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Breakfast with Playwright Mark St. Germain

Discussing Dancing Lessons for Barrington Stage

By: Charles Giuliano - 08/11/2014

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 Breakfast at Dottie’s with playwright Mark St. Germain.
Breakfast at Dottie’s with playwright Mark St. Germain.

During an early phase of rehearsals for Dancing Lessons a new play for Barrington Stage Company we met at Dottie’s for breakfast with playwright Mark St. Germain. It has become an annual ritual to discuss the development of his plays. Mark has become a mentor and friend. He is a rich and knowledgeable primary resource both for understanding theatre as well as many unique insights of the challenges of a life in the arts. For his many contributions a stage has been named for him by the company. He is also a board member and among the advisors of Julianne Boyd the Artistic Director of Barrington Stage.

Charles Giuliano We attended a reading of Dancing Lessons last fall at Barrington Stage Company. What has happened since then?

Mark St. Germain There have been two more readings and work between all of them. With the first reading I was pleased by the reception.

CG What kind of work?

MSG From the first reading I was very surprised by the response being as positive as it was. I already saw problems and needed to fix them. Mostly that meant dealing with the dancer. Her story didn’t match his as far as interest and what happened to her. After a lot of thought I ended up using parts of a friend’s life. That was more interesting to me. You end up stealing from everybody. The dancer’s story before was based on dancer’s stories from people that I interviewed. I don’t know about dancing. This time it is about a relationship she had with her father. When I read about it and talked about it I thought this was really interesting. So I did more work on her.

Ironically, the actress we had playing it almost matches to a T her own background. The current actress, Paige Davis, I didn’t know her background other than that she has done a bunch of Broadway musicals as a dancer. There’s a TV show she is well known for, especially among young people, called Trading Spaces. You can’t walk down the street without people recognizing her. I didn’t know that when we cast her. I had no idea.

There was a lot of work on her. Just trying to make the play a little deeper in parts. What I learned progressively about autism I tried to incorporate.

CG Where did the idea come from?

MSG There’s a man, Jim Houghton, who runs the Signature Theatre. We were at a conference which he attended with his family. He has a son who is autistic. When I met the son he was about five years old. He was non communicative. He would sit at the table and not talk to anybody. He would just kind of curl unto himself.

About a year and a half ago I was walking down the street and met Jim and his son. The son is now about 17-years-old. He was so incredibly friendly and open. We had a nice conversation and as we got into it he said “Your birthday is September 9, 1954. I remember at the table we talked about this, this and this.”

I was stunned. I knew this was something that some but not all autistics have. I was amazed by the transformation. Jim and his wife had put a lot of time into getting him the right schooling to draw him out.

That fascinated me. It kicked off the idea for the play.

CG How about the fact that he’s a university professor who is about to receive an award. Hence the need for dancing lessons.

MSG I knew he had to be high functioning in order to make the play work. People like Temple Grandin.

(Mary Temple Grandin, born August 29, 1947, is an American doctor of animal science, a professor at Colorado State University, a best-selling author, an autistic activist, and a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior.)

She’s very famous. She was also very withdrawn as a kid. To calm her down she designed this box. She would get in and the idea of being held tightly calmed her.

That led to work with animals especially in slaughter houses. She tried to design humane ways in which animals were killed. There was an HBO movie about her which was very good. It won a bunch of awards. She’s fascinating.

There’s a man around here Mike McManmon who runs a program. A fascinating guy and I talked with him a bunch of times.

(Michael McManmon speaker, writer, artist, psychologist and founder of the College Internship Program – a post-secondary program serving students with Asperger’s Syndrome, Autism, High Functioning Autism and learning differences. The Berkshire Visual & Performing Arts Center at the CIP campus in Lee MA is a model program integrating community and student life with the Good Purpose Gallery, Spectrum Playhouse and Joyous Studios all existing to support the mission.)

What I learned about him got fed into it.

There are some people who say ‘this isn’t like any autistic person I know.’ As Mike has impressed on us everybody is different. There’s no one profile that fits everybody.

