Playwright Mark St. Germain Part One

The Best of Enemies Returns To Barrington Stage

By: - Aug 19, 2011

St. Germain

The August run of Mark St. Germain’s new play The Best of Enemies set attendance records for a drama on the Main Stage of Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass. The play returns from October 5 to 16.

We met with him on a Saturday morning prior to the matinee and final evening performance. By then he considered his time in Pittsfield to have come to an end. It is not usual to discuss a play on the day of its final performances.

But, like Freud’s Last Session, which opened at Barrington, returned twice, and then headed for Off Broadway where it continues through October, it was likely that The Best of Enemies might also take off.

The hour we spent discussing his role with Barrington Stage, its artistic director, Julianne Boyd and the craft of writing, proved to be more like a dialogue than an interview.

This is part one of  installments of that meeting.

Charles Giuliano How has the success of Freud’s Last Session been a game changer for your career and professional relationships?

Mark St. Germain Freud got me to the point that I am just focusing on plays right now. I’ve done a lot of other things.

CG Such as?

MSG I wrote for television like The Cosby Show. I did film. I always loved to do theatre.

CG What were some of the films?

MSG Duma is one of them. (Duma is a 2005 drama adventure film, directed by Carroll Ballard. It stars Alexander Michaletos, Eamonn Walker, Hope Davis and Campbell Scott.) I’ve sold umpteen spec scripts. They go into the vault and a producer is now trying to get one out. It’s really a horrible situation. They have you over a barrel.

I have no interest in doing another screen play unless it’s Freud which I will do sooner or later. Right now I just want to concentrate on the plays. Freud was wonderful in a lot of ways. I’ve been working with Julie Boyd (artistic director of Barrington Stage Company) and  Carolyn Rossi Copland. (In 1979 she founded The Lambs Theatre Company in Times Square. She was sought out by Madison Square Garden / Radio City Entertainment to over see the historic remount of The Scarlet Pimpernel on Broadway and became the Vice President for Creative Affairs for Radio City Entertainment.) I have worked with them since I started to write which was in my very late 20’s.

They’ve been involved in almost everything I’ve done. So it was a great process to open Freud here (Pittsfield) and then Carolyn picked up the show and brought it into New York. The nice thing was that everybody was involved. We could take the whole production and bring it in. We still have the same actors doing it after 500 performances. (Mark H. Dold as C.S. Lewis and Martin Tayner as Sigmund Freud.)

CG Does that include Barrington and New York? How many Barrington performances were there?

MSG I don’t know we extended it so many times. I thought it ended up at around 70.

CG As I recall it opened in June and came back in October. Then there was a tune-up run before it opened in New York.

MSG Mark Dold who plays Lewis is kind of our historian he keeps track of all the dates. We’ll run (in New York) until the end of October. (The Marjorie Dean Theatre at 64th and Central Park West)

CG What’s the seating capacity?

MSG 145. It’s selling well. In all the time we have hit maybe a couple of bad weeks. It’s experienced a kind of surge again. It has to stop at the end of October because the theatre space is committed. We might go back from January through March. Then in March this company will go to Chicago and perform there.

CG Where?

MSG Do you know theatres in Chicago? I thought it was the Mercury but I don’t know. That will be an open run. (The Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, IL 60640 773-325-1700). I don’t know what will happen from there. Sooner or later they will break my heart and leave. They have to. Maybe they’ll come back at some point.

CG Is it paying the bills?

MSG No. (both laugh) Plays never pay the bills.

CG Are you on welfare?

MSG No. I have early retirement from the Writers Guild. With the two we get by.

CG The more I understand about theatre the more I comprehend the madness.

MSG It’s totally insane. It’s wonderful to be in a situation where it goes right. When it goes wrong it’s horrible. (laughs) You have all this work and it just doesn’t amount to anything.

CG May I ask how old you are?

MSG 56. So hopefully there are a couple more years of plays in me.

CG Give me some background. How did you get into this?

MSG I never thought of writing at all. When I took a writing course at Seton Hall University we did poetry for one semester and drama for the other semester. The drama teacher told me “Stick to poetry.” (both laugh) I was fine with that. I always thought that writers were some other breed. There was nobody in my family involved with the arts. I grew up in New Jersey in the shadows of Giants Stadium. I would take a bus into New York and see a show. Standing room for five dollars. I loved it but it was another world. I wanted to teach, which I did for awhile, and I worked for an arts agency. When I was in my late 20’s I directed a workshop of local poets putting their poems on stage. It was so grim and serious that I said to the composer we have to do something that’s lighter in the middle. So we wrote a poem/ song and the audience laughed. I was hooked. I thought wait a minute. This is great. There are so few writers who can support themselves with writing. In the Writers Guild for film and television there’s maybe 8% employed. So it was a wonderful gift to be able to do this.

CG Did you ever connect with a long running TV show?

MSG I was really stupid. I never wanted to be on full time staff. I was always afraid that if I did that I would never go back and write plays. The Cosby Show was an ideal job. I would go in one day a week as a creative consultant. I would help with the story for the next week. When the three producers, who wrote most of them, got tired I would write the episode. So maybe every fourth episode. During the second year when they left I decided to leave. It was foolish. If I had stayed with any long running show, and I got some good offers, I didn’t want to go to LA. Then I would have been set for life. But I always was afraid of that and I saw it with a lot of people. Once they get involved the money is so incredible. They become obsessed with that world and I never was.

CG You sound like an artist.

MSG Have you ever seen the work of Barry Moser? He is a great illustrator. He gave a lecture a couple of years ago at a conference I was at. He said “Rule number one. Never, never, call yourself an artist. You’re a craftsman.” That’s what I believe I am. Putting together a play is a craft. That’s kind of how I look at myself.

CG Are you getting anywhere? You seem to have success with Freud and now The Best of Enemies. At my age I would like to think I know some things. On the other hand I am more aware of limitations. So I think there is both knowledge and humility that comes with time.

MSG I agree. You know yourself more. I’ve always done different kinds of plays. But the ones that seem to be most successful get done a lot like Camping With Henry and Tom.

(In the New York Times Vincent Canby wrote on February 21, 1995.)

“The historical inspiration for Mark St. Germain's ‘Camping With Henry and Tom,’ which opened last night off Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theater, is rich with seriously satirical potential. It's so rich, in fact, that it's difficult to understand why, to my knowledge, no one before has explored it with the freedom of fiction. If Mr. St. Germain does nothing else in his new comedy, he calls attention to a colorful footnote to American history, one packed with giddy possibilities, even if they go largely unrealized here.

“The known facts are these:

“In the summer of 1921, Henry Ford, Thomas Alva Edison and Harvey S. Firestone went on a camping trip, which was their annual custom. On previous trips they had been accompanied by John Burroughs, the naturalist, but he had died earlier that year. In his place they invited President Warren G. Harding, possibly the most popular President in office that the United States ever had and then, shortly after his death in 1923, the most thoroughly disgraced. Harding's associates were the rascals responsible for the Teapot Dome scandal.

“For dramatic purposes, Mr. St. Germain has eliminated Firestone from the camping trip; he was never an icon to match the other three men anyway. The playwright has also given his play a funny and promising title. While ‘Camping With Henry and Tom’ has a very particular contemporary ring to it, it also evokes the tone of the hugely popular boys' and girls' books that were mass-produced by Edward L. Stratemeyer early in this century. It especially recalls the Stratemeyer series about that ever-optimistic boy inventor, Tom Swift…”

It was actually done at the Berkshire Theatre Festival a number of years ago. It’s done a lot. But I realized that I am drawn to historical characters. I started to write a comedy a couple of months ago and I just realized that, after ten pages, what am I doing this for? It’s not what I do. Or not what I do well. Most of the research I do now is trying to find a new interesting question to write about.

CG How many plays have you done?

MSG Counting musicals maybe twelve to fifteen.

