Mark St. Germain Discusses Scott and Hem

New Play for Barrington Stage Company

By: - Aug 09, 2013

Mark Mark

From the beginning of Barrington Stage Company the playwright Mark St. Germain has enjoyed a close relationship with the artistic director Julianne Boyd. The smaller second stage is named for him. From August 15 to September 29 Barrington will present Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah. The play premiered this summer at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, in Shepherdstown, West Virgina which commissioned it.

Through a special agreement with CATF the play is having its “Rolling World Premiere” in Pittsfield. After which it moves to Miami with other productions currently in negotiation.

We saw the first iteration of Scott and Hem in Shepherdstown and discussed the commission with Ed Herendeen the artistic director of CATF.

Recently we met with St. Germain to pick up the thread of an ongoing dialogue about his work.

Charles Giuliano Through an unusual relationship between a critic and playwright you have allowed me into the process of developing a new work Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah. I had a chance to read and discuss the first two drafts of the play.

Recently we saw the premiere of the play in Shepherdstown, West Virginia in a mix of five new plays presented in the Contemporary American Theatre Festival. By then it was in its sixth draft.

Mark St. Germain Now eighth.

CG When I interviewed Ed Herendeen (artistic director of CATF) he described the process of commissioning the play for the festival. He told me about his commitment of providing full equity productions of the plays. He feels strongly about presenting new works with an ambition that they leave the festival in better shape. But oddly, as the festival is presented in repertory he does all the casting. Two of the three actors in your play Joey Collins (F. Scott Fitzgerad) and Rod Brogan (Ernest Hemingway) were also rehearsing and simultaneously performing in the Liz Duffy Adams play A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World.

You are now in rehearsal at Barrington stage. What did you learn from the Shepherdstown production and how will that be applied to this second (Rolling World Premiere) production in Pittsfield?

MSG Keep in mind that at CATF the actors are doing at least two plays. The most time you get them is four hours in the morning or four hours in the afternoon. That means that if you get them in the afternoon they’re tired. You definitely have a limited amount of time to rehearse.

CG We attended CATF as a conference of the American Theatre Critics Association. One of the benefits of that experience is sharing commentary about the new plays we were seeing.

There were mixed responses to your play. An editor from the DC area said that she and her husband annually attend CATF. She didn’t care for the play and commented that the actors are talking to the audience and not to each other.

Another critic said that he was bored by the first two thirds of the play and loved the final third.

Clearly there was a range of responses.

MSG Part of what is going on is shaped by expectations of what Ed Herendeen normally does. I many ways I think for him this was a tame play. People expect to go see plays like Modern Terrorism. Plays that are big emotional shakeups. Larger than life in some ways.

CG He paints with a broad brush.

MSG Very much so. He loves big statements and a lot of action. This is not that kind of play.

CG Can you respond to those critical comments?

MSG You have the critical community and you have the theatrical community. In talking to the actors and other people involved, on other plays, and they are very critical of other plays and other performances, everyone has strong opinions, I’ve seen so often direct contrast.

We were just talking (before turning on the recording device) about Bridges of Madison County (Williamstown Theatre Festival) you said you had a positive experience with it. It’s a work in progress as you said. I talked with people who had a totally opposite and negative opinion.

Ultimately who can say? Somebody didn’t like it and I’m sorry they didn’t like it. All you can do is write what you think should be written. And move on.

CG For me coming to this play having too much information was problematic. Having read deeply into the work of both authors in my mind I have fixed ideas of who they are. In addition to the novels I have read a couple of biographies of Fitzgerald. (As well as Zelda’s novel Save Me The Waltz and the Nancy Mitford biography Zelda.)

It seems that anyone can play Hemmingway because he was such a broad and caricatured persona. Clearly it is much more complex and difficult to get a handle on Fitzgerald particularly at that point in his life.

MSG We have also talked about Fitzgerald’s manner of speech. You commented on Collins’s almost British lilt to his voice, which you found a little odd. As I said, if you listen to his voice, that’s where that idea come from.