Neurotypicals is the term given to people like us without autism.

CG (laughing) But you’re crazy.

MSG Oh I am. But in a different way than you are.

CG Who is to say that we’re normal whatever that means.

MSG Yes. It’s silly. There is no normal. But there’s no normal with autistics.

CG There are group characteristics. Behavior patterns for identifying people with forms of autism.

MSG There are some things. There are people who are high achievers. They are able to integrate themselves into society.

CG I believe there is a statistic that a third of all the CEOs are autistic.

MSG I’m not surprised. When you look at the list of people suspected of having autism it’s everybody from Bill Gates to Thomas Edison. People who are so focused on what they do. This describes most really creative people.

CG Alan Turing (Breaking the Code).

MSG I had him in and took him out. Julie wanted him back in. It felt gratuitous.

CG It’s remarkable that Barrington has back to back Main Stage plays with autism and asperger’s as themes.

MSG It’s a total fluke. She’s using the theme for education. But no. I know the process of selection and there was no intention.

CG Still people will connect the dots. Particularly critics.

MSG They can connect them but it’s wrong.

CG Prior to attending the reading of the play I had no knowledge of asperger’s syndrome. It was fascinating to attend the discussion after the reading. There were a number of people in the audience who spoke of their connections to asperger’s.

Shortly after the reading we attended The Incident of the Dog in the Nightime which was the best play we saw in London, or New York, this season. It was about a boy with asperger’s. We were seated in the balcony and just a couple of weeks later the ceiling collapsed and injured a number of people. It could have included us.

MSG OMG.

CG The staging was incredible. For me it was the best play we have seen in a decade.

MSG I saw it in London. The staging was great and I thought the play was really interesting. I loved the book but for me the play was not as powerful.

CG It was complete artistic experience.

MSG It’s unfair to compare mediums.

CG That’s why it’s always interesting to talk with you as you have such a different perspective.

MSG If I’m looking at it as somebody in the field that’s a bad thing. I should be looking at it as a member of the audience. In the book I was sucked in and there was no critical response at all until the end of the book. You were too riveted by the experience. With this (play) I kind of knew what was coming.

CG Having read the book was that a spoiler?

MSG It was.

CG I sensed Asperger in Mark H. Dold’s performance at Alan Turing (Breaking the Code). There were issues about touching and physical contact. In the scene where a female colleague expressed her love for him. You sensed a tension about his not wanting to have physical contact with her. On the other hand there is the issue of his homosexuality where he wants to touch. In the description of his sexual encounter with a teenager they sat side by side and masturbated. Later when he has a lover while on vacation in the Greek islands he is shown rolling around with a nude companion. So it was a bit difficult to sort out his needs and process. It fits the description with his obsession for work and science and also conveys issues about intimacy and touching. Other than paid lovers Turing appeared to have no intimate friends. Does the professor in your play have friends?

MSG Yes but it’s an effort he has consciously worked at. He has reached the point where he can step back enough to see his behavior. He doesn’t care if he’s not a neurotypical like we are supposed to be. But he doesn’t want to stand out and wants to be accepted by neurotypicals so he will learn certain behaviors. Even when you’re talking to him he will say “Ok I’ve been looking at you and I have to focus on somebody else.”

CG Who are you talking about?

MSG My friend Mike McManmon. It’s about being aware of and then altering your behavior. You get a sense that I’ve been talking too long. I have to let somebody else talk. He will consciously do that. I did the play before I met him but it’s like the character in the play who will say, Ok, this conversation is ended. Diversion. We go somewhere else.

CG In what sense is this (Dancing Lessons) a Mark St. Germain play?

MSG I have no idea. I don’t know what that is. Most people would say a play that involves historic figures. Trying to get into the minds of people who are fascinating and have changed the world in some way. This was a joy to do because it wasn’t that. It didn’t involve six months of reearch into Albert Einstein. It was kind of freeing.

CG So the process was atypical for you?

