What Playwright Safiya Martinez Learned at The Marsh

Categories: Interview, Theater

safiya.jpg
Photo by Ian Davis
Safiya Martinez in 'So You Can Hear Me'
Dancer, poet and playwright Safiya Martinez studied acting at New York University. But she said she learned more in David Ford's three-month class at the Marsh than she did at NYU.

"To me, why he's a genius is he's really diagnostic," she said. "He has this way of seeing what everybody needs and kind of tailoring it to you."

Martinez took Ford's class to work on her solo show currently playing at the Marsh, So You Can Hear Me, about her experiences teaching special education in the Bronx. Martinez, who grew up in New York's Lower East Side was thrown into teaching in one of the toughest districts in the city at 23 years old with just three weeks of training.

Ford was able to help her put together material that was still very close to her, Martinez said. He told her she needed to let go some of her concern with logic and order to access the heart of the piece. She said he told her something when she had just finished a monologue about one of her students, Jose, that changed her way of working.

"I thought I'd done a great job, and I was sweating, and I expected a pat on the head, and he said, 'You're clearly still very embarrassed about emotion and you've got to understand that theater is the place for emotion.'"

There's plenty of emotion in the show as Martinez, a dancer and a poet as well as a teacher and playwright, portrays her mother and several friends, as well as nine of her students, from their point of view as well as hers. She shows the difficulty she had in maintaining order in the classroom with students with wildly different abilities and energy. Martinez said she wanted both the $40,000 a year salary and to be of service. She didn't know the average turnover for a middle school teacher was two years.

"They need to staff so bad," she said. "They're trying to get somebody with a pulse. I just kind of grabbed. I wasn't tripping because I had gone to public school all my life, and I grew up in New York City, so there's this perceived edge you think you have."

Martinez said everyone who started teaching in her program was 20 years older and had been laid off from their jobs on Wall Street, and she felt confident she would connect with the kids.

" I thought, 'I know what's going on, I have energy, I listen to the same music as the kids, I'm with it, I'll be fine,'" she said.

It didn't take Martinez long to realize how much teaching involved. It started the first day when she put nametags out on everyone's desks.

"Within minutes, they're airplanes and away we go," she said.

Martinez stuck with teaching, just wrapping up her 10th year. She taught in New York for five, then came out to San Francisco to get her M.F.A. at San Francisco State. While here, she has been teaching at Balboa High School as an Arts Integration Specialist through Community Works, a program that works with kids who have family or close friends being in the justice system.

Working with Community Works meant that Martinez taught two classes to teach and she could spend the rest of her time preparing for classes, working with kids individually and building relationships with kids. It also meant that she had more time and energy outside of work. And she decided to put that towards her performance.

"It's my time to really go full throttle as an artist," she said.

So You Can Hear Me plays on Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm and on Saturday at 5 pm at the Marsh,1062 Valencia through July 20. There is no performance on Thursday, July 4.

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