By Collin Kelley
Janece Shaffer has Justin Bieber to thank for her latest play, The Geller Girls, which opens Jan. 15 at The Alliance Theatre. What does the pop heartthrob have to do with a play about two Atlanta girls coming of age at the opening of the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Piedmont Park?
“My daughter had to do a social studies project with a local theme and she wanted to write about Justin Bieber, since he lived and played here for awhile at the beginning of his career,” the multi-award winning playwright recalls. “I gave her some other ideas.”
Shaffer remembered reading about the Exposition, which was held in Piedmont Park for 100 days and visited by 800,000 people. The event is remembered for Booker T. Washington’s historic “Atlanta compromise” speech on race relations and the debut of an early movie projector, plus visitors from around the world flocking to the city.
The only vestiges of the giant Exposition left in the park are staircases, terraces and planters, but Shaffer saw a way to bring the event back to life while exploring the lives of two young women and their hopes and dreams on the verge of a new millennium.
As the play begins we find teenage sisters Louisa and Rosalee Geller preparing to go to opening day of the Exposition. Louisa can’t wait to see the sights and sounds of the exhibits from all the visiting countries, while Rosalee is completely uninterested, wanting only to open her own dress shop and viewing the Exposition as a distraction.
“The girls are changed by what they see in the park,” Shaffer says. “They see women speaking in public, suffragettes and independent women making their own way in the world. The play is not only about the Geller sisters coming of age, but Atlanta coming back from the Civil War. The Exposition said, ‘Atlanta is back on the map and we’re open for business – alive and thriving.”
Shaffer, a third generation Atlantan, spent four years working on The Geller Girls and says, “It was a glorious play to write. I immersed myself in the time period – looking at photos, reading accounts of the Exposition and a friend even brought me clothing from the era.”
The play also marks a departure for time and subject matter for Shaffer. Her award-winning plays like Broke, Managing Maxie and Brownie Points are all contemporary looks at modern life and relationships, making The Geller Girls her first “period piece.”
Shaffer is working closely with Alliance director Susan V. Booth on the play, and said she would be making changes right up until opening night. “You don’t know what you have until the actors are on the stage reading it,” she says. “I’ll make changes until they tell me to stop.”
Shaffer’s success as a playwright came a little later than expected. She got her degree in public relations at the University of Georgia, and actually worked in the PR department of the Alliance Theatre at one point. Lauded director/producer Kenny Leon was so impressed by her first play, He Looks Good In A Hat, that he directed it on the Alliance stage. That was nearly 20 years ago, and Shaffer’s career has continued to flower.
“I’m so lucky to be a writer in Atlanta,” Shaffer says. “The arts community is eager to support you, and I’ve had the pleasure to work with Kenny, Lisa Adler at Horizon Theatre and Tom Key at Theatrical Outfit. Everyone is so supportive and wants you to do well. All boats rise.”
While Shaffer is still focused on The Geller Girls, she’s also finished the first draft of a new play set in the world of country music. She’s already made trips to Nashville for research, visiting the Grand Ole’ Opry and seeing Loretta Lynn in concert.
The other excitement is that Shaffer’s husband Bill Nigut, former political reporter for WSB-TV and southern director of the Anti-Defamation League, is returning this month with a new program on GPB called On The Story. Nigut is acting as senior executive producer for the show, which Shaffer describes as “part magazine, part politics and stories you won’t hear anywhere else from around Georgia.”
And what about Shaffer’s daughter’s report on Justin Bieber for her school report? Emma found a journal from a girl who lived 100 years ago in Atlanta and compared it with her own journal from today. Sounds like there might be another writer in the Shaffer-Nigut family.
The Geller Girls runs Jan. 15 through Feb. 9 at The Alliance Theatre. For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.