Welcome In: Whitney Currier & Lora Miller, Founders of The Martin

Photo Courtesy: Lora Miller and Whitney Currier, photgraphed by Nicole Bitonti

The New Local: What brought you to Chicago?

Lora Miller: Acting! I went to school for acting, and my best friend lived out here, too. I didn't want to go to L.A., it just wasn't my vibe. You really have to hustle, and I wanted to go somewhere that was more my pace. Chicago's more my style, and now I don't ever want to leave.

Whitney Currier: Same, I graduated with a theatre degree. I thought this was going to be my stepping-stone to L.A., and then I got here and just stayed. I did that for a handful of years and then got into the producing game, and that's what led us here.

The New Local: What is the backstory of The Martin?

WC: So, I did storefront theatre for like six years and really struggled in it. I never really found my place in it. I was a company member for a company for a couple years. which is like all you want, to be a company member. This voice in the back of head said "this is not the way to do it, this is a waste of time."

The last year I did it we spent the entire year workshopping one play, so I performed once in one calendar year, which is insane. It was driving me crazy and I said "I can't do this, I need to create opportunities for myself." I was tired of going into an audition room and hoping for the best because it just wasn't happening for me.

I started producing and putting together multiple performer events, and went from there. I was renting spaces similar to ours, but I ran into so many instances where the venue owners promised something they didn't come through with or we'd go into the space night of and something crazy would be happening in the space or something that really affected the event, and that was money out of my pocket.

So again that voice said "you could do this better", so I set off on my journey of doing this myself. I started looking at venues in 2017 and squirreling money away.

Eventually, I stumbled upon this space. It was almost double of what I was hoping to pay on my own, and that's when I brought Lora in.

LM: I was a company member and doing storefront theatre and small productions. I had never done any producing myself outside of school, but friends and I were over at The Den and I thought "I think I can do this, I'm going to try!"

So I did a play [at The Den], and that was awesome. I started doing variety shows at my apartment because it was so expensive and knowing my expectations were high, I wanted to be in control of what the environment looked like. Basically I had a house party, but told all my friends who did any form of art or perform something.

As a performer, you get tired of knocking on doors and it's a lot of rejection. When you finally do get something, it's not worth your time and you're not getting paid. You have that feeling of "there's a better way to do this" and that's what really drove me to producing.

It was kind of amazing meeting Whitney, I actually went to a show she put on. A friend of a friend brought me and it was right when I was just starting my company that I was producing under. It was super inspiring what she was doing, and I started following her on the internet. When we finally linked up, it was because we were internet friends and she posted about stuff she was doing and was looking for collaborators on projects she was working on. At that point in my life, I was feeling in a rut. It was one of those things where we got drinks and were into the same struggled and goals, and talked about opening a space.

It was kind of serendipitous! I had always wanted to own a space and live above it, and she completely knocked the wind out of me in a good way when she asked me to collaborate on her with this.

What's the story behind the name?

WC: Martin was my father's middle name. I liked having a masculine name for a female run business. When we were building out our brand name, [Lora's] fiancé was sending us literature on the martin as a bird. A martin is a good omen to sailors – if you're out at sea and see a martin, it's a land bird, so it means you're close to home.

We loved the idea, and so we started the Good Omen Club. It's our community membership, and it's just $5 a month, and they help us keep our doors open and fund the basics. In return, we give them perks, like discounts and early sign up.

LM: Our audience is so artist-based and budget down the dollar, so more than $5 is a lot to ask.

TNL: How'd you find this space?

WC: Craigslist! We got very lucky with this space. I've lived in Logan for years and years and I didn't want to travel too far, so I was looking in the area when I stumbled upon this one.

TNL: When did you open the doors to The Martin?

WC: June 23, 2018 was our launch party, and we really hit the ground running after that.

TNL: How do you curate all the events you put on? What goes into that process?

WC: We've been very fortunate so far and are very lucky to have found each other because we both were doing so much [that was] related, but in different communities. So both of us have people from our past we're able to bring together. I think it would have been much more challenging if we were friends all along and had the same friend group. We both came in with this army of people. We're very lucky that most of the things that are happening here are incoming, so people are coming to us. It's been shown to us that the community's artists, makers, designers were looking for a space like this.

LM: The curation of the space has been really fun. The first couple of months that our doors were open were reactionary. At first we were going to rent this space, and the further we got along, we've learned we're good at more than throwing artistic events that generate revenue. It's hard with renters and handing keys over to a space that feels like your child! Sometimes the child comes back and it's wearing different clothes and there's beer all over it.

WC: Mostly just a lot of beer all over it.

LM: Now in the new year, we're being a little bit more deliberate and are in the driver's seat.

WC: If you're an artist trying to throw your first show and can't afford $400, we're not going to say goodbye. Likely, this artist is going to come to more events, they're going to want to work with us again, they have their own communities. Every event is an opportunity for us to expand.

TNL: So, 12 Ophelias. What's that?

WC: It's a play! At the end of the year we had a retreat to plan for the next quarter, so we challenged ourselves to continue to produce our own events. It's so easy to slam a calendar full of other people's events – we want other people in here of course, but we opened this for us, too, to perform, so we wanted to make it a priority.

The 12 Ophelias script has been in my life for the last 3 or 4 years and it popped back in and I thought it'd be perfect. I'm directing the show and it's going to be an immersive theatre experience in the round.

It's the story of Ophelia from Hamlet, post-drowning, in this post-apocalyptic, candy-filled, forest world.

It's got a bunch of original songs in the script that we've kind of pushed aside. The playwright, very openly in the opening pages, says to do what you want with these songs. I approached a friend of mine and said I wanted to flip this on its head. She totally ditched them and is rewriting them.

LM: The play is written as if you did it with traditional gender roles. The story changes a little bit and it becomes more about the roles and the relationships. Having it be all-female identifying people, as an audience, you go through it and [gender] isn't even on your radar. The play is set is post-apocalyptic Appalachia, and we're telling the audience "don't worry about where it is. We're focusing on the relationships!"

So much theatre is for theatre people, especially with Shakespeare. My fiancé asked if he needed to know the story of Hamlet and I said no. We're cutting things from the play that are too heavy handed on knowing backstory.

TNL: What's the premiere date for 12 Ophelias?

WC: Our preview date is March 20 and then we open on the 21st. It's a short run, eight performances. A huge theme in the show is addiction, and not in a gnarly way. A sugar addition – and just wanting more. So I think if we can successfully have a kickass show with a short run, people will be like "I want more" and they'll want more of The Martin and what The Martin can do.

TNL: What are some of your goals for 2019?

WC: We're very aware we're two white women who moved into a space in Humboldt Park, so [one goal is] doing our best and making sure this really is a safe space for everyone and that we're not just adding to suburban row. It's tiny efforts that cost us nothing. At our Marketplace we give a community table. We want to reach out to more youth, LGBTQ, queer communities.

LM: It's been really cool to be community-based and collaborate with entities that have reach in those communities.

WC: I feel like we're on a really good track.

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2515 W. North Avenue Chicago, IL 60647

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