Janece Shaffer had no idea that when she showed Kenny Leon, the former Alliance Theatre artistic director, a screenplay of hers back in 1997 that she was on her way to becoming one of Atlanta’s most prolific playwrights. Her first play debuted two years later and now her 10th — The Geller Girls — debuts next week at the Alliance, a theater that has warmly embraced her work.
The Geller Girls, opening January 15, takes place during a defining moment in Atlanta’s history — the Cotton States and International Exposition, which kicked off in Piedmont Park in 1895. It was Atlanta’s first major international event, instrumental in marketing itself to the rest of the world. The event was a game changer for the city, attracting more than a quarter of a million people over a span of just over three months. Among its guests and attendees were visionary thinkers, women with college educations, speakers such as Booker T. Washington, who gave a speech on race relations, and travelers from around the globe.
Shaffer’s two main characters here are the Geller sisters, who have different views of their future. Louisa (Ann Marie Gideon) is 17 and waiting to get married to her childhood sweetheart, while Rosalee (Courtney Patterson), 23, has a dream to run her own dress shop. Yet things change against the backdrop of the Exposition, especially with the arrival of Charles Heyman (Joe Sykes). He’s charming, attractive — and from New York. Shaffer promises a lot of laughter and some romance in this world premiere.
Many people don’t know about the Exposition. Shaffer didn’t until her daughter introduced her to it. The two were looking at pictures of the event and the idea for the play came to Shaffer instantly. Nothing she has created has come that fast — she knew her characters almost immediately. Shaffer penned The Geller Girls several years ago, but it’s taken some time to develop it as well as find a home.
It was while working in the public relations department of the Alliance that Shaffer showed Leon her first screenplay. He liked it and suggested she adapt it for the stage. She did — and the result was her first play, the romantic comedy He Looks Great in a Hat, which premiered at the Alliance back in 1999. Since that time there’s been Bluish, Broke and Managing Maxine (all at the Alliance) and others such as the race-related Brownie Points.
At the core of Shaffer’s work are strong, complex women. “I write about what I get so excited about that I can’t not write it,” she says. “My plays usually have female protagonists, but they are different — a woman questioning religion; a woman falling in love at the age of 70; another questioning values.” She doesn’t have a favorite of her plays but does have an affinity for the central characters in The Geller Girls.
Despite her success, however, it has taken her some time to feel that she fits in as a playwright. “When I started, I was less certain,” she says. “I used to think Tennessee Williams or August Wilson, now they are playwrights. I had the sense play-writing was for certain voices and I was not sure mine was one of them.” But now she feels she belongs. She won the Gene-Gabriel Moore Playwriting Award at the local Suzi Bass Awards for both Managing Maxine and Brownie Points and an Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award for both Maxine and The Geller Girls. Her work has been produced across the country. “I’ve worked hard,” she admits. “I can say now that I’m a playwright. I have to take pride in what I did.” What she has learned as a playwright is to tell the stories only she can.
The Geller Girls is directed by Susan Booth, the Alliance’s artistic director. It’s the third time Shaffer and Booth have worked together. Shaffer praises Booth’s eye for new work and her willingness to collaborate, taking suggestions from her and the cast. She also admires Booth’s willingness to let her take chances. “If I say I want to go to a dark place, she says ‘go do it,’” says the playwright.
Booth, too, has become a fan of Shaffer and her work aesthetic. “I love working with Janece,” she says. “She has a fantastic combination of assured narrative and zero ego, which means she knows just what she wants to accomplish and is wholly open to anyone in the room helping to get the play there. It’s like an emotional spa visit to go into rehearsal with her.”
Over the years, Booth has seen Shaffer grow significantly as a writer. “She’s working on a much deeper and bigger scale now,” says Booth. “With Broke, she took on nothing less than how we link our sense of self with our bank accounts. And here, she’s placed her story squarely in 1895 and has used that very specific historic moment to tell a coming of age story that’s utterly contemporary.”
After leaving the Alliance, Shaffer worked with the NAMES Project Foundation in Atlanta for nine years and is now with Womenetics, an organization that promotes advancing women in the workplace. She is the organization’s senior editor. A native Atlantan, she has a husband, Bill Nigut, and two children: Bill, 24, and Emma, 17. Spending time with her family is important. When a new play is about to open, however, she’s a perfectionist, attending all rehearsals and making changes up until opening night.
An upcoming project is tweaking muscles she hasn’t flexed yet. Her rock musical Bliss will get a workshop in New York this spring. It’s based on “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” a fairy tale published by the Grimm brothers. She met her collaborators, Emma Lively and Tyler Beattie, through their mutual agent, and the three hit off. She is working on the book while they handle the music and lyrics. “Play-writing is fun but it can be lonely,” says Shaffer. “I know nothing about their process, how they do what they do, but the music is great. I have to say, I am having a lot of fun.”