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Delaware Theatre Co. leader Bud Martin reflects on restoring Wilmington stage

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Frank "Bud" Martin left a career in corporate America to return to his passion of life performance. In a decade at the Delaware Theatre Company, he revived the Wilmington stage. | DBT PHOTO BY JIM COARSE/MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

Frank “Bud” Martin left a career in corporate America to return to his passion of life performance. In a decade at the Delaware Theatre Company, he revived the Wilmington stage. | DBT PHOTO BY JIM COARSE/MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

WILMINGTON – The belly of the Delaware Theatre Company was humming with activity earlier this month as production assistants prepped the stage, musicians practiced their pieces and actors began running their lines.

Less than 48 hours later, the lights would go up on the Riverfront stage for a production of the raucous British farce comedy “Two Guvnors.”

Amid all the frenetic movements, however, Bud Martin stood and observed.

For the longtime executive and artistic director of the contemporary theater in Wilmington, the play that will run until Feb. 19 is his last as leader of the theater. He will step down in August after a decade at the helm, handing the reins over to Managing Director Matt Silva.

An accidental business leader

Martin may be best known here for his work in the theater, but when he was a young man raising a family, he put his passion for the arts aside to pursue a business career. A fellow Little League coach who was the president of a New Jersey bank suggested the actor try banking.

His acquaintance introduced him to Graham Howard, who was a part of the Philadelphia investment firm Cogan, Berlind, Weill & Levitt. Martin said he knew that he’d find a connection with Howard, as he helped bankroll Broadway shows produced by firm partner Roger Berlind.

“I think he had a little sympathy for me [as an actor]. Plus, he liked the fact that I read his Rolodex and was taking notes while he was flipping through for  who I might call later about helping produce a show,” Martin recalled with a laugh.

After working for Howard for a while, their team of four would leave and form their own successful investment firm.

Eventually tiring of the “transactional” nature of the industry though, Martin left to work with his father to launch a long-held dream of building a retirement community.

Through that experience, he identified improvements in chronic disease management, electronic prescribing and compliance and launched a successful small technology startup. A presentation on his technology so impressed a venture capitalist who was invested in the electronic health record company Allscripts, that they merged the companies and Martin took over as CEO for three years, leading it to its initial public offering on the stock market.

Outgoing Executive Director Bud Martin will direct his final play at the helm "One Man, Two Guvnors" through Feb 19. | DBT PHOTO BY JIM COARSE/MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

Outgoing Executive Director Bud Martin will direct his final play at the helm “One Man, Two Guvnors” through Feb 19. | DBT PHOTO BY JIM COARSE/MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

He then developed a disease management program and clinics for worksites in a company called I-trax, which grew nationwide until it was acquired by Walgreens for $278 million.

Looking back, Martin said he believed his background in the arts helped him succeed as a business leader with no formal education in his career fields.

“What I found that was really interesting was producing shows and building a company is a very similar process,” he said. “You start with your script in the theater, or you start with your business plan. You have to have a vision for it, and then you’ve got to hire your management team and your cast and get them all working in the same direction. And then eventually, you must be able to sell it.”

Martin added that over the decades he has also found the power of being a good storyteller, whether in business or on the stage.

“I used to say that if the presenter can’t be excited about their company, how can I get excited about their company? So, I think the theater really did help me in that,” he said.

Saving a stage

Having left the corporate world and securing a comfortable future for his family, Martin turned back to his first passion. Within 24 hours of leaving I-trax, he was working as producing artistic director at the small Act 2 Playhouse in Ambler, Pa.

He felt rejuvenated in returning to the theater and made a name for himself for embracing touring productions looking to workshop their plays before a Broadway or Off-Broadway run. One such play, “Time Stands Still” made famous by an earlier Hollywood actress Laura Linney, would lead him to the First State.

Seeking a co-producer for the show, he came down to the Delaware Theatre Company to work out a deal. The theaters would share the costs and each would host runs of the show, but during walkthroughs of the production, Martin said he could sense all was not well.

