Judith Martin co-founded The Paper Bag Players in 1958. Creativity was shared during the first years, but as the company developed, Judith Martin more and more shaped The Paper Bag Players’ identity. She wrote, designed, choreographed, directed, and performed in 35 Paper Bag Players shows.
As Artistic Director from 1963-2009, she developed a contemporary theater for children. The shows intimately reflected a child’s world. Each story was taken from a child’s experience and unfolded in a theatrical environment made of the simplest of everyday objects: cardboard boxes, paper bags, and found household objects children recognize and in fact play with. Even the littlest of theatergoers felt a part of the action, thrilled to see their imaginations and fantasies so vividly reflected.
In each show, music, dance, painting, and contemporary stories combined in theatrical pieces that affirmed life’s endless possibility for fun, adventure, and surprise. The shows that included “Hot Feet,” I Won’t Take a Bath,” “Dandelion,” and “When My Cousin Slept Over” enchanted young theatergoers, and the work deeply influenced fellow artists.
Born and raised in Newark, NJ, Judith Martin commuted to New York City for dance and drama lessons while attending the Newark public schools. After high school, she studied dance and drama at the Neighborhood Playhouse and children’s theater at The New Theater School. She became interested in modern dance in the 1940s, studying with Martha Graham and dancing with the Merce Cunningham Company and the Anna Sokolow Dance Company. In 1950, she formed the Judith Martin Dance Company.
She also taught dance and drama to children at settlement houses in New York City and New Jersey. In her work with children, she began to experiment with improvisations and to develop her own understanding of what captures the imagination of children and holds their interest. These classes lead her to ask several artist friends to join her in forming a theater company. That company became The Paper Bag Players.
The company began to rehearse in the basement floor of 187 East Broadway; a few years later they moved to the first floor of #185, and the company remains there to this day. In 1956, she had married anthropologist Solomon Miller; with their daughter Daisy, they lived in an apartment two flights up from the studio.
The Paper Bag Players’ popularity grew by leaps and bounds. From performances on the Lower East Side at the Living Theater and the Henry Street Settlement, the company had soon toured in 37 states, Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, Israel, Iran, Egypt, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan.
Theater critics, from Clive Barnes who called Ms. Martin, “a national treasure,” to Charles Marowitz who praised The Paper Bag Players ability to “reach children at their level of consciousness” hailed the company’s work. Awards included an OBIE for, “raising the level of children’s theater through intelligence and imagination.”
Judith Martin said about performing for children, “Ours is a lovely field to work in. It compels you to do something more basic, more fun-loving, more joyous. It is a great support to your imagination.”
Adapted from remembrance on The Paper Bag Players website.
The Paper Bag Players has established the “Judith Martin Creative Fund” to commemorate Judith’s accomplishments, the joy her theater gave to millions of children, and to fulfill her hope that her art will continue.