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|January 1-7, 2009
A local one-woman show brings Frankenstein author Mary Shelley to life
by Jim Lillie
Susan Marie Frontczak won — and then lost — her chance to compete nationally in high-school forensics, a nickname for speech-based competitions such as debates and monologues, not scientific-based investigations such as crime scenes and autopsies. “I came in third in the state of Michigan. Somebody told me that first, second and third could go to nationals, but my teacher said because we were a new school, I wouldn’t be going.” Disappointed but not quite daunted, she went on to a college engineering major and a scientific and technical career. Fifteen years later, she took a chance on her first love, storytelling, and never looked back.
The writer/actress, who now lives in Boulder, has performed one or more of her three living histories — based on, respectively, scientist Marie Curie, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — in 23 states as well as several foreign countries, including a stop at the Marie Curie Hospice in Glasgow, Scotland. On January 11, she’ll re-mount Mary Shelley Speaks at the Boulder Public Library, where it debuted in 2005 in response to a national touring exhibit centered on Shelley’s 1818 novel about Viktor Frankenstein, a scientist who creates an unnamed artificial creature that famously doesn’t behave according to plan.
While her one-woman show will appeal to Frankenstein fans, Frontczak says that people don’t have to read the book to enjoy the play. There’s plenty in her portrayal that focuses on Mary’s personal struggles, such as being a teenage mother, and how she attempts to overcome them. “Her father was constantly in debt, and her mother died when she was 11 days old,” says Frontczak. And when Mary’s husband died, the law prevented her from raising her child without the permission of the father’s family. “Sir Timothy [Mary’s father-in-law] offered to provide her with a living if she would turn over her only child to him and never see him again. She was not about to do that. They eventually worked something out, but the money Sir Timothy gave her was considered a loan, and had to be paid back — like a balloon mortgage.”
The real test for authenticity, says Frontczak, isn’t in how she presents the historical material, but in how she handles herself, in character, during a question-and-answer session that follows each performance. “Someone asked, ‘Why didn’t you name the creature?’ And I said, ‘Viktor Frankenstein never nurtured this creature or taught him how to live in the world. Parents, when they name a child, dedicate themselves to the child. It’s telling that Frankenstein never did.’ And that opened up a discussion with the audience about the underprivileged, about abused and abandoned members of society, and whose responsibility that is. Does a human clone have a soul? Or citizenship? Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights apply to them? These kinds of ethical questions that wouldn’t have been considered in Mary Shelley’s day — her book raises those questions today.”
Strong stuff for a soft-spoken, self-confessed introvert. Which makes one wonder — what draws Frontczak to these women of great struggle and challenge? Is it merely a case of opposites attracting, scientifically or otherwise?
“I’m not as brilliant as Marie Curie, I can’t claim to be as tall-heartedly altruistic as Eleanor Roosevelt was, nor have I created brilliant literature that has lasted centuries now, such as Mary Shelley did. I was not refused a higher education as Marie Curie was, I have not been thrust into the public spotlight like Eleanor Roosevelt, I didn’t marry somebody wacky, like [poet Percy Bysshe] Shelley. I’ve had some tough times, no one thing. But when I think about the obstacles that these people faced, when I do face something and want to quit, I think, ‘They didn’t quit and I’m not going to either.’ So that I can identify with.”
And maybe something more. While musing on having missed out in high school on her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do what she loves — telling stories — in the national spotlight, Frontczak says, “I thought, ‘I had a savings account. I could have paid my own way.’ I’ve now spent more time [earning a living] as a storyteller than I did as an engineer.” And, in the process, she’s covered considerably more ground.
“I guess, now, I’m taking myself to nationals. It took a while.”
For more information on Susan Marie Frontczak’s living histories, visit: www.storysmith.org
On the Bill:
Susan Marie Frontczak performs Mary Shelley Speaks at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 11, at Boulder Public Library, 900 Canyon Blvd., Boulder, 303-441-3100. Recommended for adults and children 9 and up. Free. No reservations.
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