by Hien Nguyen
photography by Natalie Medrano
It was hard to find Alma Martinez at a place and a time when she was not busy–whether it was directing theater plays at local Southern California colleges, flying to different states to film for multiple projects as a professional actress, or taking care of her immigrant parents who currently reside in Las Vegas. Believe it or not, all of this happened while she was on sabbatical for the Fall 2022 Semester at the University of La Verne. The Theater Department at the University is considerably smaller than other departments, but that doesn’t mean it is any less in quality. Alma Martinez is the department’s associate professor of theater, but outside and beyond, she holds an impressive resume spanning nearly 40 years of high-level performances in theater, television, films and commercials. Her diligent work ethic and efforts to be outspoken about the importance of diversity in media also got Alma inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2013. Have you seen shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Queen Sugar” or “Gentefied”? You might have caught a glimpse of the professor on your screen. If you want to see her on campus, be careful—her charisma and passion for the arts is contagious, and the next thing you know you might be on the Dailey Theatre stage yourself when she returns to teach on campus Spring Semester 2023.
“Theater is all the education you need”
Alma revived musical theater at ULV with “Working!” in spring 2022. This was Alma’s first time directing a musical—her body of directing work consists of mostly plays, with an emphasis on acting. After the tumultuous and distressing pandemic times, she said there was a need for another level of art. “We need singing and dancing, we need music, and we need joy.” Thanks to Alma’s sharp intuition, the musical came at a relevant time and paid homage to the frontline workers of the pandemic. Audiences were able to enjoy a theater performance that not only excelled artistically but also honored blue collar workers and their stories.
To Alma, watching theater is an essential recreational part of life, but lessons in theater can be applicable in life, which is why she always tells students, even those outside the department, that everybody should take acting. “The idea is that by performing, collaborating, solving problems, getting involved with diverse opinions, and creating something unique where you’re supporting each other—that is all the education you’ll ever need,” she affirms. “I wouldn’t have had that without my theater training. I would not be the film actress I am today with the career I have without the theater training. And with students coming up and wanting to be actors, I always say, ‘Theater, theater, theater!’”
She anchors that thought, saying, ULV’s Baccalaureate Learning Goals are almost all captured in the theater program. She cites “Working! A Musical” as an example. “It’s about the different perspectives we had for the students to dig in, in order for them to embody the roles. They didn’t know how to be firemen, busboys or housewives, but they researched and learned how to. We have the cleaning woman at the end who sings a very joyous number. What do we think about our cleaning people? They’re invisible, aren’t they,” she says while singing an excerpt of the gospel number. “The critical question is, why in our society do we denigrate blue collar workers, and what can we do as actors and especially those of us who are people of color. It’s called critical race theory, which is being targeted right now, but in a lot of red states, they don’t want you to teach critical race theory. Well, I teach it in everything I do,” Alma says firmly. She says all the plays she has chosen since making her 2016 La Verne debut as theater director with “Electricidad” urge both the audience and actors to think critically. “My point about baccalaureate goals is that theater fulfills almost all of them, if not all of them. And that’s why we can change lives. And that’s why theater is essential.”
Martinez still has a passion for learning–learning a broad range of knowledge both in and outside of her field and learning from her own students by encouraging them to give input in classes. “I had this incredible intellectual curiosity that I just love, which I think has served me a lot as a director and an actor.” As a self-proclaimed scholar, Alma has multiple diplomas to back her up–a B.A. in theater at Whittier College, then an MFA in acting at the University of Southern California, and a Ph.D. at Stanford University for directing and critical theory in drama. As a college student, Alma says she was one of only “a handful of people of color” in the theater departments. “I felt like I didn’t belong because everybody was light skinned, and everybody knew the musicals. I just knew I loved to sing and dance.” Now, as an educator, Alma shares that her biggest joy is that “I always find a place for everybody.” She explains her teaching style as teaching to the person in the back of the room. “They’re the person who is quiet, but they signed up. They’re afraid, but they’re there because they want to learn.”
