Ty DeMartino: Paradoxical Playwright
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
Ty DeMartino is a paradox of pep and depth, of light and dark, of a heartfelt tale with the zing of cynicism. To meet him is to meet a bubbling fountain of energy, wit, kindness, and insight.
Ty lives in my community, and he’s an acclaimed playwright and screenwriter, and he’s a
really nice guy, so he’s a cherished jewel of our small, Appalachian town of Frostburg, Maryland. In the summer of 2018 I worked at our local coffee shop, Clatter, and I started to get to know him personally. He would come in, brimming with joy, and sit down at the table across from the cement bar that separated me from the customers. He has gray-blue eyes framed by striking black frames. As I would pour boiling espresso into mugs, Ty would chat a little and then focus deeply on typing on his laptop, coming up only a few times for a refill and an exchange of witticisms.
He was unassuming in his rapport with people. I had no idea the expanse of where his plays have been performed until I looked it up online: The Road Theatre in North Hollywood, Kirk Theatre on 42nd Street in New York City, The Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, the T. Schreiber Studio in Chelsea, The Pittsburgh New Works Festival, the San Francisco Fringe Festival, and Baltimore’s Spotlighters Theatre, just to name some. Nor did he ever mention that he and his work have garnered such accolades as Playwright of the Year by the Baltimore City Paper, Best Production of the 2008 Baltimore Playwrights Festival, and Outstanding Production by Stage Scene L.A.
Ty often came into Clatter to work, and he always ordered a chai latte, always was kind and always made me laugh. I was quite surprised, then, that much of his work deals with morose and difficult themes. In his plays he dives deep into the secret, broken parts of the human psyche, such as in Finding Fossils, He’s No J.F.K, and The Darling Siblings, among many others. His movies lean into the warmth of community and connection, seasoned with wit.
Ty explained this distinction: “Some of my stuff is tremendously dark . . . My movies are a little different. I’ve been writing a lot of faith-based material for the screen, but my plays are literally families in a living room screaming at each other, and people are like ‘that came out of you?’ In between the laughter at the local coffee shop this angst has come out. You can do both, you can be happy and write sad things, or be sad and write happy things.”
This mixture of the happy with the sad is clear in his movie The Pledge. One of the main characters, Jill, delivers the line, “I’m an artist and I smile.” Upon hearing that line, I couldn't help but think of Ty himself: the happy artist who creates with a full range of human emotion. In The Pledge, the protagonist, Tory, presents a key 21st century American question: What happens if you forget 9/11? How would it change us if we could recall how we felt in that moment?
At the beginning, it seemingly is a purely patriotic piece, but as the characters’
complexities are drawn out, paradoxes expand before the audience. Between nods to Elias Kazan and West Virginia hospitality, the tension of the horrors of war and the importance of war build, but the audience is left somewhat unresolved intellectually, rather moving to an emotional resolution. Yet, the emotional resolution is sufficient for us as an audience to be satisfied with Tory. Ty’s characters range from Jane Austen-like playful mocking and exaggeration of types to complex characters with hidden psychological disturbances. Characters are the cornerstone with which Ty builds his story.
Ty is married to Mary Beth, a kind, thoughtful woman who is a virtuosic singer, but also more importantly a therapist. Ty praises Mary Beth as being a tremendous resource for crafting authentic motivations in his characters. He does not, however, use their family life as inspiration for his writing.
Mary Beth explained that “Ty really doesn’t draw on our personal lives much. I guess we’re boring. He will occasionally name a character or a location after our sons and other family members and friends. That's neat to see. But Ty’s got such a vivid imagination. He always has. I’ve been in talk-back sessions after his movies or plays and an audience member will ask, ‘How did you come up with this or that?’ His favorite answer is: ‘I just made it up.’”
Ty explained that “The ideas will pop into my head or I'll meet someone and think, what an interesting character, that person’s such an interesting character, and I’ll develop the world around them . . . I find people interesting. I think that if I can find real life people and put them on a page that’s a win for me.”
Mary Beth recounts that characters have always been the fulcrum of Ty’s stories: “Ty’s writing style has grown, but the essence of his writing has remained the same. I feel his strength is building memorable characters. When we started dating in college, he was always writing. So I’ve read his work for decades now. He struggled in his 20's trying to get his scripts produced and I could see he was getting discouraged. But I remember the moment one of his short plays won a contest in Connecticut. We flew up for a writer’s reception and to see the production. It was the perfect confidence booster, and his writing took off from here.”
The beautiful paradoxes of his characters overflow into the beautiful paradoxes of the production of his works. While he maintains that it is important to write for yourself, an artist needs to write with the audience in mind. “The thing about being an artist or an author or a painter, is if you have to have a relationship, you have to have an audience," he explained. "I honestly think you need that other person to say that's art to me . . . I think it takes another person to appreciate it.”
While some may cry that this philosophy bespeaks commercialism over artistic taste, it really is not. Art is a relational, aesthetic bond of a community. He writes, “People who come to movies only remember the last ten minutes and how that made them feel. It’s very important to have them have some emotions and have them achieve it.”
Artists create for themselves, but also for others, and keeping this paradox in mind has made Ty not just a successful artist, but a good one.
Check out our interview with Ty on our podcast here.
Check out the link to Ty's latest movie, Tulsa, here.