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 dancers’ 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 Theater [in NYC]. 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; I talked with him a bunch of times. What I learned about him got fed into it. [Michael McManmon speaker, writer, artist and psychologist founded 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.] 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.
Check out the rest of the interview here.