The Past is Present With Mark St. Germain

They say, “What’s past is prologue.” For playwright Mark St. Germain, though, the past is the main event. Throughout his career, St. Germain has thrilled and moved audiences with intimate looks at some of history’s most famous figures – from Doctor Ruth to Albert Einstein – making the past come alive in a way few other playwrights can.

With this track record of combining the classical and the contemporary, it’s no surprise that St. Germain was one of the first artists to join FST’s Playwright Collective back in 2017. Many of his plays – including Relativity, Dancing Lessons, and most recently, Wednesday’s Child – had their Regional or World Premieres at FST.

Mark St. Germain. Photo by Kevin Sprague.

We talked with St. Germain to learn more about his affinity for biography and the projects – past and present – he has developed with FST.

You often write plays about real-life historical figures. In fact, you’ve been called “America’s premier biographical playwright” by Playbill. Why this genre?

I can’t say I’m sure. Growing up, I was fascinated with biographical plays like Belle of Amherst about Emily Dickinson and Barrymore about actor John Barrymore. I tend to look at the present and see precursors in the past. For instance, I’ve recently wanted to examine our country’s tensions following the Civil War. These ideas can be tackled in a contemporary play, of course, but history draws me back.

How do you tackle the challenge of putting a person’s real life into play?

It’s different if your subject is alive. When I wrote Becoming Dr. Ruth about Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Best of Enemies about Ann Atwater, they both gave me great freedom in my creative process and were resources, not critics. With other plays, I try to be scrupulous when dealing with behavior and dialogue. If someone comes up and says, “Albert Einstein would never say that,” I want to have research demonstrating that he would have. 

Vickie Daignault reads the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in the FST Workshop of Mark St. Germain’s Eleanor. Photo by Sarah Haley.

Most recently, you’ve been working on a one-woman show about Eleanor Roosevelt titled Eleanor. Tell us more about that project.

Eleanor came about as a result of FST’s Suffragist Project. I wanted to find someone who was a positive force in our history, and Eleanor Roosevelt clearly was. I admire her tremendously – her compassion for others, her honesty, her insistence on telling truth to power – which, in the case of the play, is embodied by her husband. The more I read about her, the more I fell in love with her. I was impressed at how contemporary her concerns were. As far as her personal life, I found it richer than I anticipated – she loved many people. 

You’re no stranger to FST’s New Play Development process. Most recently, FST produced the World Premiere of your play Wednesday’s Child, a modern-day murder mystery, as part of its 2019 Mainstage Season. What might FST audiences be surprised to learn about the long process of bringing a play to its feet – from inception to full production? 

Mark St. Germain discusses Eleanor with FST’s Suffragist Project. Photo by Sarah Haley.

It certainly can be a long process. Wednesday’s Child was an unusual case. I first made the mistake thinking that I could learn what the play should be about just by jumping in and writing it – not a smart thing to do with a mystery. The play had many endings, many readings, and some of the FST audience told me they enjoyed watching its evolution. It’s a wonderful feeling to know you have a theatre that believes in you and always wants to see your work – I am so fortunate to have that with FST.

Do you have any other plays in the hopper that you’re hoping to explore as part of FST’s Playwright Collective?

I do. My first autobiographical play, Dad, had a reading a few months back. It was an odd experience to see myself and my family represented on stage. I’d like to finish that play and continue to work with FST on others.

Mark St. Germain has written more than 10 plays, including Freud’s Last Session, Dancing Lessons, Best of Enemies, Relativity, and, with John Markus, The Fabulous Lipitones – all seen at FST. He has written for television and film, including Dick Wolfe’s Crime and Punishment and Carroll Ballard’s film Duma. Mark if also an Associate Artist at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires.