Janece Shaffer sets ‘Geller Girls’ against 1895 Cotton States Expo

From a certain vantage point, that rascal pop-bop Justin Bieber can be credited for inspiring the Alliance Theatre’s production of “The Geller Girls,” a main-stage world premiere set during the Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895 in Piedmont Park.

As playwright Janece Shaffer tells the tale, her daughter Emma was in middle school several years ago and was assigned a social studies project that required a Georgia connection. Emma announced she wanted to do her project on young Bieber, who had lived in Atlanta for a stint just before hitting superstardom.

Shaffer’s reaction? Borderline mortification.

So Shaffer hit the Internet, determined to find a Georgia topic that would interest her daughter yet demonstrate “greater intellectual curiosity.” What she found was the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, which brought Atlanta to the world and 800,000 to Atlanta more than a century before the Olympics.

“Look at these hoochie-coochie girls!” Shaffer said, showing her daughter a picture of “scandalous” women who dared to smoke cigarettes and reveal their ankles in public. Emma wasn’t impressed, but her mother had found something that excited her enough to write her next play.

Shaffer sunk into research and decided the play’s time frame would parallel the 100-day Expo. She made the Geller family Jewish “because I never thought about them not being Jewish,” says Shaffer, chowing on French fries and matzo ball soup at Goldberg’s deli in Midtown.

“When I’m writing a play, I am in that world and the characters’ voices are always with me,” said the Atlanta native who is married to Bill Nigut, a former TV reporter who will soon launch “On the Story,” a news feature show for Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Directed by Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth, “The Geller Girls” begins a month of performances Jan. 15. The play marks Shaffer’s fifth premiere at the Alliance.

While Booth remains a fan of Shaffer’s earlier plays from “Bluish” (a romantic comedy dashed with religious conflict) to “Broke” (family loses everything in the Great Recession), she notes “a growth in ambition in her writing from then to now that’s kind of staggering.”

Booth calls “The Geller Girls” a hybrid of history, romantic comedy and “psychological coming of age,” and added that it fits well on the Alliance’s main stage because of its scope. “It’s about very human pursuits — love, ambition, wonder — but it’s sitting on a seismic time and place,” she said.

The “Geller Girls” are sisters Rosalee, 23, and Louisa, 17; in the Alliance premiere, they’re played by Courtney Patterson and Ann Marie Gideon. Until 1895, the sisters’ world has been fairly small and predictable. Rosalee works in her father’s textiles store and yearns for her own dress shop. Louisa awaits the official proposal from a boy who has promised it since childhood. The Cotton States Expo, which boasted 6,000 exhibits and celebrities from Buffalo Bill to John Philip Sousa, opens the door to a great big world beyond the sisters’ front stoop.

“This play is about family and change and our mother’s dreams for us and what our dreams are for our own daughters,” Shaffer said. “And it’s about what happens when your world explodes with possibilities. There’s a real moment that I think is pretty universal when you realize you’re not going to be what your parents had hoped for you, that what you want for yourself is different from that. The question is: Do you have the wherewithal to want something different and to fight for it?”

Booth calls Shaffer a “brilliantly funny human” and said her writing is “exactly tuned to this city’s DNA.” Forced to compare Shaffer to other contemporary playwrights, “I’d go with Wendy Wasserstein (“The Heidi Chronicles”),” said Booth. Wendy’s writing always came from a place of hope, optimism and vulnerability. It happened to manifest in a form that was often comedic, but it was just as likely to make you cry as it was to make you laugh. Janece’s work has that same mercurial capacity.”

Shaffer is just as smitten with Booth. “Oh my God, on the first day of rehearsal, to be sitting next to Susan Booth, who is the smartest woman I know and so insightful and so generous, and she is talking about why she has picked this play and you are just thinking ‘thank you thank you thank you thank you…’

“And then they are all talking about what the sets are going to look like, and how they are going to create the Expo with all these little lights, and the Ferris wheel will really turn, and here are the 30 costumes that we’re building and these are the ones we’re sending off to Pittsburgh because there’s a woman there who does period costumes with these amazing fabrics …”

It is, Shaffer said, “a fantasy come true for me, because you sit on the sofa next to your daughter and you daydream — and all of the sudden there are more than 100 people at the Alliance Theatre trying to make it real.”

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