Stage Life

Theater maven Diana Martinez comes home to the new McAninch Arts Center

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 10:58 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 8:32 a.m. CDT

Creativity, a strong work ethic and fearless attitude have helped Glen Ellyn’s Diana Martinez build a career as a theatrical executive. Leading the charge over the years at such acclaimed area venues as Pheasant Run, the Paramount Arts Center, and Second City, Martinez now has a front row seat as director of the newly revamped McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage. Some $400 million in expansion and renovation have the MAC poised to become a stage of choice in the suburbs, offering everything from comedy and stage plays to acoustic concerts to an outdoor Ravinia-style music experience.


It has been Martinez’s creativity and flat out moxie that have helped build her success. Chicago choreographer Brenda Didier, who worked with Martinez when she was a producer and director at the Pheasant Run Theater in St. Charles, recalls a time her colleague’s quick thinking saved the day.


“It was during a production of ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,’ and one of the actresses became ill at the last minute. Diana says, ‘who knows this show better than me?’” Didier recalls.


She changed the character from an African-American woman to a Latina and went onstage in the role herself. “It was definitely quick thinking under fire and she made it work,” says Didier.


The MAC is a sort of homecoming for Martinez, whose childhood in Glen Ellyn sowed the seeds for her future success. Growing up, she often spent time in her mom’s downtown Glen Ellyn beauty shop, developing her work ethic.


“My sisters and I all worked as shampoo girls and learned to do hair. When I went away to college, I put a sign on my dorm room door, and did haircuts for five dollars. It was my spending money all through school,” she says.


When she wasn’t helping her mother, she often went to the nearby Glen Art Theater to watch children’s classics such as Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, Pippy Longstocking and Mary Poppins. “I watched them over and over, committing them to memory. That could be when I first fell in love with theater,” she says.
She was cast in a park district production of The Velveteen Rabbit, and from then on, was hooked. “Not only did I love performing, but also the camaraderie that develops during a production. It’s very unique,” she says.


At Glenbard West High School, Martinez joined the Before Broadway Players under the direction of teacher Doug Quinn and developed an interest in stage management. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign she majored in theater management and directing.   After graduation, she intended to join Quinn, who was then working at Pheasant Run, but days before she was to start, Quinn suddenly died.


Beyond the loss of a good friend, Martinez also found herself with no mentor and no job. Reluctantly, she took a position with a retail corporation, while reconnecting with high school and college friends to stage a production of A Chorus Line at the Glen Ellyn Park District. She invited the Pheasant Run Theater’s general manager to see it.


He loved the show, but was still hesitant to hire a recent college graduate as a director, so Martinez offered to direct a show for free. “I said if it was successful, we would split the profit,” she recalls.
The successful show earned more than profit for Martinez. “They offered me a season and I was there for the next thirteen years,” she says.


Working at Pheasant Run not only honed her creativity, but also her business savvy. “Theater is a business unlike any other, because it’s so expensive up front. You have huge costs before you sell a single ticket. You can have the best show in the world, but if you don’t know how to sell tickets and promote it, it’s going to be over quickly,” she says.


Following her tenure at Pheasant Run, she became executive director for the Paramount Arts Center in Aurora. “Working with the board, we decided to step things up, going to 40 big shows a year,” she says.
The risk paid off in increased visibility, doubled ticket sales, and eventually, a successful fundraiser to build a new lobby and renovate the theater’s backstage. 


After Paramount, she joined Second City as president, and in 2012, launched a theater consulting business. In the summer of 2013, she was working on projects with several Chicago theater companies, and Broadway in Chicago, when she was contacted about the position with the McAninch Arts Center.


Martinez is excited about the potential of the newly-renovated MAC, as well as its unique dual role as a community arts center and educational facility. It will celebrate its Grand Opening March 8, with a fundraising gala featuring Jim Belushi and the Chicago Board of Comedy, followed by a 9:30 p.m. show that is open to the public.


Didier, who has known Martinez since their college days, has no doubt she’ll be successful. “Not only is she business-minded, she’s also creative, which is really a rare mix,” Didier says.

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