Smartphone Version of The Niceties article From Backstory Issue 37

Eleanor Burgess’ latest play delves into the depths of our divisive culture

By David Somerset

They might look like sedate bastions of learning, but academic campuses have always been a hotbed of debate, discussion, disagreement and demonstration. And in today’s divided world, the gulfs are yawning ever wider. Professors are described as out of touch with current thinking. Students are labeled as sensitive “snowflakes,” obsessed with trigger warnings about topics that might cause them emotional distress. It’s into that already provocative world that playwright Eleanor Burgess pours gasoline and throws a match, even if the resulting explosions are in discourse. Burgess’ The Niceties, which is at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse until May 12, is set at an elite East Coast college, rich with tradition and boasting the teachings of history professor Janine Bosko (Lisa Banes). It’s into her office that African-American student Zoe Reed (Jordan Boatman) arrives, seeking a critique on her thesis and hoping to learn what edits are necessary to elevate her grade and meet the requirements for her scholarship. Janine, it’s fair to say, has made one or two notes on Zoe’s basic argument—that a successful American revolution was only possible because of slavery. The instructor has years of experience under her belt, is a published author and figures she has a firmer grasp on the subject. For her part, Zoe is fired up and progressive, attending protests and, for all of her professor’s feminist, left-wing beliefs, isn’t satisfied with Janine’s view of history, race or how best to make changes at the university should they choose to. While the two would seem at first to be natural allies, the stage is set for this generation gap to broaden as issues of privilege and race bubble up, leading to Zoe recording pertinent chunks of the increasingly heated conversation and considering posting it online, which would significantly change the lives of both parties.

For Burgess, the spark for these verbal fireworks first ignited in the wake of a scandal at her alma mater Yale in the fall of 2015. An email from the administration advising about problematic Halloween costumes led to a counter-message from a professor, student rallies and much hand-wringing and division about the right way to handle such issues. But while none of that appears in the play, it surely kicked off stirrings in Burgess as friends discussed it. “What I was fascinated by was how unsuccessful those conversations among my friends were because of how quickly people became defensive,” she recalls. “When you try and describe something that’s incredibly emotionally important to you to another person, it’s very hard to debate it. It’s very hard to be calm, to be patient. But as a result, the conversations when people are coming from really different places and don’t understand each other can often go very, very badly because both people are getting more agitated. People love their colleges, love the experience they had when they were young and, when you’re talking about history, love their country. And so when you’re trying to say, ‘I don’t see it the way you do, I didn’t experience it the way you did, I feel differently,’ people get very emotional and have a lot of trouble with the reality of the fact that there’s two ways to see the same thing.” With the constraints of difficult discussions swimming in her head, Burgess went on a reading spree about Yale’s issues and beyond. Yet it was a combination of those thoughts and her personal background in education––she was a high school history teacher before quitting to complete an MFA in dramatic writing at New York University to kickstart her playwriting career––that finally got the ball rolling.

Eschewing a more traditional outlining process for The Niceties—an apt title for a work that refuses to tiptoe around discussions of race, politics and privilege—Burgess opted for her own take on a two-character play, which she had targeted as both something she wanted to write next and the ideal format for the story to follow. “I was arguing with myself about my own experiences in college and with this country. And those arguments sort of were suddenly coalescing into two characters who were talking to each other,” she says. “I sat down in a coffee shop with a notebook and started to let them talk. The first act I wrote pretty quickly, probably in a month or so. And it was in this notebook, these two voices responding to each other.” She chose a particularly pertinent time to start writing, though when the ideas solidified was more of a happy accident. “I wrote it in the spring of 2016. We had our first production in the summer of 2017, and the question was, Should this be updated, or should it be made vaguer? And I actually decided to double down. So, things such as the references to the last year of Obama’s presidency and the Republican nominee—I added those. Part of that was because I’ve seen a lot of artists taking work made before the election and rewriting it to make it about Trump. And I’m often dissatisfied artistically with the results. Because I think if you weren’t talking about Trump when you wrote a first draft, it’s not about Trump usually. What’s hilarious is that being set in the spring of 2016 means it’s a period piece.”

Happier times it may not have been, but there are plenty of people who long to go back there. Burgess finished act two in the fall of 2018, and while act one is akin to bottling the spirit of the past, act two confronts ongoing issues in the world. “Act two is what we have actually barely begun to deal with. We see it right now in the Democratic primary. These questions of, How do you make change? Can you work with people you disagree with? Can you forgive people who hurt you? What kind of country do we want to be living in, and how radical are we willing to get to fix some of those things? I think we haven’t begun to really deal with the issues. And also questions about what do we do with the fact that we’re such a bitterly divided country and we’re all going to be in the same country together hopefully in 5 or 10 years.”

