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PROFILE: All roads lead to music, storytelling for Michael Martyn

'I grew up understanding that writing and storytelling and presentation is important and it moves people,' says Michael Martyn
2020-04-15 Michael Martyn
Michael Martyn. Supplied photo

Stepping foot in the Orillia Opera House for the first time is a moment Michael Martyn won’t forget.

He had applied for a job as general manager of the historic downtown venue and showed up for his interview and a tour.

“I remember walking straight down stage centre and hearing the acoustics and thinking, ‘This is a great-sounding room. We can do stuff here.’ It was exciting,” he recalled.

It was a positive first impression of a city with which he was unfamiliar.

Martyn was born and raised in Peterborough. There, he received a degree in English literature at Trent University.

He didn’t sit still long, landing in various parts of the country and the world before taking on his new job at the Orillia Opera House in 2007.

After university, he moved to Banff, Alta., where he met Glorilyn Cabugao, who was visiting a friend during spring break. The two hit off, and Martyn headed to Vancouver to live with her.

In 2000, after they got married, they set off on a “pre-kid world tour” that took them to Australia and Southeast Asia.

After moving to Montreal, then Ottawa, Martyn found himself back in Peterborough, where he took on a job as a theatre technician. However, with two young sons — one born in 2003 and the second having been just born, in 2006 — it was time for another change.

“Glo was on mat leave and I was living on a part-time theatre technician’s wage. I needed money,” Martyn said.

That’s when he saw the job posting at the Orillia Opera House.

The facility is run by the city, so it was an eye-opening experience for Martyn, who had never worked for a municipality.

“That was interesting — getting used to those layers of bureaucracy when you’re used to being more entrepreneurial, used to going out and saying, ‘OK, we’re going to do this,’” he said. “You can’t just do that.”

Not long after he started at the opera house, Martyn was moved to city hall and became manager of cultural development and community programs. He knew there were many communities competing for the “Toronto buck” and wanted to focus on ways to make Orillia stand out. Part of the puzzle was making sure council members and city staff saw the potential.

“I think we were successful, both at the opera house and in the department of culture and heritage, at creating understanding and appreciation within the corporate culture as to the importance of having that as a marketing thing,” he said.

“The degree to which (the opera house) is revered in the community, I find really interesting,” he continued. “I think we were successful in getting some of that understood at the council level and, more so, within the corporation of the City of Orillia versus the community of Orillia. That was the biggest lesson through working for a municipality: Sometimes those interests align and sometimes those interests don’t align — the interests of the community versus the corporation.”

When Martyn’s stint with the city ended in 2012, he was encouraged to pursue a master’s degree. He attended York University, where he studied in the master of business administration program, specializing in arts, media and entertainment management.

During that time, he had been caring for an uncle who was palliative. That saw Martyn finding private personal support workers to help.

After his uncle died, Martyn was in a class at York that focused on presentation skills. A senior official from Uber was the guest, and the assignment was to make a pitch. Martyn drew from his experience tracking down personal support workers, so he and his team members on the assignment pitched an “Uber home health service.”

“We built this little business strategy in 35, 40 minutes around this concept and pitched it to the guy from Uber. We got a B on this assignment, which is barely even a pass in a master’s program,” he said.

A few months later, one of his classmates who worked with him on that pitch sent him a link to a news article about Uber moving into home health.

“The main lesson I learned from business school is keep your best ideas to yourself,” Martyn said.

Before he graduated, he was hired as general manager of the Huronia Cultural Campus — now known as the Orillia Centre for Arts and Culture — whose goal is to create a year-round cultural destination, similar in concept to the Banff Centre, at the Huronia Regional Centre site.

But, beware the Ides of March.

“On March 15, 2020, I basically lost three jobs overnight,” Martyn said.

In addition to his role with the Orillia Centre for Arts and Culture, he was bartending in Barrie and gigging as a musician. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the bar closed and live shows he had lined up were cancelled. Also, the Trillium funding for the Orillia Centre for Arts and Culture ran out.