CG How did you hear his voice?

MSG There’s a recording of him reciting an Auden poem I believe.

(We found three Fitzgerald recordings on a University of South Carolina site. They included readings of “Ode to a Nightingale” by Keats, “On Growing Old” by John Masefield, and a speech from Shakespeare’s Othello.)

It’s a very melodious, special voice.

So you have people who come in with a preconceived notion. If it’s not what they think they’re going to have an opinion. But most people won’t know what the reality is.  So reality gets in the way of their perception.

All you can do is what you feel is best for the play.

In talking about Bridges of Madison County, and I haven’t seen it so I’m not offering anything positive or negative, we have talked about the range of opinions in the critical community. So who are you going to believe?

Unless you’re familiar with the taste of a critic and how they cover something. Then you say, well, I usually agree with that person. Otherwise, how do you make up your mind?

CG Now that the play is coming to Barrington Stage what was the benefit for you of seeing it with an audience in Shepherdstown?

MSG First let me say that it was very nice that they commissioned the play. They do something that’s very rare. They do not take a piece of it. That means it comes up here unencumbered if the play goes on. It will go on. It already has productions lined up.

CG What I’m asking is how as the director working with the actors did you benefit from seeing the performances? What insights did that give you and incentives for things you want to change? How many times did you get to actually see it?

MSG Besides rehearsals only about three or four times.

CG What did you feel from the audience? What were you picking up on?

MSG When you see it in front of an audience your ear changes. You listen in a different way. You see it in a different way. I carry that experience to here and things I thought needed clarification. Cuts where I thought there was a lag in interest. Also a lot of it comes through the actors. What they’re comfortable with. If something you’re doing a couple of times doesn’t work, you better rewrite the section. If they’re not getting it, even after you say try this or try that, why would you stick to that and know it’s unsuccessful.

CG What are the advantages and disadvantages of directing your own work?

MSG The advantage in this case was that I did know a lot of the history. If I wasn’t directing I would be sitting in a room with the director the whole time explaining things. That was one of the primary reasons I directed the play. I just thought it would be a time saver.

I don’t direct that often. I’ve done some things for Barrington Stage. With the next one I wouldn’t direct it. The one after that I would never go near it. Because it really needs somebody with a wild imagination. It could be another ten years before I do it again. It’s a good thing to do once in awhile because it does put you in a different mindset. It would be a good thing to act once in awhile.

CG You have a pattern of dialogues between famous men. This time you got a woman in there. She steals scenes. As I told Angela Pierce (Miss Montaigne) during a closing reception for ATCA she had all the best lines. She agreed.

MSG She’s us. She’s looking at them like these two spoiled brats. They’re at the top of their game and still bitching about this and that. I’m tired of looking at guys on stage. I would love to have more of a mixed cast. For a lot of reasons I would love to do a play with just women. They are so starved for good roles. When you go to regional and college theatre they’re always looking for plays that feature women. So I would love to do that.

The last couple of things I did before Scott and Hem are out of the box. I did the musical about a Barber Shop Quartet a couple of months ago at Goodspeed (Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut) The Fabulous Lipitones. 

The next play Dancing Lessons is a romance and not about famous people. That will be tried here at Barrington.

CG Can you give me a thumbnail?

MSG It has a man very high on the Aspberger’s Syndrome scale (characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests).

He’s a professor of geo science. He teaches at a New York university and is being honored. He kind of acknowledges that he has spent his whole life studying people and how they respond. So he can fit in with what would be considered normalcy.

At the awards ceremony they are going to have music and dance. He learns that there is a dancer in his apartment building. She was recently in a car accident and probably won’t dance again. He says “Here’s what you would earn for a week on Broadway. Teach me one dance and it has to be fast because I don’t like to touch people.”

It’s a play about their relationship.

CG How many plays do you have in the works?

MSG On paper I have that and one about Jimmy Hoffa’s Last Ride. After that I have a list of things I want to do. There is a draft of Dancing Lessons and the Hoffa play is about half done.

CG During this past year how many of your plays were in production?

MSG Well, The Fabulous Lipitones. There have been productions of Best of Enemies. A lot of productions of Freud’s Last Session. The God Committee which I did here a long time ago is being done. Gifts of the Magi which I wrote forever ago is done a lot every Christmas. Scattered productions of Ears on a Beatle. There’s a number every year.

CG You left out Dr. Ruth.

Of course. I still look at Dr. Ruth as current. We did Dr. Ruth in Hartford. It has a producer for fall in New York. He’s looking at theatres now. I look at that almost as a new play still.

CG Is it down to one act yet?

MSG Yes. It’s now down to one act and ninety minutes. It was received really well at Hartford Theatre Works. Debra Jo Rupp is so good in it that when the lights go out people are on their feet. She’s gotten a tremendous response.

CG What is this whole thing about standing ovations? The other night there was no Standing O for Bridges but polite applause. Does that mean that the audience didn’t like the musical?

MSG A lot of standing ovations are kind of a joke. The only ones that are sincere are instantaneous. Then there’s no waiting for, oh that person is standing up, so now I have to stand up because I can’t see. There is a trend toward everyone deciding that they have to give everything a standing ovation.

CG You mentioned that there are productions for Scott and Hem after Barrington.

MSG There is one scheduled for Miami and a couple of people are talking with my agent about productions.

CG So what will be in NY this year?

MSG Dr. Ruth. Best of Enemies was supposed to but at the last minute the producer backed out. We’re allowing it to be published and put out there. The original cast that did it here gathered in Durham to honor Ann Atwater a couple of months ago. That was wonderful. Now we are releasing it completely. It will be done in Atlanta. We’re getting it published so it will be open.

CG Greetings from our mutual friend (actor) John Douglas Thompson. He said regarding your success that it is only a matter of time before you are doing movies.

MSG (Laughing) That time has passed. It was how I supported my family. Out of all the movie scripts that were bought one got made. You get to the point where all of the people you knew are getting older and out of the business.

My friend John Markus who I did The Lipitones with originally hired me to work on The Cosby Show. We’re starting to talk to people about doing a “reality show.” It would really be a comedy about The Apostles. We would follow the Apostles around from city to city. Christ would never be seen but it would be their personalities.

CG You have had a number of successful plays and are being produced all over. Are you seeing any bounce on that?

MSG (Laughing) No. I had thought with the success of Freud that some of the earlier plays like Camping with Henry and Tom would be resurrected. That hasn’t happened. I’m not a member of the theatrical community in New York. I tend to work with people I’ve worked with for years. There are theatres around the country which more of less automatically do a new play that I write. As far as name recognition I don’t think that’s happening.

CG With your work ethic you seem like a blue collar playwright. You go to the studio each day and spend part of it on research and part on writing. Then dinner, TV and bed. Get up and do it the next day.

MSG Except for the TV. That’s it. Yeah. I don’t watch much TV.

CG With a life in the arts one assumes some glamour.

MSG In my life there’s absolutely no glamour. Nor do I want any. I have no patience for large social events. Large parties. I would rather sit down and have lunch with somebody individually.

CG But you’ve had a life in the arts and that’s a rare achievement. You’ve paid the rent and educated the children.

MSG That was all through film and television. Now it’s at the point where all I do is the plays. So there better be enough of them going on and you hope that they provide some income. But I love to do it. I don’t want to make it sound like a task.

CG Your home base seems to be Barrington. Is there anything coming up for us?

MSG We’ll see how readings for Dancing Lessons the new two character play go. I threw out an idea to Julie (Boyd, artistic director of Barrington Stage) just a couple of days ago.

CG How important was that $10,000 commission from CATF? I talked with Ed Herendeen and got his side of it. In addition to the stipend he talked about a full production and related expenses. But it seems like a drop in the bucket.

MSG It is. On the plus side it’s an affirmation that somebody wants you to write a play. Obviously, even with a couple of commissions a year, you can’t make a living on that. I said to one of my first agents than if you write enough plays, even if they’re not on Broadway and don’t have big hits, you can make a living. She said “No. You need the big play and that’s how you make a living.”

Fortunately, in my case I’ve found that’s really not true. It’s not that I can make a living doing the plays at this point unless it was me, single, living in a small apartment somewhere and getting by on that. To me, I’m still amazed that if I write a play it will get done somewhere.

CG Your plays seem to work well for regional theatres. With just a couple of characters and relatively simple sets they are inexpensive for a company to produce. That seems like a good approach for having success with regional theatres. Are you writing with that audience in mind?

MSG It’s not who I’m writing for.

CG But it’s a formula that seems to work for you.

MSG It’s a formula that works by economic necessity. If somebody came to me and said write a play with as many characters as you want I would be doing something quite different.

CG Of the cast from Shepherdstown you are only continuing with Joey Collins. I loved Angela Pierce as Miss Montaigne. She’s a wonderful actor.

MSG She is but we now have a much different take on the character. If you looked at Angela as a kind of Joan Blondell, gutsy woman I would say that here (Barrington) we have a Katherine Hepburn with Lucy Owen.

CG What other changes can we expect?

MSG I think it will be more focused. Some things will be clearer. I don’t want to say but something with Zelda and the friction with Scott.

CG You certainly out Hemingway as closeted gay growing up in dresses. Then the gender issues with his son. All that machismo. Hemingway doesn’t come off very well.

MSG Every trait which Hemingway eviscerated in Fitzgerald and Zelda were traits that he had. He was certainly alcoholic as was Fitzgerald. Although for years he held his liquor better. He ended up convinced the government was following him. He had electric shock treatments. His last book certainly dealt with the gender issues.

(Garden of Eden was his second posthumously released novel published in 1986. Begun in 1946, he worked on the manuscript for the next 15 years. It reveals an interest in androgynous characters, and reversal of gender roles. Hemingway biographer James Mellow argues the "ideas of sexual transference" did not become clear in Hemingway's fiction until he wrote The Garden of Eden. Catherine Bourne convinces David to dye his hair the color of hers, "so they are twins, summer-tanned and androgynous.")

He never wanted to publish it and the family did anyhow after his death. He was an incredibly competitive, complicated guy.

Fitzgerald said something like I want to be a great American writer. Hemingway said I want to be the best writer in the world. If not ever.

CG Fitzgerald is remembered today for one book. (The Great Gatsby)

MSG Yeah. And it keeps getting resurrected and resurrected.

CG Sad don’t you think?

MSG It is but I think he would be thrilled to be remembered for the one. He led such a sad life at the end. In the relationship with Sheilah Graham.

(Sheilah Graham Westbrook (15 September 1904 – 17 November 1988) was an English-born nationally syndicated gossip columnist during Hollywood's "Golden Age", with Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. Her relationship with Fitzgerald was included in her autobiographical account of that period, Beloved Infidel, a best-seller made into a film.)

CG The play ends with him having a fling with the studio secretary (Miss Montaigne). Where was Sheilah Graham at that time?

MSG Sheilah Graham was right in that period. He met her shortly after he got to Hollywood.

CG Why isn’t she in the play?

MSG Only because it opens up a huge other story. I wanted the story of the pressure from the studio. They had a much different story between them. She went to a party at the Garden of Allah and was introduced to all of the important people at the party. They never introduced her to Fitzgerald. Finally she said “Who is that man sitting by himself in the corner?” They said “Oh, that’s F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Kind of dismissively. So that was his status at that point.

CG Why did his pages in the script get turned down (in the play) without even being read?

MSG The script did get turned down. And he was rewritten.

CG That’s factual?

MSG That’s factual. In the play Mankiewicz says “This is the best screenplay I ever read.” It’s what he told Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald sent him a number of letters which are heartbreaking. Please, please don’t keep changing things. I’m a good writer I swear.

CG And so are you Mark. We will look forward to seeing the play. Thanks for taking this time to talk during rehearsals.

Review of Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah