In 2013 Plan-B Theatre Company extended its mission to produce socially conscious theatre pieces by launching FEST, the Free Elementary School Tour. This six year initiave kicked of with a half hour version of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf which reached 12,000 northern Utah students over 34 performances. This was followed up in 2014 by Matthew Ivan Bennett’s DIFFERENT= AMAZING, a piece containing five vignettes based on real-life bullying stories from Utah students and aimed at upper elementary students. 2015’s tour features RUFF!, a new play from Jenifer Nii which teaches about breaking down stereotypes and what we can learn from other beings through two unlikely lead characters – shelter dogs Axel and Buddy. RUFF! will make its pre-tour premiere at the inaugural Great Salt Lake Fringe Fest August 6-8. Nii has become known for plays that explore complex relationships but deeply human relationships with lush language (Suffrage, The Scarlet Letter). Here, Nii shares some thoughts on writing and her RUFF! process.
Your Plan-B bio says that you are a former concert pianist and journalist. What turned your creative path to playwriting?
NII: My senior year at university, I saw a production of Marsha Norman’s Getting Out. It was my first dramatic/theatre experience. I went back every night until the play ended its run. I was stunned at the power this one experience had, how moved I was, how changed. The night it closed, I sat down and started writing my first play. I finished it a week later. Thankfully, it has never been produced. But it started me on the path that led me to Plan-B Theatre Company, my creative home. I’m still playing “catch-up” in so many ways – still learning about what theatre is and can be, and what I can bring to it.
You are a professional dog trainer and you are very active in the animal rescue community. What is it like to bring your two worlds together with RUFF!?
NII: Weird, and awesome! So much fun to be able to actually give voice and human language to the canine behaviors I see every day. It’s kind of like I finally have permission to anthropomorphize dogs!
Did your work or your dogs influence you while writing RUFF!? If so, how?
NII: Sure did. My pack is comprised mostly of dogs who have special needs – I have some who are shy, some who are old, and some who are very very grumpy. I work with them as best I can to help them be more comfortable in their world; they teach and remind me about being a better participant in mine. They help me practice service, patience, compassion, patience, and patience. They also make me laugh. In my work, I try to help clients and their dogs build the relationships and skills that’ll keep them growing closer together.
As a dog mom, I know that dogs have a unique and effective way of communicating. How did you translate that language of dogs into dialogue for a play?
NII: Dogs are beautiful in that they’re…primal. They try very hard to be clear about how they’re feeling. All I had to do for this play was to decide which of their experiences I wanted to portray. Which of their stories would most resonate with children. Along the way I was reminded that dogs and kids have a ton in common. They need to feel safe and loved. The dogs in the play, like the kids I wrote it for, are experiencing — possibly for the first time — a world in which those two things are at risk. Telling a story with dogs seemed an entertaining way to help the kids see that they’re not alone, that what they’re feeling is important, and that they can make a difference — in their own lives and maybe others’ as well.
Is this your first piece for children? Did your process change at all because this is a children’s play?
NII: Yes, my first for children. I don’t know that my process changed, but I do know that I was much, much more conscious about keeping the writing tight and keeping the story focused.
This tour has been in the works for over a year. How do feel about the upcoming premiere at the Fringe Fest?
NII: Totally honored and excited to be included! For a play about shelter dogs, written for kids in grades K-3, to be included in this festival is really cool.
What is your favorite line from RUFF!?
NII: “Just as big and twice as smart.” It’s about standing tall in the face of fear and believing you are someone great and unique.
What do you find is the biggest benefit about writing for the stage versus other writing? What is your biggest challenge?
NII: I love the focus on actual interaction between people. I am profoundly bad at the whole “people” thing. I’m much better with dogs! Writing plays allows me to have conversations – to share with others and, in a way, to converse and relate. It’s a tremendous blessing.
My biggest challenge, apart from thinking up interesting stories, is finding interesting ways to use the stage, props, light, time. Some writers are brilliant at creating amazing, imaginative, fully-realized worlds. They involve the whole theatrical creative team, and I am crazy envious of their skill. I’d love to learn how to do that better.
What piece of conventional wisdom about playwriting have you found to be the least helpful?
NII: The least helpful stuff always comes from my own self-doubt.
How do you you combat or confront that doubt?
NII: I combat self doubt in writing in much the same way I approach dog training. Many of the dogs I work with are dealing with doubt, fear, and a lack of surety about how they should face the world. I focus on helping them take small steps, every chance they can, to prove to themselves that they are capable of doing hard things. And to help them become more aware of the choices they have and the ability they have to thrive and succeed. Helping them see that they can do new things – things that might have seemed scary at first – over and over again, I’ve witnessed critters who once felt small become mighty. It’s the best job in the world.In my writing life that means I write. Even when I don’t think I have anything ingenious to say. I write and try to remain truthful to the story emerging in my head. I am blessed to have the relationship I have with Plan-B Theatre Company, which is so incredibly supportive and nurturing of local writers. Plan-B has given me opportunities and motivation, always nudging me to deliver the best I can. I am blessed in that regard, and so grateful.
What is next for you?
NII: A play with music called Kingdom of Heaven, which will premiere in Plan-B Theatre Company’s upcoming season. The music is by the amazing David Evanoff. It’s a story about faith, gender, and drag!
Plan-B Theatre Company’s RUFF! premiers August 6-8, 2015 as part of the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival at the Sprague Branch of the City Library (2131 S. Highland Drive (downstairs) at 12 and 1:30 pm. Admission is free. This production is partnered with Intermountain Therapy Dogs in order to provide positive child-canine interactions. Therapy dogs will be present at each performance. The third annual Free Elementary School Tour runs August 31-October 9 with stops in Weber, Davis, Utah, and Juab counties. For more information on performances and bookings, visit planbtheatre.org/ruff.
Megan Crivello is a graduate of the University of Utah where she earned a BFA in Lighting and Costume design. Over the last sixteen years, Megan has worked behind the scenes for Pioneer Theatre Company, Utah Musical Theatre, Salt Lake Shakespeare, Wasatch Theatre Company, Ballet West, Utah Opera, Meat & Potato Theatre Company, and YouTheatre at the Egyptian Theatre Park City. She is also a playwright with pieces produced by several Salt Lake companies and was a participant in the 2008-2010 Plan-B/ Meat& Potato Playwright’s Lab. She received a Masters degree in Education from Weber State University and currently teaches theatre in Davis District.