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Judith Martin

(1917 - 2012)

Judith Martin is an innovator and creator of the Paper Bag Players, a theatrical group that performs for children. She pioneered a new form of children's theater.

Martin was born in Newark, New Jersey, in August, 1918, where she grew up and received her education. Her grandparents were poor working class Russian-Jewish immigrants and her parents were upper-middle class.

Martin would commute to New York City for dance and drama lessons while attending the Newark public schools. When she graduated high school, she attended for two years the Neighborhood (Playhouse) School Theater. Maria Ouspenskaya, a noted actress of stage and films, taught her the Stanislavsky method of acting. Martin then enrolled in the New Theater School where she studied under Larry Galpern. He had studied the Russian method of dramatizing fairy tales with song, dance and fantasy. Martin was able to capitalize on this method in the development of the Paper Bag Players.

Martin became the director of the dance project of the National Youth Administration in New York. She choreographed American dances for them which toured for two years throughout the metropolitan New York City.

With Diana Merliss, a former classmate, they founded the New York Theater for Children. The productions were based on the original stories written by Martin, such as "The Runaway Horse." The productions were very professional and well received, but a shortage of bookings, forced them to end their venture.

Her initial professional success was in dance. She had studied modern dance with Martha Graham and then performed with many new innovative dance companies, including the Anna Sokolow Dance Company. She joined the Merce Cunningham Company where Martin was a choreographer, director and lead dancer.

Her career was interrupted in 1956 when she married Solomon Miller, an anthropologist, who taught at Hofstra University. They left New York to travel to Illinois and on an expedition to Peru.

In 1958, Martin and three women formed an experimental group which became the Paper Bag Players. She was a major force in the group as she directed, designed, wrote and acted in all productions. By 1965, everybody, except Martin, had left and others replaced them.

They toured schools and children's theaters with their performances of dances, sketches and songs. Their fantasy coupled with animation on the stage captivated the young audiences. Martin also interacted the performers with the children by audience participation.

The Paper Bag Players used people of all sizes, ages, and physical characteristics in the performances. They felt that children could more easily identify with people who look and act normal. It was not unusual to have performers go into the audience to involve the children.

Their stories were about the life that surrounds the children. "Hot Feet" deals with the problems and joys of urban living; "Dandelion" is about the evolutionary theory in nature; "I Won't Take A Bath" is involved in children's fantasies; "Grandpa" depicts the life process of growing, changing and growing old.

Judith Martin and the Paper Bag Players reflected the realities of life designed to educate and entertain children through the fantasy and the magic of the theater. She also brought to many children the only theater that they will ever see.

Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.