John Pielmeier (PEEL-mi-yur) achieved acclaim as a playwright early in his career when one of his first plays, the provocative Agnes of God, met with considerable critical and commercial success on Broadway in 1982. In the years following his promising entrée into American theater, Pielmeier struggled to replicate this success but continued to gain attention and admiration with smaller productions in regional theater and by writing for television. Pielmeier considers the playwright’s job one of simple storytelling, and his work, especially with its emphasis on biographical adaptations and attention to character, reflects this concern.
The playwright was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, to Len and Louise Pielmeier. At a young age, John Pielmeier expressed an interest in performing and often entertained family members with plays he wrote and performed. It was, however, acting, not writing, that captured Pielmeier’s imagination early, and wishing to become a film star, he left his small town in 1966 to study drama and speech at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
At Catholic, Pielmeier fell deeply in love with the theater and became quite an accomplished actor. Upon graduation, the artist was hesitant to join the endless sea of actors in New York and decided instead to delay the process by going to graduate school. Pielmeier applied to the M.F.A. acting program at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), to be near his then-ailing father, but was rejected. Determined to pursue his dream of a life in theater, Pielmeier instead enrolled in Penn State’s nearly empty M.F.A. playwriting program, and his acceptance to the program altered the course of his career, eventually turning him from actor to writer.
While at Penn State, Pielmeier was asked to adapt George Jackson’s 1970 collection of prison letters, Soledad Brother, for the stage as a project for one of his professors. The adaptation met with great success and even warranted a small write-up in The New York Times. This first effort demonstrated to the playwright his talent in bringing to life the stories of others, a talent he would use frequently in his career. Despite this initial accomplishment, the playwright left Penn State in 1976 without a degree, after the program refused to accept the play A Chosen Room as his final project. The decision would eventually be reversed, and in 1978 Pielmeier received his degree after an outside staging of the play forced the school to reconsider.
After graduate school, the playwright continued acting, working in prestigious regional theaters around the country, including the Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Center Stage in Baltimore, and the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. While acting in a production at the celebrated O’Neill Playwright Conference in Connecticut, Pielmeier was again inspired to move beyond acting to write and submit a play for performance at the following year’s conference. The initial play he submitted was not accepted, but Pielmeier was not discouraged and set about to write another play. This play, Agnes of God, was accepted and received a stage reading at the 1979 conference. After a successful performance at the O’Neill and at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where it was a cowinner of the 1979 Great American Play contest, the play made its way to Broadway. Agnes of God is a complex and challenging play that addresses humankind’s struggle to resolve pragmatism and faith, religion and science. The piece represents Pielmeier’s best work and explores many of the themes the playwright addresses in his other...
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