MSG It’s the same question. You ask yourself how could this person have done this? Like the Einstein play which I just mentioned. It came from learning that he gave his daughter away when she was two years old. But why? Nobody even knew that there was a daughter until the 1970s when he was dead. What happened? People have researched this and nobody has come up with the same answer. The play is called Relativity and I just finished it a couple of weeks ago. There are two people and all of a sudden he’s teaching at Princeton. This daughter shows up that he has given away. That most people think is dead. There’s good reason to believe that she wasn’t dead.

If indeed she was dead, when someone told a friend of his that she was Einstein’s daughter, if she was dead, he would have laughed and said that’s ridiculous. Then he hired a detective.

CG Why don’t you call the play Einstein’s Daughter?

MSG Michele Zackheim wrote a book called Einstein’s Daughter: The Search for Lieserl.

(In 1902 an illegitimate daughter was born to Albert Einstein and his wife. In 1903 she vanished. The discovery in 1986 of early love letters between Albert Einstein and Mileva Maric, the woman who would become his first wife, revealed the birth of the child named Lieserl. But after a 1903 letter, there is no more mention of her.)

Michele’s a lovely person and I wouldn’t take her title. I wish I had a better title.

I just finished the play which was a commission from a producer. I then decided to buy it back. I think it will take a couple of years of development like Freud did.

It had nothing to do with this producer. I just felt that I wanted to develop it myself without developing it for someone. I wanted to take it the way I saw it going. I had a feeling there could have been conflict in that.

CG You’ve done Freud, Einstein, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Dr. Ruth. They are the biggies. Who’s next?

MSG Nobody. I’m done. I’ve never written about a musician but that whole process is so mysterious to me. I don’t know if I could. Trying to understand Einstein was hard enough. It just hit me and if I do it not for awhile. Do you know Padre Pio?

(May 25, 1887 – September 23, 1968, was a friar, priest, stigmatist, and mystic of the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. Padre Pio became famous for bearing the stigmata for most of his life, which generated much interest and controversy around him. He is now venerated as a saint.)

There is an incident in his life where the Church wanted to hide him because too many people were fascinated by his life. An emissary was sent from the Vatican to take him away from the monastery and put him somewhere where nobody would ever hear of him again.

CG The Island of Elba?

MSG A group of men from the local Mafia came and told the emissary “You’re never going to make it down the mountain with Padre Pio. He stays here.”

He’s controversial and very interesting. So, maybe some day.

CG Dancing Lessons opens soon at Barrington Stage. What kind of shape is it in?

MSG I think it’s where it should be right now. Yesterday was the first time we started to put the scenes together.

CG Why is a two person play on the Main Stage?

MSG I don’t know. That was Julie’s decision. Although I do have an answer for that. She took the gamble with Best of Enemies as a Main Stage play when I thought it wasn’t. She said that if you put it in the little theatre you’d blow the doors off. She was right. With those characters you needed a bigger space. It did well.

With Dancing Lessons we had the reading which you saw. It went well. Then we had a reading in New York in a very small room and it did not go well. The response wasn’t there. There was an uncomfortableness when there was any physicality. In a small space. You could feel people pulling back a bit. Then we did another reading here on a bigger stage and it went really well. We learned that there needs to be a distance.

CG You have a unique relationship with Julie. She has produced a number of your premieres. How does that work from her first reading a script through the stages of putting it on stage? You have been fortunate to have such a supportive relationship.

MSG Julie has turned down things I’ve done. She likes certain things. She has never done one of my musicals. She did not do my play about a barber shop quartet called The Fabulous Lipitones which is being done right now at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. With the current play Dancing Lessons I probably would have put it on the shelf if Julie didn’t like it. I didn’t have that confidence about it. When we had the first reading then I had confidence.

CG It’s always fascinating to talk with you about this. As a critic we are normally removed from the creative process. The back story of what goes into developing a new work. We come in and evaluate the finished product. When talking to people on the other side of the stage one often feels an edge. We can be sharp and dismissive. There is the feeling of “You guys. You just don’t get it.” That often results in adversarial relationships between critics and theatre people. You put your hearts and souls into the work and then we come in and blow it away. Often there are flippant remarks. What’s that about? The critic at times strives to be more witty and clever than the playwright.

