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Pick a Side. Then Change Your Mind.

How Eleanor Burgess finds balance in “The Niceties"

“The Niceties” playwright Eleanor Burgess.

Because neither had the pleasure of being the production dramaturg on The Niceties, Associate Artistic Director Amy Levinson and Manager of New Play Development Rachel Wiegardt-Egel both jumped at the chance to sit down with playwright Eleanor Burgess.

Amy Levinson: What inspired you to write the play?

Eleanor Burgess: This play grew out of an incident that happened at Yale in 2015. Some administrators sent an email to students prior to Halloween advising them that wearing fellow students’ identities as costumes is insensitive and often inappropriate. Then a lecturer in the psychology department sent an email to students stating that the email from the administration was, in fact, inappropriate. Her argument was that the whole point of college is that you should be figuring out for yourself the right way to interact with people. She went on to say that Halloween has always been a time of transgressions and boundary-pushing and that students should be able to talk to each other if someone is hurt by what people are doing. Which is an interesting psychological concept, but also came across as “I don’t care if students wear blackface.” The initial disagreement about whether the school should have a policy on Halloween costumes exploded into a much larger conversation and disagreement about what kind of experience students of color were having at this elite school. Did the curriculum reflect their interests? Were their professors sensitive to their experience? Were they getting the same promise of “you will be nurtured here” that other students were getting?

I did my undergrad at Yale and all of my friends were talking about this and processing our own experiences, and I realized that any discussion we tried to have was a total failure. My friends, who are lovely people who want to do good in the world and are usually nuanced thinkers, resorted to over-simplifying and saying academic freedom is important and therefore these students are coddled and spoiled brats OR these concerns are real and academic freedom is a distraction and perpetuates white supremacy. Everyone picked one side or the other and couldn’t talk to each other. I was fascinated by the complete failure to have a conversation. I spent about a month and a half going down the internet rabbit hole — I just read all day about Yale and what was now going on at other colleges. I read the student demands, professors’ tweets and student responses. I was obsessed. Finally, I realized this was all about my own confusion. I used to be a high school history teacher and I studied history as an undergraduate. This fascination was based in my own issues with what I believe about this country and why I believe it, and how these beliefs impact other people. These opposing views within myself coalesced into these two characters. I went out and bought a composition notebook and started writing down each side of the argument.

AL: When you were teaching high school, did you find yourself struggling with the idea of history being told by the winners? Did your students take issue with that as well?

EB: I think this is something that people who love history have been grappling with for a long time. I especially noticed it teaching American history and it’s certainly true when you teach African-American history. But in teaching Native American history, it felt particularly dramatic because there are periods of history where we do not have any sources. It’s a moral problem because history is written by the victors. But it’s also an epistemological and pedagogical problem because your choices are to use the European sources describing how the Iroquois were living in 1600, to not have any primary sources and teach solely from the archaeology or to use novelizations or stories that members of that tribe have told since then but which are not from the time period. It keeps coming up. It comes up with African-American history, women’s history, and also in terms of class and status. You are almost always sharing the history of powerful, wealthy people — because they’re the ones who wrote things down and they’re often the ones who are talking about the things you have to teach. But it certainly shapes what your students are learning. I settled on making sure my students were aware of the perspectives in history. I’d say “If we had fifteen Harriet Jacobs writing about her time period rather than one, we’d have a clearer picture.” I certainly tried to work in more diverse sources where I could. But I’m sure it wasn’t enough. In terms of pushback from the kids, there wasn’t much at that time. I stopped teaching in 2012 and I’m sure it would be different now. And I would be teaching differently. I remember a couple of lessons on the atomic bomb that were a really interesting example of how something is written about within its time period. Historians writing in the period really just saw it as another weapon. Oppenheimer knew it was much more than that but everyone else agreed you just use the weapons that you have. You minimize your own casualties. As a historian, that’s how I tend to teach. I’ll say, “This is the conversation they had at the time, but in retrospect there are many more questions about the weapons — questions around race and whether they would have dropped this bomb on Europeans.” This was a distinct time I remember coming up against my own set of beliefs in the context of the sources we have, and my students were asking the same questions at that time. And you have to decide whether to push your students a little and say, “This is why I think what I think.” Or is your job to hear them and let them express how they are interpreting the “facts” that we have about this weapon? Teaching is full of incredibly uncomfortable choices, and hopefully teachers know they are in those weeds of “I don’t know if I should push you or support you.”

Rachel Wiegardt-Egel: You spoke about this a bit already but what are some of the reasons you decided to keep the play a two-hander?

