art form and the training of actors and writers. All three are in place to support you in your objective, be that Second City employee, improvisational artist, actor, writer, or conscious courageous human being. I write to suggest that the ends other than Mainstage are as valid as getting hired by us.

Yeah, yeah, easy for me to say. I’ve already got a job. The fact is that you do too. (I admit the pay could be better.) It is your job to be a student of this work. It is a powerful position. By definition it is “one who has yet to know.” It means that the moment you declare yourself a student you clear your slate, need not prove anything, and become pure potential. A position of authority contains limitation. Student leaves you wide open to make it up your way. You can improvise your future and the future of the art form. In being its student you are its future.

You can use your experience as student here to move closer to your dreams, or you can put too many of your hopes in one outcome and limit your investment potential. I suggest diversification. Imagine other employment and pastimes to which this work applies and invest energy into those as well. Recognize how it can impact your current job. Research other improvisational groups and consider involvement. Collaborate with your peers to create a group with its own unique vision.

Actors cull a living in their art. A little income here, a little there, it adds up to a career. Think about participating in other theaters and schools. Involvement in more than one organization helps you become a more rounded artist. It also promotes feeling that you are part of the community. For many improvisers, being part of the tribe is payment enough. Ultimately what you are looking for is for a fulfilling experience offering your art and ideas. That canvas may well be Second City, but it can just as likely be elsewhere. Elsewhere is not less valuable, it is just different.

I do not mean to discourage you or to suggest that it is impossible to make it to “Mainstage”. Actually being hired in one of the positions we have for actors is highly possible, be it Business Theater or touring company. It is worth the shot if it interests you. What I do want to discourage is your being in “Level A” wishing you were in “C” or being in “C” in a hurry to be in “1”. This “where I am is not good enough” pattern is difficult to break. It goes on and on. You can imagine it as being in a touring company wishing you were in “etc.” or “etc.” wishing for “Mainstage,” or “Mainstage” wishing for “Saturday Night Live.” Everyone could be busy not doing his or her job. They would be missing much of the present experience while auditioning for the future. (Luckily, we do not have much of that going on.)

Be all right where you are. Commit to the process rather than worrying about the product of your investment. It is the same as improvising. The only way for the next moment to realize its full potential is if 100% of your energy is in this one.

Bless you and keep growing.

Martin de Maat,
Artistic Director

May 15-July 30, 2000

Contemplate this. What purpose does art serve? There is, after all, no harmless art. Each image, word or brush stroke creates an effect. All art has an influence. It can challenge the status quo and often begin rumblings that can, and sometimes do, transform social paradigms.

Stimulation of ideas through free expression is the basis for our strength. The artists’ insights are what define a Second City revue. Maintaining high reference levels acknowledges the audience’s intelligence and engages them in thought. Humor is simply the lubricant that makes our points of view palatable. It is necessary and honorable but not the entire entertainment. Don’t sacrifice a scene’s effect or ideas just to get an easy laugh.

Second City revues are a late twentieth century manifestation of Bertolt Brecht’s ideas about the purpose of theatre. He believed that the importance of theatrical offerings lies in stimulating thought and delivering the author’s message. He also believed that theater exists to improve the mass’s life condition. I add that theatre is responsible for providing the audience with some relief from their lives and considerations. Laughter focuses them in the moment. Humor softens the blow. Acceptably presented ideas stimulate, and the total experience provides them with satisfaction and excitement. We are responsible for what we say and how we say it to make sure that this happens.

A performer’s influence is defined by how individual audience members comprehend the presentation. Audience members orient their perception from their individual frames of reference. What they perceive is dependent on their experience and morals. This framework defines their interpretation. It is our responsibility to make offerings that are general enough to reach the widest audience while not losing the artist’s point of view. Herein lies our integrity.

Please remember that the expression “our” includes you.

Humor remains our primary delivery conduit. It is our promise to the audience, but shock, style, and cleverness can also be used to wake them as well. Enrolling the audience through emotional identification is also a substantial means of embroiling them in our notions. Brecht dislikes humankind’s propensity to identify emotionally, but we do not. It has been depended on from the ancients. If empathy and pathos are worthy enough for Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Stanislavsky, they are a good enough method for Second City.

Anything is possible if properly handled. And it is your job to see how close to the line you can walk. Here are several simple lessons to move you into a successful creative experience. Avoid an abundance of easy choices that exist simply to shock. Easy, repeated sexual references confuse a scene’s point of view. Discard language and subject matter that serve no purpose or threaten the audience’s willingness to receive a message. Remember our audience is made up of family and friends. Understand that the audience will hear what they want, and be certain that you are saying what you mean.

I invite you to ruminate on what you really want to say. I suggest a series of societal, political, and interpersonal reflections that demonstrate the ludicrousness that exists in our lives. That is what satire is, and satire is what we do.

If you have questions about this newsletter article, feel free to contact me.

Play well,
Martin de Maat, Ph.D.
Artistic Director

July 31-October 8, 2000

About what we do at Second City.

We teach improvisational techniques and train actors through improvisation, mindful that the bulk of our stage work is the creation of a fixed revue developed through means of ensemble improvisation. This revue includes satirical sketches, scenes of various length and subject matter, music and other theatrical stylings ordered to become an entertainment. The material is developed in rehearsal and tested out at night during the improvised set that follows a show. Eventually, new material is filtered into the first two acts (we call these preview performances) until two new acts have emerged. We have an opening night, label it a different, hopefully relevant, title and continue the process. We proceed to experiment with new scenic ideas. They are stimulated either from the actors’ conceptions or audience suggestions. Any of these new ideas could develop into part of whatever the next offering will be.

