Playwright: 'Natives' serious comedy | ®

Playwright: 'Natives' serious comedy ®

Published: 02.15.2008
Playwright: 'Natives' serious comedy
By Sherilyn Forrester


New York playwright Janet Neipris has three grown daughters.

So does Vi, the central character of her play "Natives," which the Invisible Theatre opens next week. In the play, Vi's three crisis-plagued daughters return home unceremoniously, expecting Vi to change her plans to sublet her apartment and spend a summer in France because of their needs to be back in their mother's nest.

Hmmm. Might this play be a bit autobiographical, we asked Neipris in a recent phone conversation?
"No, not really," she says laughing. "It certainly contains emotional truth. And some of the characters are suggested by friends or folks I'm acquainted with. But my children made me swear they and their lives would not be represented in this play.

"What I did want to explore was how some parents can turn their backs on their children when they don't meet their expectations. I've never understood that, but as an educator I see it all the time. I've seen it with friends. That's not to say that along the way my daughters have not taken some unexpected turns that have turned my hair purple, but you learn to accept their choices. We have to let everyone write their own lives."

A native Bostonian, Neipris began her writing life as a short-story writer in college at Tufts, where she was a recipient of a scholarship from the Boston Women's Scholarship Association. Some years later, when she was doing volunteer work for the association, they asked her to write a show as part of their 100th anniversary celebration. Although she knew little about writing a play, she figured she should give it a try. Elliot Norton, the influential theater critic of the Boston Globe, was the speaker at the anniversary event and was impressed enough with Neipris' show that he offered to mentor her. She worked with him for a year but still couldn't quite see herself as a playwright.

"My life didn't look like Lillian Hellman's — who was really my only model. I just thought being a playwright was an unrealistic idea. And then a good friend, a poet, asked me if I could do anything, what would I really like to do? Honestly, I had to say I wanted to write plays."

So she has, after studying with Israel Horowitz for two years at Brandeis University and earning a master's degree. She has had plays produced in major theaters across the country, including the Manhattan Theater Club, Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the Goodman Theater in Chicago, and Center Stage in Baltimore. She is also a composer and lyricist and the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships. She has often written serious and political plays, including "A Small Delegation," which was produced in Beijing in 1995. She returns to China in May to teach 100 screenwriters selected as the best in China.

Neipris calls "Natives" a "serious comedy" that "is beginning its life in Arizona." The piece was workshopped in Phoenix a few years ago at the New Works Festival and was then produced by the Arizona Jewish Theatre company in 2006. It has yet to be published, although it has been optioned as a film.

Neipris hasn't quite finished mothering the play, which is one of the reasons she spent a week in Tucson when the play first went into rehearsal.

"I wanted to be there for a number of reasons. First, I have come to admire Susan Claassen over the years because she has guts and is committed to producing new plays. Then, since this is a new play I wanted to make sure it was getting off on a good footing. I really want it to be published, and good reviews will help that. And I really just love the regional theaters. They are the ones with real courage and staying power. It's where the real energy is. And I want to support that."
So did she like what she saw?

"The folks at IT were wonderful. It was a little like falling in love. When I walked into the first rehearsal, I could tell immediately which actor was playing which character — each was the perfect embodiment. And I was on the floor — when they started the read-through they were so funny. And Susan has such humanity — she is so believable as Vi."

Neipris, who has also had a distinguished career as an educator, chairing the dramatic-writing department at NYU for 15 years and currently co-chairing the graduate studies program there, has written a book, "To Be a Playwright" (Theatre Arts Books, $17.95) that is used widely in colleges as a text for writing programs.

"Writing is such a process of discovery. It's a little like going through customs. You tell the guy, I have apples and oranges. And when he takes a look, he says, 'Yeah, but you also have pears and bananas.' Although the script was in very good shape, it's still evolving. Susan called just last week with some questions.

"I think the willingness to collaborate is the mark of being solid as a writer."

Neipris will be in Tucson for the preview and the opening night of "Natives." There will be a chance for audience members to ask questions or give feedback after the preview performance on Tuesday.
Will she be accompanied by her daughters?

"Oh, no. I deliberately did not invite them," she laughs.

• Presented by: The Invisible Theatre.
• Playwright: Janet Neipris.
• Director: Gail Fitzhugh.
• When: Preview is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; regular performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays through March 9.
• Where: The Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave.
• Tickets: $16-$25.
• Good deal: Available tickets are half price 30 minutes prior to show time.
• Information: 882-9721.
• Cast: Susan Claassen, Jillian Courtney, Alex Garday, Burney Starks, Natalie Sutherland, Dallas Thomas.
• Running time: 2 hours with one intermission.
• Et cetera: Playwright Janet Neipris will answer questions after the preview performance on Tuesday.
● Sherilyn Forrester is a Tucson based freelance writer.

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