CG It seems that at this point you are writing one a year. Freud in 2009. Now The Best of Enemies. You are about to have a reading of Mrs. Lincoln’s Séance at Barrington Stage. There is another project in the early stage of development that is too soon to discuss. This is over a span of about six years.

MSG Approximately.

CG That seems like a fast pace.

MSG When I was able to quit a full time nine to five job. At that point I was working for an arts agency in New Jersey. I had a family and I said I have to treat this as a nine to five job.

CG So you continued with the worth ethic.

MSG I had to. I was afraid not to. (laughing) I didn’t want to go back to a nine to five job. It gets harder as I get older but I have tried to work on two things at once. I write in the morning and then as you burn out go to something else in the afternoon.

CG How does that work?

MSG Writing one and researching another. Along the way I do other things to keep busy. I work with Charles Strouse on a musical version of An American Tragedy. (Strouse's first Broadway musical was the 1960 hit Bye Bye Birdie, with lyrics by Lee Adams, who would become his long time collaborator.) I did a documentary. You know, just keep busy.

CG Would you ever consider having a research assistant just compiling all that information for you? Perhaps an intern?

MSG No. The reason is that when something jumps out at you how do you know that it’s going to jump out at somebody else. In Camping With Henry and Tom there was just one sentence in a biography. About Ford. He went on a camping trip every year with Thomas Edison which everybody knew.

CG That sounds a lot like Freud’s Last Session.

MSG It gets better. One year they invited Warren G. Harding and that was just it. In the book. It just hit me. Why would anybody invite Warren G. Harding to go with them on a camping trip? If I had hired a researcher they might not have found that interesting. The more I researched where they all were at that time in their lives it was fascinating and became a play. I like the research. I like the reading.

CG Where did the idea for Freud come from?

MSG That was a book by (Dr. Armand M. Nicolai Jr. "The Question of God.”) He contrasted the views of the two men (Freud and Lewis). In his last chapter he said that there was a young Oxford Don who visited Freud shortly before his death. Wouldn’t it be interesting if it were Lewis? I thought wouldn’t it be a great idea. So I pestered him for two years. I finally got him to agree because he didn’t have a theatre background.

CG Why couldn’t you have just…

MSG I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with it. The same thing with Best of Enemies. I wanted to make sure that Ann Atwater, Bill Riddick and C.P.’s family participated in everything. I’m constantly looking. There’s one project I would love to do but I haven’t figured the right way to do it yet.

CG  In Freud’s Last Session the play is a bit of a stretch. How do you take a hypothetical meeting and create it as a reality for theatre? The audience feels that it is very plausible. Their arguments come off as verbatim dialogue.

MSG A short version is that I had no problem putting them together. I thought it would be fascinating if they could really talk to each other. It wasn’t so much a matter of their beliefs. I naively thought it would be an easy project to do because of Dr. Nicolai’s book (“The Question of God”). Two years later I was still reading. I had to know who the men were. What they wrote as well as who they were. And set it in the war because it is more dramatic that way. Right before Freud took his life.

You come to the point where you have all that and then you have to see if they talk to each other. If it feels right. And you can tell within a couple of pages whether it works or not. And then it was a matter of going on that. Then it was  very unlikely that it would be a success. People said what are you doing this play for? When we did it up here (Barrington Stage, Pittsfield) from the first day before reviews, people were interested  through word of mouth.

In NY, where they do audience polls, 80% of the people come from word of mouth. When we did it here, from the first day, there were people in the lobby waiting for tickets. The reason is that a lot of people are fascinated with Freud. Then there are a lot of people fascinated with Lewis.  It really had nothing to do with the play at that point.

CG It became viral here.

MSG It did. Absolutely.

CG You work for a couple of years to create an intimate play that premieres at a regional theatre. That’s so much effort with minimal expectations. It might run for two weeks and that’s it.

MSG We all expected that.

CG Then what?

MSG What you said before. This is insane. There is no reason to do it. This is just insane.

Review of The Best of Enemies

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four