Head west on Highway 100, and you can’t miss the big, red barn that’s been welcoming audiences and serving up live theater since 1967. Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre is a beloved Nashville treasure, and the woman who serves as Artistic Director is very much a recognizable face around the place.
Martha Wilkinson embodies all-things-musical theater (“It’s my jam!” she says.), and her talent is immeasurable. If you haven’t seen a show at the Barn, you need to. And if you haven’t seen a show at the Barn starring Martha Wilkinson, make it a priority! Till then, get to know this incredibly talented Nashvillian as today’s FACE of Nashville.
Did you grow up performing?
I did my first show as a freshman in high school. My father was a stage performer from the mid-’70s to ’90s — he was a film and television actor out of Atlanta. His name was Wallace Wilkinson. After high school, I went to Berry College in northwest Georgia and North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.
What brought you to Nashville?
I moved to Nashville in the fall of ’86 to pursue a career in country music, but through friends of a friend, I got an audition here [at Chaffin’s Barn], and I did my first show here in 1988 — I was a Merry Murderess in Chicago The Musical.
Today you are the Artistic Director at Chaffin’s Barn. Describe your history with the Barn.
I have been in at least 100 shows here. I began as a resident actor of sorts — I was guaranteed five shows a year up until 1995, and I was also doing shows in other places. Around then I started doing marketing for the Barn and then became Artistic Director in ’99. As Artistic Director, I help pick shows, approve casting, hire directors and anything artistically that needs to be done.
You act, direct and write. Which component of theater is your favorite?
I love directing, but performing in musical theater is my jam!
What has been your favorite show in which you have been involved, and why?
Sweeney Todd. I played Mrs. Lovett — I got to do it twice. I love the way the music tells the story. It’s difficult music, and the challenge of learning that and communicating that to the audience … it just fit. It was a perfect culmination of everything that I love about musical theater.
What has been the most memorable moment – good or bad — you have had on stage?
There was the time in Sound of Music when I forgot the words to “My Favorite Things.” When it came time for the Reverend Mother to sing, the actress said, “Oh Maria, you sing it, you know the words!” She was a card!
How has Nashville’s theater landscape changed over the past 25 years?
There are a lot more theaters now. The acting pool has grown, the choice of talent has grown. We are a liaison city with Actors Equity Association, which is a big deal — it puts us on the map. It means that we have a committee here in Nashville, and it allows the person who handles the Southeast region from New York to come down here quarterly and have meetings. We get to be included in all equity rather than just be a city that has a couple of equity theaters.
Also, because of Nashville growing as a city and becoming more metropolitan, the idea of going to the theater hasn’t been as prevalent. So I think encouraging people to be live theater supporters has become more difficult.
If someone was interested in getting involved in Nashville’s theater scene, how would you recommend they start?
Auditioning, taking workshop classes with local companies — Studio Tenn, Nashville Shakespeare Festival, Nashville Rep. We are hoping to start doing adult education classes here on acting and scene studies. I don’t like the word networking, but it is about who you know in this business. I just think that going to see shows and meeting the people who make them happen, meeting other actors — it’s important to understand theater from that perspective. Every theater town has a clique, and you just have to be patient, prove yourself, and you’ll get it.
What’s the secret to a good audition?
Knowing what you’re doing, being professional, making no excuses and being prepared. And forget that it’s a test — control all the things you can control, and let the rest of it go. Just do your best and hope that they like it.
When you’re not working, what are you doing?
Hanging at the house. I have three dogs, and I love working in the yard. I love to cook and just chill. I’m not one of those people who listens to musical theater or goes to see a ton of shows. I’m so ensconced in theater all the time that when I have a day off, I want to do something non-theatrical.
What’s a Nashville hidden gem people may not know about?
Down the street from us is Harpeth River State Park, and Hidden Lake is there. It used to be a resort in the ’20s and ’30s, and Al Capone would go there. The lake is still there — it’s in a big quarry, and if you hike to the top, the dance floor is still there. You hike back in there, and there are old stills and a sign that tells you the history. Al Capone had sand brought in to make a beach so his ladies could sun and swim, and then he would bring in a band so that they could play.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given and from whom?
The best advice I received was probably from my dad, who said, “Keep your mouth shut, and do your job.” He also told me I should always walk into every audition like I’m the best SOB for the job but that I don’t have to act like that.
What are three things you can’t live without, aside from faith, family and friends?
Dogs, the beach and vodka
Thank you, Martha. And thanks to Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography for the beautiful photos of Martha at Chaffin’s Barn. If you want to check out a show at Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre, click HERE to see their current lineup, find ticketing information and more.
Our newest FACE of TriStar is Dr. Michelle Luschen, an interventional and vascular radiologist at TriStar Skyline Medical Center. She has risen to the top of her field and has made a name for herself in this innovative specialty. Get to know this dynamic wife, mother and radiologist as our newest FACE of TriStar. Click HERE!