“It was a tough year,” he said.

Opportunity knocked in February 2021, when Martyn saw a job posting from Festival of the Sound. The long-running classical music festival in Parry Sound needed an executive director, and he got the job.

“I only started there in March, and it’s a fun gig,” he said. “We punch above our weight in terms of what we can deliver.”

Whether it’s classical or folk or any other genre, music has been a constant in Martyn’s life.

As a kid in Peterborough, his mom volunteered in community theatre, so Martyn spent a lot of time backstage. His dad was a high school English teacher.

“I grew up understanding that writing and storytelling and presentation is important and it moves people,” he said.

While he had been writing poetry and lyrics for a while, it wasn’t until near the end of his high school years that he picked up the guitar and taught himself to play.

“I wasn’t a particularly talented kid, socially, until I learned to play the guitar. All of a sudden, I just found a confidence level and a way of communicating with people,” he said.

“I grew up in Peterborough, Ont. I had a choice between a life of crime and a life of hockey, and I’ve got weak ankles and I don’t have the stomach to be a criminal. So, I picked up music.”

He has released three albums, the latest being Rude Mechanicals.

He and Steve Van Kessel, an Orillia man who owns 112 Records with his wife, Marni, had talked about working on an album together. In late 2017, Martyn finally called them and said he was ready.

“In some ways, it was like a first album. It was my first real album,” he said, noting it was the only one of the three created in the same studio with the same band.

It also led to him releasing his first music video, for the song Bad for You.

While the pandemic sidelined plans for performing live and working on another album, Martyn looks forward to getting back to it. In his mind, he doesn’t really have a choice.

“The one thing that has become very clear is I didn’t pick music; it picked me,” he said. “I don’t choose to wake up at three o’clock in the morning with a melody and a lyric in my head that I am somehow compelled to write down.”

There isn’t a set-in-stone plan, though.

“Any plan I did have was thrown off on March 15, 2020,” he said. “If we start to return to normal, yeah, I’ll drop 20 pounds and make another video and record the two albums’ worth of songs that I’ve written since the last one.”

While his professional focus is now on Festival of the Sound, he maintains a keen interest in the culture and heritage of Orillia.

“What’s really important is for people to believe that this stuff is important. It’s kind of cliche for a lot of people, but from (Stephen) Leacock to (Gordon) Lightfoot, there are some really prominent signposts on that cultural trajectory that the community identifies with and rallies around,” he said. “If you took the word ‘Mariposa’ out of the lexicon, half the businesses here would go out of business.”

It’s also exciting for him to watch younger people who might not be familiar with, or interested in, the works of people like Leacock and Lightfoot blaze their own trails.

“They’re aware that that’s kind of their assigned heritage and are pushing back against it, because that’s the way the culture works,” he said. “As much as I enjoyed a big show at the opera house, coming down to the Brownstone afterward and seeing a punk band and a bunch of skater kids thrashing their heads — it’s that tension, that dichotomy.”

He experienced a bit of that contrast when he performed at the Brownstone after recording his latest album.

“‘Where is everybody? A bunch of people told me they were coming,’” he recalled thinking. “Well, that was the same night that there were male ‘strippers’ at the opera house.”

After that show, some of them made their way to the Brownstone.

“Suddenly, the vibe changed very much,” Martyn said with a laugh. “There’s something to be written about the two ends of Mississaga Street — how the culture changes.”

Martyn didn’t need to stay in Orillia. His skills — and those of his wife, who is a nurse — could land them jobs in a bigger city, but a bigger city isn’t a selling point for him.

“I’ve not always felt lucky to be in Orillia, but, from where I sit currently, I feel really good about things,” he said. “Orillia has been a great place to raise kids. Put a billboard down at Ossington and Bloor with a picture of Orillia and the tagline, ‘Be home when the streetlights are on,’ and watch people flock here.”

This feature appears each Monday. If you have an idea for someone who should be profiled in this space, send your suggestion to [email protected].