In Alma’s classroom, one can expect an air of collaboration between the professor and students. She encourages students to have dialogue and learn to build beneficial relationships when working with theater, film and television directors. “You have to come in knowing your stuff but also be secure enough to ask questions or voice your opinions,” she says. “That’s the atmosphere I create. I ask the students what their ideas are. I love ideas that are better than mine. I tell them, I’m a 70-year-old woman, you know? I like to think I’m on top of things, but I’m not. I’m interested in what you guys are thinking. You guys are gonna keep all of us young. You’re the ones who are changing the world.” She feels teaching at La Verne is a high calling. “Being a professor is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. I love it. It’s such an honor. I’m so proud of it.”
“Acting: pursuing what I love”
With her multiple simultaneous projects, it seems that Alma is always at two different places at once. “Everyone always asks me why I work so hard, and I simply tell them, ‘Because I’m excited by what I do.’” Despite this, Alma says her parents did not support her career decision. “They said, ‘If you study theater, we’re not gonna help you.’ And they didn’t, which is not out of hate, but I never wavered, and I did it on my own,” she says, describing her parents as immigrant parents who didn’t envision their children taking an artistic route as a career path. In school, she wasn’t getting acting jobs that were paying, but loved acting so she bused tables, cleaned houses, and was an experiment subject for the psychology department. She says she was happy to do anything to pick up a little extra money to support her passion.
Alma describes herself as a determined person. She gained a full scholarship to earn her Ph.D. at Stanford while she was concurrently performing in shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “I would jump in my car after my show and drive five, six hours to campus because I didn’t want to miss classes. When I got my B.A. from Whittier College, I had a matinee performance of “The Miser” way out in Santa Monica so I picked up my diploma, then ran to Santa Monica to do my matinee. When I got my MFA from USC, I was at the Oregon Shakespeare festival so I flew in the morning to go through the ceremony and flew back because I had a show that night. I never thought I would have this life because I couldn’t even have imagined it. All I knew is I just pursued what I love.”
When Luis Valdez cast Alma in “Zoot Suit” in the 1980s, it started her professional career–both the show and Alma went to Broadway. “Zoot Suit” became the first Mexican-Chicano play to hit the stage. Two years later, Alma’s first appearance on the big screen also came when Universal Studios decided to make a film adaptation of “Zoot Suit.” Her preparation brought on an impressive career, and she possesses a multi-page resume that reads like a who’s who of main productions from the past 40 years. She is celebrated as a legacy leader. Two University colleagues invited Alma to author a chapter in their book, “Latinx “Actor Training.” The Routledge Press book, edited by Cynthia De Cure Santos, Yale University acting professor, and Micha Espinosas, Arizona State University professor of voice and acting, is due out spring 2023. Alma is making final edits on her included chapter, “Alma Martinez: A Narrative Toward Becoming a Chicanx Actor.”
Changing The Academy of Motion Picture Arts
Excitement is still in her voice as Alma recalls the 2013 moment she learned that she won entrance into the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts, which awards the Oscars. Her board presence addresses criticism that the Academy Awards are in danger of falling out of relevancy and lacking representation. A 2012 Los Angeles Times study said that 77% of the members were male, and only 6% of the Academy were people of color, with Latino members comprising less than 2% of the total membership. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African American president of the Academy, nominated Alma for membership, which was ratified by the Board. The two share the same alma mater: Whittier College. “When Cheryl came in, she said, ‘That’s it; we gotta stop this white male club,’” says Alma. “It was a private club because they didn’t publish a list of who’s in the academy. So, in order to be in the academy, two people have to recommend you, but if you don’t know who’s in the Academy, and there’s no people of color, that’s how they were keeping people like us out.” Since gaining membership, Alma is proud to say she has personally inducted 10 people of color and Native Americans into the Academy. “Culture in this society is so important—art and creativity are so important because that’s what changes minds, and the Academy needs to keep improving to be relevant.”
Alma: The ‘A’ for Authenticity
“Anyone can be an actor,” says Alma. “Everybody, because the way you behave, it’s called, private and public self. My private self is my public self—that’s the actor in me. So, what acting does is—here’s the weird thing—acting teaches you to show the private in public. And I have a very low tolerance for injustice—a very low tolerance for discrimination, sexism, ageism. I have a very low tolerance. It’s served me well because I’ve spoken my mind and know that I’ve tried to do things to correct it.”
Shakespeare tells us, “All the world’s a stage.” And for Alma Martinez, whether as a professor, as an actor or as an Academy member, she is always on stage as an authentic person–true to her roles, true to herself and true to her values.