Editor’s Note: The following story has been updated to reflect that Susan Frontczak, who performed June 24 as physicist as Madam Marie Curie during the 2016 Ohio Chautauqua in Gallipolis City Park, was initially denied access to Curie’s archives by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. In was, in fact, the assistance of the Institut Curie that was essential in helping Frontczak gain access to the archives and, thus, help her understand Curie in order to portray her on stage.
GALLIPOLIS — To some a software engineer and a living history scholar might not seem to have a lot in common.
One profession (software engineer) is typically thought to be left-brain dominant, therefore more logical, analytical and objective. A living history scholar might typically be considered right-brain dominant, or be more intuitive, thoughtful and subjective.
How can two seemingly opposite personalities work in one individual? According to Susan Marie Frontczak, quite well.
Frontczak, is touring this summer with Ohio Humanities Council’s Chautauqua series and spent last week in Gallipolis presenting two portrayals, “Frankenstein’ author Mary Shelley and physicist Marie Curie. She was not always a historic presenter and admits to having no formal theater or acting training. Her experience in the theater, though, is deep.
“I was in my first play at five years of age. By the time I was 8 to 10, my sisters and I had organized several neighborhood plays,” Frontczak said. “When I was 16, I wrote my first play and produced it as a one-act for my high school and local community theater.”
Despite those early interactions with acting and the theater, that’s not where the Michigan native decided to make a living.
Frontczak moved to Loveland, Colo., and began a career as a software engineer with Hewlett-Packard. During her time with HP, she never strayed too far away from the theater.
It was in Loveland where she helped form a community theater.
“I was involved in everything, directing, acting,” she said.
“People would ask me to tell a story,” she added. “After a while, they began paying me to tell them a story. My first year I made $300 from storytelling — and I filed a Schedule C.”
After 14 years with HP, Frontczak decided to try something different. She took a year-long leave of absence.
“People began coming up to me and saying one of two things: One, ‘You’re so brave’ and ‘Good luck,’” she said. “At the end of that year, I didn’t go back. So I tell everyone for the last 21 years I’ve been absent without leave.”
She admits to taking a roughly 80 percent cut in pay, but adds, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Frontczak has no formal training in either acting or history.
“I have to fess up. I thought history was boring,” she said.
It was from her storytelling that Frontczak began to engage her left brain. Describing herself as “insatiably curious,” she began to wonder about the “backstory” of some of those stories — the “Pied Piper” was one — she was relating. One early story is “Kentucky Belle,” a Civil War story written by Constance Fenimore Woolson, a story told in verse format.
The main character, a farmhouse wife, was from Kentucky but married a German immigrant and lived along the Tuscarawas River in Ohio.
“I fell in love with the story and decided to find out how likely it was for a Kentucky woman to marry a German immigrant and so I went to the library,” she added.
There she found out not only how likely it was, but that the story took place in the area where Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan conducted many of his raids.
“Morgan’s Raiders are all through the story,” she said. “It was like, ‘Uh, oh,’ I’m enjoying history,” Frontczak said.
It was sometime after that when Frontczak says, “Marie Curie just tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘It’s time.’” And so her career as a historical scholar/presenter began.
Frontczak began researching Curie and putting her monologue together. It was initially about two hours long. She presented her show to the Rocky Mountain Story Telling Conference and was accepted in 1999 for a spring 2000 engagement.
But in December she had second thoughts.
“I called and told them I couldn’t do it. They said, ‘Sure you can’ and we finally agreed I would do it if we would call it a work in progress and that’s what we did,” she said. Her initial show did not contain any of the props those in attendance at last Friday night’s performance saw.
Her portrayal of Madam Curie is an example of how Frontczak’s renewed interest in history and her background in research come together.
She traveled to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (that country’s national library containing national archives) in Paris and presented her credentials showing what she had done and descriptions of her monologues depicting Madam Curie, only to be turned away. Library officials told her a letter of recommendation would be necessary. And, not just a letter of recommendation from anyone, but a letter from the Curie family was required to get into the national library to examine the archives.
As luck would have it,the curator at the Musée Curie (Curie Museum), also in Paris, which Frontczak had visited the day before, told her a daughter, Eve, was still alive at 98 years of age and living in New York. Frontczak wrote to the daughter — her letter was actually sent to the museum curator who forwarded it to Eve — and received a reply granting access. Frontczak went a step further. She took Eve’s letter and sent a copy of that along with another request to a Curie granddaughter, Eve’s niece, a nuclear physicist, who also wrote back, granting permission. That letter-writing process took a year’s time, but Frontczak was persistent.
When she did get back to the Bibliothèque Nationale, she was warned she could only carry a pencil and paper into the archive room — no pen or camera. And, she was required to sign a waiver because, “her lab books are still radioactive,” Frontczak said. She was able to hold, with gloves, many of Curie’s papers and artifacts.
Frontczak credits the Institut Curie’s assistance in providing “essential advice” that eventually allowed her to examine Curie’s papers and artifacts at Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Without the Institut Curie’s help, she said she would not have had the opportunity to see the archives.
Frontczak has also been to Hyde Park, N.Y., for research on Eleanor Roosevelt, another one of her historical portrayals.
Talking about her trip to Gallipolis with the Ohio Humanities Council, she explained an organization such as the council puts out a request stating what they’re looking for in portrayals. This year, Ohio Chautauqua was looking for portrayals in the natural world and chose Frontczak’s Curie and Shelley for this year’s circuit.
In addition to Curie, Roosevelt and Mary Shelley (her performance last Wednesday at Chautauqua), Frontczak also portrays Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross) and Irene Castle (along with her husband, Vernon, she is credited with reviving modern dance in the early 20th century).
Like other Chautauqua scholars, Frontczak does all her own research. Today, she explained, it’s much easier with the internet, but when she started with Curie, there was no internet available.
“I ask myself, ‘Can I do her justice?’ I do feel good about each of my ladies,” Frontczak said.
Bud Hunt is regional publisher of Ohio Valley Publishing