EB: I never thought about there being anyone else. To me, the characters are real people with distinct personalities and circumstances, but the play is also metaphorical in that it’s white America and black America locked in a room together trying to agree about what America is. It was also really fun to write an all-female cast. This play is a story about America that happens to be told entirely by women, but it’s not about women’s history or women’s perspectives on America — it’s about America. I really had fun with that — with how much room that gave them both to express themselves. It’s fascinating, when you start to write a realistic scene with men and women in it, to notice the amount that the women talk. Also, Kimberly Senior [director of The Niceties] and I discussed that in order for this play to be a good experience, there has to be the potential for these two women to have a connection — and they do in fact have a connection. In some ways, this is a mother/daughter play, a mentor/mentee play. Because it’s just the two of them, they can be incredibly open with each other. They are saying things to each other that they aren’t saying to their friends or their significant others or families. There is something in the other person that they connect to, and it seemed bringing another person into the mix would break the alchemical connection between these two women.

AL: You just touched on the importance of the balance in the relationship between these two women and the same could be said about the balance of the arguments they are bringing forth. In your writing process, how did you figure out if you, in fact, achieved balance within the arguments?

EB: I’ve been lucky to have a long road with this play. And from West Virginia to Portland, Maine, to Boston, New York, New Jersey and now to Los Angeles, we’ve been able to have full productions in each place. That’s a luxury for a playwright because you are learning with the audience. You can see when one of the characters is losing the sympathy of the audience, or when they’ve gone too far, or if they haven’t made their case effectively enough. You are also getting to learn about the play from the actors. You are in a rehearsal room with actors, a director and a dramaturg — a whole team of people who force you to ask all the right questions about what is and what isn’t being said. This has been so central to the process of developing this play. I also always had to explore what one of the characters could say to make their own argument more convincing. Anytime I wrote a speech that I knew clinched an argument, I immediately needed to craft a response that was different but equally valid and real. Neither of the characters is simple or thoughtless and they have reasons to feel what they feel. In a lot of plays about race, there’s a tendency to make one of the characters the virtuous angel, and I think that’s really unfair. Making sure that both of them are flawed people who sometimes go too far was important to me as well.

RW: We’ve been talking a lot about balance, and I’m fascinated by the balance between the academic setting and the way it serves as a microcosm for a much larger conversation that’s happening nationally. How did you approach the micro and the macro of the piece?

EB: This is one of the places where working with Kimberly Senior has been such a gift — she always had her eye on the fact that this has to be an event, in a room, with two people. And there have to be stakes in a way that helps the actors ground the work. Kimberly being so attentive to that freed me up to discuss these huge ideas because she was always going to keep it real, intimate and personal. The challenge of the play that I hope we’ve successfully navigated is making it clear that the ideas are personal. The ideas do have stakes — this isn’t a debate play. The way that Janine thinks America works is central to her sense of self as an immigrant, as a female professor who has worked her way up in a time of great change, as someone who has staked her reputation on understanding how the world works. To be told your understanding of the Constitution is wrong is to be told that what your family believes is wrong. It’s completely personal. It’s the same way for Zoe. She is a talented person who should feel like she’s inheriting the world and it’s hers to run, but she literally doesn’t know where to put herself or what to like or who to trust. They’re talking about abstract things but those abstract things are directly tied to a pressure trigger that blows up something central about their life. In the world of academia — and it’s a world I’ve spent a lot of time in — people’s ideas are the core of who they are. They lead with their ideas and so if those ideas are suddenly invalidated, it is as though the person is being invalidated. Kimberly was wonderful about making sure the actors always connected the idea they were arguing to what the stakes of that argument really were. And the actors have realized it beautifully — they have become the professor and the student.

AL: How have responses differed among the different audiences?

EB: What I love about this play is that the audience is an active participant. The play feels different every night. I’ve had a chance to see it in numerous cities and the play feels different depending on who shows up and how they feel. I think that’s what theater is all about. It’s shaped by the exact day on which it’s being performed. We saw the play on the night of the midterm elections and during the Kavanaugh hearings — what’s going on in the world shapes it. I think that’s wonderful because there’s no right way to respond to the play. People can take away any number of reactions and they are all correct. It’s right to be angry, it’s right to be challenged, it’s right to be excited, it’s right to feel catharsis, it’s right to feel defensive, it’s right to feel thoughtful, determined… The play is a communal event where people will have different reactions and you learn from each other as you listen. I’m really excited for this play to be happening so close to UCLA and on the West Coast. The reactions are likely to be different, and that’s wonderful because the story belongs to everyone and everybody gets to have their own reactions. The play is designed to allow its meaning to change over time and I love that.

For tickets and showtimes, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/theniceties or call our Box Office at 310.208.5454 (open daily, 7:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.).

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