As she got the play up on its feet with Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, Burgess credits director Kimberly Senior with helping to guide the visual look of the show, including spearheading a production design featuring a triangle-shape stage that brings the audience closer to the actors as they argue. And while a lot of detail about Janine’s office comes straight from Burgess’ script and brain––she purposefully curated the posters and books, for instance––it was Senior who drove the art direction of the work, such as when Janine and Zoe find their power dynamics shifting at a crucial part of the narrative and each sit at the teacher’s desk at different points. “That’s where, especially in theater, collaboration is so central because I knew exactly what these women had to say to each other. But how that becomes a visual story the audience will enjoy watching was something I had very few answers about. In general, everything about how they move—there’s actually almost nothing in the play about it. I think the ideal situation in theater is to just have a really trusting, wonderful relationship with your production team so they can come up with what’s right for that cast and what’s right for that set and stage—and not trying to manage it too much from the page. It lets me off the hook, for I’m not a hyper-visual or kinesthetic thinker, I’m a much more verbal thinker!”

Part of Burgess’ process is refining on the script as she watches it performed for an audience, nestled in the back row of a theater, with a notebook. It took five performances in different locales before she locked the script of The Niceties to her satisfaction. “I was really very lucky with this play. This is very unusual,” she says. “We went into our first full production with this play when it was basically a year old—that’s very fast. It’s been in production a lot since then. For a play that’s basically two and a half years old, it’s on its sixth production, and I’ve basically only revised in production.” At every viewing, her attention focuses on each line and turn in the play. “I’ll look and see that a joke’s still not landing or this is where we lose Janine or Zoe or this is where they lose the audience. There’s just been innumerable examples, because with this play the key is balance, keeping the audience feeling for both women, both empathizing with and also being a little on guard. And that’s been a ton of tweaking.” Feedback of a more direct kind has been key to the show’s evolution—Burgess hearing from those of a variety of ethnicities who have seen it at theaters in different cities. “I’ve had some really interesting talkbacks where an audience member was saying they’d be really interested to see a conversation between, say, an older black professor and a young black student. I said, ‘That sounds like an amazing play. I would love to watch that play. I didn’t write it.’ Zoe and Janine were always who they were, and even details including their socioeconomic background—their more particular origins—were pretty clear from the get-go, I think just because those were the perspectives I was really immersed in when I started writing.”

Along the way, there have been scenes and lines cut, occasionally favorites of both the writer and director. Even some ideas Burgess initially wanted to infuse within the work were ultimately deemed unnecessary, and some, sadly, were lost to time as her focus has shifted beyond this particular piece. But she does recall the thorniest part of the play to get right. “The thing I struggled with for a really long time is that the beginning and end of act two have been the same for ages, but the middle has changed so many times. Because what’s most dramatically exciting is it’s different from act one—it’s got a different emotional mood. And what’s most interesting is if the two characters genuinely come in thinking about working together. Act one is a fight that neither one of them was expecting to have, and so they’re not on their best behavior. In act two, they come back in having learned a lot.” There have also been lessons for the playwright herself, as she admits while it was scary to confront some of these issues, it was freeing. “[and there was a power in] being incredibly honest. Audiences really respond to it, because that’s the thing we can’t do in our daily life.”

The play’s ending––which we won’t spoil here––paves the way for further discussion as audiences exit. And that’s just how Burgess intended it. “That has actually always been the ending. Those final lines, the last 5 or 10 lines were always the last lines from the very first draft,” she says. “Sometimes audiences ask, ‘What’s the answer? Can’t they get along?’ If I had the answer, I’d give it. But I don’t because from where they’re both standing and from who they both are, the other one looks like a dangerous person, and so this is the only way the conversation can end.” And in the end, Burgess is happy with the final result. “It was what I wanted to say. It’s the experience I want it to be. It gets into the things I wanted to get into. It has at least a line or a moment addressing a lot of the points where people want to bring something up—things like class or other races in America—and say, ‘Oh, but the play doesn’t get into that,’ I can respond, ‘Well it sort of does. The play knows it doesn’t get into that.’ ” With the success of The Niceties, some have asked her to keep producing work on the subject. “What’s weird and what’s hilarious is of course when you’re writing, after you write something everyone kind of wants you to write that again. The say, ‘Oh, now bring us your next topical play about academia.’ But I’m done. I actually have found in my own personal life I now have trouble participating in conversations about these issues!”

And pivot she did. Burgess recently accepted an offer to work on HBO’s new televisual take on Perry Mason (with Matthew Rhys as the iconic legal eagle), which will shoot this year. The limited series spins the clock through Los Angeles history to find the counselor as a young private eye working on thorny cases. “The opportunity to delve into the underbelly of 1930s Los Angeles was just very cool to me,” she says. “That’s the kind of story I respond to and love. I think a lot of playwrights are exploring film and television because it’s a way to tell stories. I mean, it’s a way to make money and get health insurance, which are exciting things, but it’s also a way to tell certain stories you can’t tell onstage. It’s my first time working in TV. Ever since I got out of NYU, I’ve been busy with work on plays. That’s been wonderful and a privilege, but it’s fun to get to do something different.”

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