There’s no rock-solid writing routine for playwright Janece Shaffer, but for some 15 years she has been steadily producing an impressive body of work from her home just off of Lavista Road in the Oak Grove area.
Born, bred and buttered in Atlanta, Shaffer now has her fourth play since 1999 on the boards of the Hertz stage at the Alliance Theatre. This time around, it’s the world premiere of Broke, which Shaffer started working on more than two years ago.
Shaffer’s inspiration for Broke: her friends, neighbors and others all around her who were being laid off from lucrative jobs. These people were scared, soul-crushed, and desperate to know how they were going to pay the mortgage.
Shaffer would meet some of her newly unemployed friends for coffee or lunch. With no lunch-hour clock ticking, she would linger with them, listen to their woes, nod in sympathy, quietly ask questions.
She asked one newly let-go friend if she might consider taking a job at Target, for example, if she had to. The friend thought about it and replied: “You mean some place where I might bump into some of my neighbors?” This friend said bartending school somehow sounded better.
Shaffer constantly soaks up real-life stuff like this, lets it percolate in her head, then starts tapping away on her keyboard.
“I can be pretty fast,” she said, when asked about her writing routine, “maybe 20 or 30 pages in one sitting, but that’s just to get it down. I call myself the ‘Queen of Re-writing.’ I write many, many versions and there’s all this color-coding to help track all the re-writes.”
Shaffer’s body of work to date is impressive, and today her plays are getting attention hither and yon. This summer, a theater company in Seattle mounted a well-received West Coast premiere of her Brownie Points, which premiered last February at Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit. In this play, tensions about race and stereotypes rise to the surface when mothers and daughters are stranded by a storm in the North Georgia mountains.
Shaffer’s Managing Maxine, about finding romance late in life, won the 2009 Gene Gabriel Moore Playwright Award and has had numerous productions. Bluish, which deals with romance amid religious conflict, has been staged by a number of Jewish theater groups from Arizona to Canada.
Shaffer’s other works include He Looks Great in a Hat about the dating game and two plays birthed by Atlanta’s Horizon Theater: The Genes of Beauty Queens (about what defines beauty and how we see ourselves), and Wishful Thinking, with a theme of “seeing new possibilities for ourselves.” Another script just getting off the ground — Shaffer’s first historical play is With Love from the Pyramids of Atlanta, which looks at the famous Atlanta Exposition of 1895 and how it forever changed lives.
But Broke may prove to be a breakthrough work for Shaffer because it really hits home, right here, right now. Its story centers on a family that had been living the high life until the wife and chief breadwinner, played by popular Atlanta actress Tess Malis Kincaid, is laid off from her six-figure corporate job.
The Alliance Theatre even wants those who cannot afford a ticket to be able to see Broke, so evening performances on Sundays are “pay what you can.” There’s also a “rush ticket” for $20 offered two hours before a performance if seats are still available.
Like Neil Simon, Shaffer is known for tackling serious topics, but lacing the seriousness with plenty of wit and funny one-liners.
“But at some point in every one of my plays, I go deep,” she said.
When not in playwright mode, Shaffer works part-time as communications director for the NAMES Project Foundation/AIDS Memorial Quilt. She is married to Bill Nigut, former political journalist and now regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Before and after Shaffer gave a “tour” of the AIDS quilt to a group of Emory University doctoral candidates this week, Patch tuned in with the busy scribe and tossed her a few questions:
Patch: In various ways, your plays explore our everyday lives and relationships. As a playwright, what’s your overall goal or purpose?
J.S.: I am a Magpie writer. A Magpie collects everything that is shiny and takes it all home and builds its nest. I take away everything I can, everything I hear and learn. I am interested in exploring the lives of real people and what I see us — my friends, my family, my community — struggling with. Also, I want to explore anything that I find I can’t quite let go of or don’t quite understand. My plays are always set in Atlanta, and I want to tell stories that matter to us, whether stories about race, the economy, identity, love. And I want to tell these stories with as much humor and honestly as I can.
Patch: In crafting Broke, a script about a family’s financial disaster, how did you wrestle with achieving the right balance of serious message mixed with comic relief?
J.S.: I think that people want and need to talk about the things that challenge them, and there’s just no better place to do that than in the theater. A play gives us the entree for examining things we might otherwise shy away from. And when people struggle, there’s often humor in that somewhere. For example, you are struggling, you cannot pay your bills, but you have this $90 cork screw that’s called a Rabbit. You are using a $90 cork screw to open a $2 bottle of wine! That’s the kind of humor you can work with.
Patch: What’s it like for you to see actors bringing your words to life on stage?
J.S.: Pretty amazing. I am just blown away by Tess’ performance every night. I think she’s so real and so powerful that you really do feel that you have stepped into someone’s life. James Leaming plays the husband. He’s a beloved Chicago actor, and he is charming and goofy and tender and romantic. He is the perfect complement to this really strong woman’s portrayal. And I’ve got to mention Elisabeth Omilami (CEO of Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless), who plays Evalyn Rentas (who also leads a nonprofit for the underserved). She is unbelievable. She is just so real, you feel as if you have stepped into someone’s life.
Patch: How does Atlanta inform your voice as a playwright?
J.S.: I am very much from a place, Atlanta, and from a specific family that is just so wonderful and filled with love and humor. I grew up in Morningside where the Halloween carnival was the highlight of my childhood. This is my world. I am Freida’s daughter and Pearl’s granddaughter and Emma’s mother and they’re all right here. I think being a third-generation Atlantan makes a huge difference to me. I love the fact that my parents are on this journey with me. I mean, they came to the final dress rehearsals and ate the crap out of the vending machines, with my father (Max) telling me what he liked and didn’t like about this or that in the script. Atlanta is home, the only home I’ve known. I love Atlanta and its big-hearted, warm-spirited people.
If you go: Broke, by Janece Shaffer, Hertz Stage at the Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, continues through Oct. 23. Performances: 7:30pm Tuesday through Thursday; 8pm Friday; 2:30pm and 8pm Saturday; 2:30pm and 7:30pm Sunday. Tickets start at $25, but the 7:30pm show on Sundays is “pay what you can,” with $5 minimum required. Also, ask about $20 “rush” tickets, sold two hours before showtime if seats available. 404-733-5000, www.alliancetheatre.org/broke Group rates for 10 or more: 404-733-4690.