A scene’s content and message is sometimes thought out prior to the first time it is improvised. The actors improvise to establish beats or with a goal. They improvise it two or three times and “keep” the beats they like. These beats are ordered in a sequence which makes sense, locked, and rehearsed as set material. Sometimes the actors improvise a scene and then figure out what it is all about. Sometimes they go home and write something. It does not much matter where the material comes from. What does matter is that it stays in some process of exploration and discovery for a while and that the actors know what they are saying in that scene.

The simple goal is to satirize that which we find ludicrous in our society and make it funny. The audience gets to laugh at the silly stuff and perhaps challenge their own belief structures and societal paradigms. It lightens their load and may cause reflection.

We also use improvisation as entertainment unto itself. We present sets and jams that are completely improvised. The seeds of new material are often discovered during these sessions. We also include games and spot improvisations in our sets and sometimes within our revues.

Our primary purpose for teaching improvisation is to prepare students to use it as a tool to create new material. This is the focus of the Conservatory Program of The Training Center. Yet we also teach improvisation to enhance acting techniques and to expand social skills. This is the focus of the Beginning, IFA and High School Programs. These are equally important endeavors.

Whatever drives you to study this work, enjoy the process of exploration, discovery, and growth. The performance (product) is important, but it wants to come second to the learning that can be culled from both the product and the process.


BEAT – an ordered sequence of events or lines that maintain its own beginning, middle, and end, yet becomes part of and serves the whole scene.
CONSERVATORY – the upper levels of The Training Center. These students create material, perform on Sunday nights and eventually run a show on Monday nights.
SET – an act of improvised material or works in progress. The third act of our regular show.
SPOT – a totally spontaneous scene generally based on a suggestion from the audience.

Martin de Maat, Ph.D.
Artistic Director

Autumn 2000

I am privileged to have been included in the “we” of Second City since early childhood. I attended Second City’s shows in its first year of existence. But my first real exposure was through my aunt, Josephine Forsberg, who was studying improvisation there – and would eventually become Second City’s Director of Workshops. She called one day and wanted me to come to class. Josephine felt that the study of improvisation would benefit me, even though I was just a kid. “There is this woman,” she said, “teaching.”

That woman was Viola Spolin and those workshops changed my life, saved it, really. Valuable life lessons and a call to consciousness were the reward for an early morning train and bus ride and a walk along Lincoln Park to attend Saturday classes. Viola was in Chicago to complete work on her book “Improvisation for the Theater.” She used the class to settle on methods for speaking about the games. One of the great acknowledgements of my life is Viola telling me that a scene I had improvised helped her finally settle her thinking on the game “Explore and Heighten.” There I was, a child of nine and ten, improvising with adults and playing parents and bosses. I never missed a class.

Viola was gentle and kind, patient and accepting. She heard every word I spoke. I never felt in appropriate or disrespected. Viola loved children. She created her “Theater Games” for them. The games and exercises were then and are now a type of social work. They were meant to rescue us from the inconsistencies of childhood. They were designed to simulate self-esteem, self-confidence and courage. They taught communication skills that allowed me and others to know we are not alone. I am honored to be one of the children under her influence.

Viola died in 1992. There was a collection of funds for a memorial or such being carried out for her. My secretary opened the letter requesting donations. She said “They’re collecting money for Viola. How much do you want to send?” “Everything,” I replied.

It seems there is nothing I am that has not been influenced by her touch.

Martin de Maat
Artistic Director, The Second City Training Centers

February 13, 2001

I’m dictating this from my hospital bed, so forgive the informality of my newsletter entry this semester.

Recently my days are filled with doctors. Last Wednesday one of the young interns came in and said, “I have never seen this before.” When someone asked what he meant, he said, “I see hundreds of patients, but the people in this room never end, this kind of attention and respect, these visitors, flowers.” He paused. “I don’t have anything to do with your case, but I feel left out. So if I can answer any questions or help, let me know.”

In the last few weeks the outpouring of support has been wonderful. It is a comfort that cannot be described. I am unimaginably blessed by each of you.

My primary doctor and close friend returned from a trip to India this week. Imagine him walking into Cabrini’s Manhattan Hospital trying to find me. He asked the desk clerk downstairs to find my room number. It is a big place and I have moved. Without pausing, the person behind the desk said, “1124.” “Are you sure?” my friend said, “You didn’t even look it up.” The desk manager raised her head and replied with a heavy New York accent, “I’m sure. I’m very, very sure. All I say, all day long is 1124.”

This room is filled with endless messages, phone calls, stacks of mail and visitors. Please accept this note as thanks. It is important to me that you know that I know how you feel. You mean so much to me. I love each of you and I’m very, very proud of you.

Martin de Maat, Artistic Director

Martin de Maat passed away peacefully surrounded by family and friends on February 15, 2001 at Cabrini Medical Center in New York.


3 responses to “The Last Days of Martin de Maat

  1. This is great. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Reblogged this on John Langen and commented:
    My friend Ben shared this on his blog The Boiling Point. Really cool stuff.

  3. Hi.

    I did know Marty.

    Here is something I wrote and many more including the memorial show we did for him.

    “Always…always…look better than your audience”


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