MSG We have talked about this before and I still feel there is a difference between criticism and a person trying to make themselves more important than what they are evaluating. Trying to say something clever and trying to seem smarter than the production.

During the holidays it hit me. You can tell where a critic’s heart lies as far as loving theatre when it comes to the end of the year. Many people will write, as you do, here are the highlights of the year. Here are the things I really liked. Others will write ten best and ten worst. They get as much pleasure describing the worst as they do the best. That’s somebody who shouldn’t be reviewing. I really think they’re tired of theatre and enjoy bashing something as much as praising something. They shouldn’t be doing it. If you’re there to celebrate the failure of an artistic project you shouldn’t be in it.

CG You’re making me search my soul. We see new theatre. For example Golem of Havana at Barrington which I did not like.

MSG Right. I read the review.

CG You try not to be mean. You say, ok, it needs work. Here are some things that I didn’t think were effective. My problem, which I am aware of is, going into professorial mode. I want to get into Castro and Batista. I weave in a lot of the historical elements that are background of the play. For a colleague the history is irrelevant. He sees only the actors and their performances. I’m not sure if that critic knows anything about Batista or Cuba on the cusp of Castro. Which is, for me, relevant to the play.

The play arouses my curiosity. The play introduces a Golem. Ok, what’s a Golem? How is that working here particularly as it’s a part of the title? So that has to be important. The drama has scenes from Prague and the Holocaust. I want to know and understand that in this context. The play raises all kinds of issues and questions. How are they best pursued and understood?

The period and action recall scenes from Godfather Part II. I want to know more about Meyer Lansky in Cuba. There are numerous threads to follow. So my reviews, in following those issues, often become too academic. People say to me screw the history tell me about the damned play.

MSG There are good dramaturges and bad dramaturges. The way you write gives us what a good dramaturge would give. You learn something from the review whether you like the play or not. You know where you stand.

Like I said, at the end of the year, you want to celebrate what was good.

CG There was a recent world premiere of The Cedars at Berkshire Theatre Group. Because of conflicts I couldn’t attend but assigned a correspondent. I read the advance PR and interviews and it seemed promising. Then I read a devastating review. The critic stepped all over it calling it the worst play of the year in no uncertain, mean spirited terms. Then I read other reviews which were less than enthusiastic but found promising elements in a play that needed work. So that brought me back to thinking about the agenda of a critic who I don’t normally follow.

So I think your point is well taken. To what extent are views reliable and unbiased? What happens when you track a critic and find that there is never a positive response to a play with a gay theme or strong sexual content? Are there prejudices and phobias revealed over time?

I’m a professional talking with a professional. As critics are we shooting ourselves in the foot? What are the boundaries and limits of what we should be doing? As its creator I am sure you know better than anyone what is or isn’t working with a new play.

MSG You have to learn to live with it. That doesn’t mean that there’s not anger. I do not usually read an entire review. Unless I get a tone of it and it seems balanced. It’s not about whether the critic likes it or not. If I see something where the reviewer is trying to be clever or mean I won’t read it. What I hear from reviewers is that you can’t blame us for being upset. We go to see all these plays. We sit there night after night. Well, get another job.

It’s like being an airport comptroller. “Oh, I’ve seen all these planes. I don’t want to see another one land.” Get another job. Then you see one or two of those plays that critics don’t like are going to be around in ten years and those critics aren’t.

I met a very famous critic known for his meanness and how he would describe actors in particular and plays. He gave me one of the worst reviews I’ve ever had. And he gave me one of the best reviews I’ve ever had.

When you talk to that person it’s a different situation. That person is not now in the position of power that that person once was. At some point everyone’s position changes. You would hope that if you are writing things that are thoughtful and balanced you would be anthologized as a critic. When I was growing up I read all of Walter Kerr’s books.

(Walter Francis Kerr, July 8, 1913 – October 9, 1996, was an American writer and Broadway theater critic. He also was the writer, lyricist, and/or director of several Broadway plays and musicals as well as the author of several books, generally on the subject of theater and cinema.)