According to tax filings, the theater had run through endowment funding and lost nearly $650,000 in the 2011-2012 production season. It had cash reserves of less than $90,000 in the bank ahead of the impending 2012-13 season.

“It was very clear that the theater was in serious trouble,” Martin recalled. “I think it had an awful lot to do with programming. A couple of the people who came before me had very eclectic tastes. They felt like they wanted to do shows that they liked, necessarily more so than what brought an audience into the theater.”

The theater’s board was reportedly considering closing the theater for a year while fundraising to strengthen its balance sheets ahead of a relaunch, but Martin advised against it.

“I’m just not sure if the theater fails, how you raise money from people to reopen it,” he said. “So they asked me if I could save it … and I thought at least I wouldn’t have to convince anyone to let me direct a show.”

A new DTC

Under Martin’s tenure, the Delaware Theatre Company has mounted several high-profile shows with stage or Hollywood connections – a byproduct of his long-running roots on Broadway and theater production – that come with a cost-sharing with the larger producers.

It started with “The Outgoing Tide,” a drama written by Emmy Award winners Peter Strauss and Michael Learned, that was working its way to Broadway.

“I’ll say the board was a little nervous because it was about a guy who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s who wanted to commit suicide,” he recalled. “Because we had these big names attached to it though, we broke box office records.”

Another major breakthrough was the 2015 production of “Diner,” a musical that featured a story by Academy Award winner Barry Levinson and music by Sheryl Crow. It cost millions to produce, but broke even and sold 400,000 tickets, surpassing the entire previous year’s ticket sales.

Martin also credits the support of the state government, and particularly former Gov. Jack Markell, for the revitalization of the theater. About 25% of its annual budget is subsidized by the state, but Martin believes that investment has helped poise Wilmington for the gains it’s seen in recent years.

The Delaware Theatre Company was facing closure in 2012 before Bud Martin brought in high-profile productions to save the theater. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

The Delaware Theatre Company was facing closure in 2012 before Bud Martin brought in high-profile productions to save the theater. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

“I think we have more culture in Wilmington than any midsize city I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The state recognizes that in order to draw businesses and attract the best and the brightest employees, they have to have a vibrant cultural scene.”

Former Gov. Jack Markell, who was a proponent for the theater and even starred in a 2016 fundraising show, told Delaware Business Times that the DTC was “extraordinarily fortunate to have Bud Martin as its leader for many years.”

“Bud embodies a remarkable combination of skills – leadership, artistic, vision, personality and commitment to the greater good. Working with Bud was a true joy for Carla and me and we were thrilled to see how his contributions benefitted the broader community,” he said.

A new chapter

Today, the theater is financially secure despite the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that has decreased audiences by about 20% today – beating the industry average of 30%. With a tenured leadership team in place, Martin said that he felt it was time to spend more time with his wife and family.

They’ve often had to plan their infrequent vacations and travel around the production schedule, and for 10 years Martin was a voter in Broadway’s Tony Awards, requiring him to see dozens of shows a year. Now he wanted to loosen the reins for a new adventure – but is committed to remaining involved, directing a DTC show each year and consulting Silva, the new leader.

“My plan is not to sit back and put my feet up,” he said.

Silva is excited to inherit a theater that has been revitalized, but he will also face new challenges, including the uncertain future for many Broadway shows that could trickle down to regional theaters that have come to depend on the larger partners. One planned co-production fell through this spring after financing didn’t materialize, which led to a production of the classic “Man of La Mancha” instead.

“We’ve invested $0 into marketing that show and we’ve already sold $20,000 worth of tickets. So in terms of programming, it’s really important that we’re putting things on here that people trust and know,” he said.

After traditional marketing outlets like newspapers and trade publications have declined, the theater will also look to utilize data and social media to help reach potential customers, Silva said. It hired local firm NüPOINT Marketing to assist and landed a grant from the Longwood Foundation to back a new marketing campaign.

“We’re able to sort of expand and test digital marketing, because that’s where the new audience is going to come from,” he added.

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