Commissioned by the Arden Theatre as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA), the play Wanamaker’s Pursuit tells the story of a young Nathan Wanamaker’s arrival in Paris in search of the latest fashions for his family’s department store, and the unexpected discoveries of his journey. Though a work a fiction, the play is inspired by historical events and characters of early twentieth century Paris, and the story of Wanamaker’s, the first modern department store in Philadelphia and, arguably, in the United States.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with the playwright, Rogelio Martinez, and learn about his own path to PIFA.
Traveling IQ: First of all I’m very excited to chat with you because we are both from the same small town in Cuba. For all I know we played together as children… Sancti Spíritus is not that big of a place.
RM: Yes, it’s very rare. I always tell people you may meet other Cubans, but I’m the only Cuban you will ever meet who admits he’s not from Havana.
Well, now there are two of us. How old were you when you left?
I came (to the U.S.) when I was nine, but I can remember Sancti Spíritus very clearly.
At what point did you get interested in theatre?
My family settled in Union City, NJ. At the time it had the second biggest Cuban population, after Miami. I think I got interested when I actually went to the theatre for the first time, in New York. I was always interested in film because as a little boy in Cuba I went to the movies all the time. And suddenly I went to see a play and I realized I was much more interested in the live experience, in how audiences respond instantly. You can go see a comedic movie and a lot of the laughter is held inside. But you see a funny play and the laughter pours out. There’s something about how the audience becomes one. It’s one of those few moments where the world comes together. And there’s nothing like it.
What was that first play?
Hmmm… That answer becomes progressively more embarrassing. It was Speed the Plow by David Mamet. And I’m not embarrassed because of David Mamet… I think he’s an amazing writer. But the reason my mom took me was because Madonna was in it. I didn’t know what I was walking into. I just knew that Madonna was in the play. And I walked out and my head was abuzz. Everything was like “wow.” I’d just seen something remarkable.
So Madonna is responsible for getting you involved in theatre?
You know, often times we writers wonder why they bring someone from Hollywood. And I think we have to look at the positive side. It gets people in the seats that would not otherwise have come. And that creates new audiences—or you hope it does. I’m not saying that everyone will venture out and see more theatre but some will. And that’s important.
Well, that’s definitely one—good—way to look at it.
It’s a tough business and the only way to stay in it for a while is to remain positive… I think.
How did you get involved with PIFA?
Well, Terry (the director) and I met working on another of my plays and he asked if had any ideas for a piece about Paris? The festival was celebrating 100 years, so I started exploring Paris 1911, and I found those limitations really interesting. There’s something really exciting for a writer to have boundaries because you can walk right up to the ledge and push the boundaries of the play.
How was the Wanamaker connection born?
The Wanamaker name has always been synonymous with Philly. So Terry and I started talking about the idea of a buyer for the store, a fictional heir that goes to Paris during the most exciting time. And he meets Paul Poiret, one of the greatest designers of the twentieth century, along with Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso; and he meets them at a moment in time before we knew them, before they became who they’d eventually become. And I think that’s also an exciting element of the play: you see people becoming iconic.
How did the city of Paris affect the character of Wanamaker?
It’s the story of learning new rules, new languages…understanding how cultures work. Here we have a young man arriving in Paris and the rules are completely different than what he is used to. He is master of one world but here he’s in a world where he has no control. And in a sense that’s the story of anyone who arrives here from a different country. I think that’s what makes the play have a universal appeal.