You’re not going to read it if it just gives you a sense of disdain for what the critic went to see. You want to learn something about it. Why didn’t they like it? Walter Kerr didn’t like Waiting for Godot. Then later he said, oops, I made a mistake. He was a big enough person to say that.

CG Who are current critics whom you read and admire?

MSG If I think what my reaction would be when I read a review would probably be Terry Teachout (Wall Street Journal). He seems to really like theatre. He makes an effort which most people can’t do to get around the country to see things. I’ve never felt him to be mean spirited. When he doesn’t like something he says here’s why I didn’t like it. Ok.

CG I totally agree and had the chance to interview him when he was here developing Satchmo at the Waldorf. Recently I was waiting in the Barrington lobby and overheard a conversation between a Wall Street Journal stringer, not a critic, and her friend who said “I can’t stand Terry Teachout as a critic. He knows nothing about theatre.” Her WTJ friend agreed. I found that interesting because I feel so differently. So even critics have critics. New York Times?

MSG I really don’t consider their opinion most of the time. If I’m going to see a play I would go to the internet and find out what Teachout thought about it. I would never do that with the Times.

Take my Dr. Ruth play for example. It’s got decent reviews every place it has been produced. Whoever this guy was, and I never heard of him before, just crucified, he just tore it apart. He said this is nothing like Dr. Ruth. Meanwhile her children are saying ‘This is our mother. This is exactly who she is.’

Did you know Mel Gussow? (1933 to 2005 was an American theater critic, movie critic, and author who wrote for The New York Times for 35 years.) He was an interesting person.

CG To what extent are you a scholar of the medium?

MSG I don’t think I’m a scholar. I’m a craftsman who enjoys the form. That’s what I am. I would never call myself an artist. That’s so presumptuous.

CG At 59 how many plays have you done?

MSG More than I thought. Probably a handful will survive. I’ve done perhaps fifteen to twenty plays. Musicals and plays.

CG That’s not counting movie and television scripts.

MSG No. That’s different. Some of them will be done and some of them won’t. I regret that some of the best things I’ve done will never be done. I’m proudest of a couple of musicals I’ve done with Randy Courts who lives in Great Barrington. I think they’re absolutely beautiful. (Jack’s Holiday, The Gifts of the Magi) To me his music is touching and more full of life than 99% of what I hear. The musicals were pretty much dismissed. Do you remember the days when the Times had two reviews? We had one during the week which really liked it. The Sunday review bashed it. After that the musical was pretty much gone.

CG Title?

MSG Johnny Pie. It was based on a Stephen Vincent Benet story about a boy who saw death and how he tried to outrun it for the rest of his life. The music is stunning. It’s just beautiful. We did another one about Joseph and Mary. I remember getting a call from the Times saying “Are you kidding? Is this a joke? Is it a spoof?” No, it’s a musical. Based on the history of the times and these two characters as we were imagining them. It was done a few places but the religious right said that we deviated from the Bible. So they wouldn’t go see it. Nobody else would go see something that was religious. Those things I regret.

CG What of your works are currently in production?

MSG The Fabulous Lipitones is at Wellfleet on the Cape then it will be a Penguin Rep in Stony Point, New York, then George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, then the Tap Root out in Seattle. It’s starting to have a life to it. It’s about a barbershop quartet and one of them drops dead on stage at the beginning of the play while hitting a high note. They have to find someone to replace him in time for the Nationals. Freud is continuously done and amazingly overseas. It’s probably in three or four different countries as we speak.

CG Dr. Ruth?

MSG Right now it’s running at Florida Studio Theatre. It has two more coming up but I’m not sure where.

CG Best of Enemies?

MSG It’s been published. It’s being done by a couple of equity theatres and a lot of non equity theatres. Again it’s something that I wish had more exposure. Once they’re done they’re done. Only occasionally do I have further association with productions. They are doing Best of Enemies in Atlanta in association with the Martin Luther King Museum. They asked if I would come down so I will. Once a play is published you don’t necessarily know where it’s being done unless you take the effort to find out.

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