To hear Janece Shaffer tell it, you might think the Atlanta playwright fell into her career entirely by happenstance. Her UGA degree was in public relations, not theatre. She worked at the Alliance Theatre as director of marketing, not as a performer or director. When she went to grad school at Georgia State, she pursued a film degree; her first script, He Looks Great in a Hat, was a screenplay for her master’s thesis.
Fortunately, good friend Kenny Leon recognized the story’s potential for theatrical adaptation and offered to do the show at the Alliance. Now, 15 years later, the award-winning scribe has had her plays produced at Horizon Theatre, Theatrical Outfit and Jewish Theatre of the South, among others. She has twice won playwriting honors at Atlanta’s Suzi Awards, in 2009 for Managing Maxine, and in 2010 for Brownie Points. She also won the 2009 Edgerton Foundation New American Play award. Her latest play, Broke, marks her fourth Alliance Theatre production.
Shaffer recently took a break from her steady stream of rewrites to talk about the craft of writing for the stage, the inspiration behind Broke and how it all started with a $90 corkscrew…
You’ve been writing for the stage for 15 years now. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
I really work hard to make those people onstage feel as real as possible. I feel my best when there is that kind of identification where people say, “I’ve said that,” or, “I’m just like that!” I am also very much about telling Atlanta stories and sending those out into the world. I’ve learned the art of really listening to people around me and that, for me, the longer the scene is the stronger it is because you don’t have that constant reminder that you’re watching a play. I love it when it just feels live in the moment.
What is your writing process like?
I work and rewrite until opening night, literally. Even as we’re talking about Broke, it’s still unfolding. I will rewrite all through rehearsals. Once we have an audience, I will surely be doing rewrites like crazy. It’s really important to me when I cast that I get people who are team players, because there’s going to be chunks of new pages every day. I want to try everything that I can on people, and then tailor to the voices in the room as I continue to refine the story.
What was the inspiration behind Broke?
I was having a discussion with my husband about bills, and then I went to open a bottle of wine and thought, “Why do we have a $90 corkscrew?” We are very modest people, but we have a $90 corkscrew called “The Rabbit!” Then I had a number of friends who lost their jobs and were having really tough discussions, like “What is it that matters most to us?” So it’s about losing your job, but it’s also about losing what defines you. Without the staff, the title, the schedule, what is it that makes me, me? What is the priority in our lives? Some of the choices we make are crazy.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this show?
I hope to provoke discussions, with as much humor as possible, about the things that challenge us. I think money is one of those things. Broke is about marriage and having the ability to adapt within a marriage to a new set of circumstances. I hope that they’ll be grateful for the person sitting next to them. I hope that they’ll look around their house with fresh eyes. And I hope that it will spark a conversation about what it is that they truly need to be happy.
Broke plays the Alliance Theatre Sept. 23-Oct. 23.
Bret Love is the founder of ecotourism/conservation site GreenGlobalTravel.com; the national managing editor of INsite magazine; and music editor for Georgia Music Magazine. He freelances for more than a dozen other national and international publications, and performs on numerous improv teams with Jackpie at Relapse Theatre.