Feature Q & A – Janece Shaffer Deals with Being Broke

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Photo courtesy of Janece Shaffer

To open the 2011-2012 Hertz stage season, the Alliance Theatre will present the world premiere of Janece Shaffer’s new play Broke. As a playwright, Shaffer is no stranger to the Alliance Theatre as Broke will be her fourth play produced there. Shaffer gave Atlanta Theater Fans this description of her new play:

The Eliasons were living the American dream right here in Atlanta… granite countertops, trey ceilings, Range Rovers, and HDTV. And then 52 year-old Liz Eliason, a high level marketing executive and the major breadwinner in the household, comes home to her husband Jonathan with the news that she’s been fired. She is shocked; he is thrilled. With the wealth they have accrued from her career, they can now finally enjoy a life “together.” But when the company Liz has worked for goes under a few days later and with it, a great part of their wealth, Liz, Jonathan and their 19 year-old daughter Missie – a student at NYU – are now facing a new reality. In this world of uncertainty, Broke asks: when it seems like everything is falling through your fingers, what (and who) do you hold onto?

In this Feature Q & A, find out what inspired Shaffer to write the script for Broke, how the production got its start at the Alliance Theatre and why Atlantans should come see the play.

How did you come up with the idea for Broke?

Honestly, it seemed like the economy and money and this “new normal” was on everyone’s minds, was in the news and was challenging so many of us. And, as an Atlanta-born writer, I want to craft stories about us – about the things that delight, challenge, frighten and are important to us. I’ve explored race and motherhood (Brownie Points), questioned religion and identity (Bluish) and even took an unflinching look (not really look) at sex over 70 (Managing Maxine).

And, now I want us to take on…MONEY! And marriage and what we really need to be happy. And also, I wanted to explore the values we have, the choices we make, the stuff we buy with the money we have (or don’t have but buy anyway) and why I have a $90 corkscrew called the Rabbit. Welcome to the world of Broke.

I thought this is a topic that could not be more relevant right now and the theater is the place to tackle those things that matter most – to explore who we are separate from what we do or what we have. This was a topic that seemed ripe with possibility and it has grown into a rich story that has a lot of humor, gritty truth and is raw at times because it is so real. This is a chance for us to explore new beginnings and take an unflinching look at our new normal.

What was the process like getting Broke produced as part of the Alliance Theatre’s 2011-2012 season?

I had told Susan Booth about the play, and as she was building her tenth season, she said, let’s do it and here we are…doing it. This is my fourth play at the Alliance, and in many ways it is my artistic home. It is where my very first play was produced 14 years ago and where I continue to find tremendous support from a most fabulous group of artists. These people are the best, and they fight to say YES whenever possible. I am beyond grateful to them and know I am a better writer because of them.

Once you had the idea for Broke, how long did it take you to write the script?

It’s taken me two years to write this play, but during that same time, I’ve completed another play, worked part-time, traveled to Seattle to an earlier piece produced and done a slew of other things. I’ve written and then not and then written – fits and starts – when I have the time and the inspiration. 

Some plays come very easily and quickly, others are more demanding. This play demanded a lot from me. I had to be patient and really honest and at times, even kind of brave.

Were you involved in the casting process? Did you have any specific actors in mind when you were writing the script?

I was involved, and I’ve had the huge pleasure of working with my director, Jason Loewith, on this project, and he has been amazing.  Our instincts are similar, and we’ve been able to develop trust very quickly, which is so essential for getting a new play up in four weeks. We held auditions here and in New York, and the cast of four includes three Atlanta actors and one actor from the Chicago area. It’s a fabulous cast led by the amazing Tess Malis Kincaid (who was just on the Alliance stage as Barbara in August: Osage County).  Another cast member you might recognize is Elisabeth Omilami, who is an Atlanta longtime favorite, a community leader and the daughter of Hosea Williams.

I did not write this piece with any specific actor in mind, but during the rehearsal period, each of their unique strengths have shaped these characters.

Did you know Director Jason Loewith before he was selected for Broke? How has it been working with him?

I did not know Jason before this project, and I’ve honestly loved getting to know this incredibly smart, funny, talented, sarcastic, resourceful director. We’ve laughed and cut and re-written. He has given us all plenty of room to explore. He’s been patient and trusts that we will all get where we need to be and Broke will benefit from the journey.

How active have you been with the rehearsal process?

I’ve been there almost every day, and if you know anything about me, it’s that I re-write…many times. I look at it like I’ve got this finite time to try and get it right and so I take every opportunity to do that – thank you actors – and when opening night comes, you put the pen down and have a glass of wine and kiss your husband and go home.

Why should Atlantans come see Broke?

Because I write about us. I was born and raised here and what interests me most is our stories.

I write about real people. People I hope you will recognize as friends, family, even yourself. I write about the things that we struggle with, that we won’t talk about like money or race or God, and I write about these things with the hope that sitting together in the darkened theater, watching characters on stage confront what we struggle with will give us the courage and the opportunity to say what we wouldn’t otherwise. It is the conversation after the show, the next day, the next week that matters most to me.

I write with humor and honesty in a very naturalistic, accessible way. I never forget about that person sitting in the theater watching my play – that they have graciously given me their time and money. I feel that responsibility personally and it inspires me to do everything I can to ensure that what is on that stage matters to them in a powerful way.

In closing, I think it is thrilling, validating and potentially healing to see yourself reflected on stage – to recognize struggles, words, impulses and to watch others find resolution. When you recognize yourself, you are elevated, made important for you are the subject of art, and I think that is what we are all deserving of.

 

Broke opens the 2011-2012 Hertz Stage season at the Alliance Theatre. Previews begin Friday, September 23 and the show officially opens on Tuesday, September 27. For tickets and more information please visit the Alliance Theatre website. The play runs through October 23.