Comedy That's Real

Janet Neipris' mother-daughter play 'Natives' opens at Invisible Theatre

Janet Neipris got a late start as a playwright--she was already raising three kids--and she worried that she'd be at a disadvantage.

"I didn't want to write comedies," she says. "I thought that as a woman, I'd be taken as a lightweight writer."

So she wrote serious plays, political plays, including one inspired by three months she'd spent teaching in China in 1988; authorities shut down a production in China after a single performance. (They've at least given the OK for another production this May.)

And yet, humor had often been an element in her work, so ultimately, she felt compelled to let it out in full force. "I decided that if I was going to write a comedy," she says, "I'd write the best one I could." It would have to be a play based on character, she says, not zingers. "Comedy has to be real," she says. "I don't like jokes."

The result was Natives, which Invisible Theatre will open next week. Neipris isn't exactly new to IT; the company presented two of her very early plays exactly 30 seasons ago.

Natives concerns a middle-aged divorcée (played by Susan Claassen) who has sublet her apartment in anticipation of a romantic summer abroad. But one by one, her three troubled grown daughters come home, intending to stay. What's a mother to do?

Natives was produced at the Arizona Jewish Theatre in Phoenix two years ago, but Neipris insists that the only Jewish thing about it is the first line: "I'm a mother, and I admit it--I'm guilty."

Neipris has three daughters of her own, all of whom have had, shall we say, adventurous lives, but the playwright insists that Natives is not autobiographical: "Nothing in it is true, but everything is real."

Early on, Neipris learned how to be a playwright and a parent simultaneously from her mentor, Israel Horovitz (whose My Old Lady IT produced in 2005). "He was dragging his kids around everywhere," Neipris recalls. "I was afraid I was getting in too late, but he was the model for me; he showed me that you can have a family, you can teach, and you can be creative in your profession all your life."

Horovitz, whom Neipris calls "a master of situation," also warned her not to set a play in a kitchen. "He called it 'kitchen-sink drama,'" she says. So Neipris has assiduously placed her plays in a museum, in a factory, in China, in South Africa--as far as possible from the family kitchen. But if any part of Natives takes place in the mother's apartment, Neipris may be getting dangerously close. After all, with this play, she's already failed in her determination to stay out of comedy.

"Yes, it's a comedy," she admits, "but it's serious in what I'm attempting to do. I'm very serious about my family, but where does a mother draw the line?" Neipris reveals that she once skipped the science fair at her daughter's school to go on a date to the opera. However disappointed the girl may have been, it turned out to be a good decision for Neipris: She later married the man who took her to the opera.

Music, it turns out, is no mere incidental interest. Neipris has written scores for plays (but never for her own), as well as two musicals (one of which was what got her into the writing program at Brandeis). "I love to write music more than words," she says. "Words are cerebral; music is a direct hit to the heart."

Neipris is as serious about her career as she is about her family. She worked hard, got her plays produced all around the country, taught playwriting in Europe, Asia and Africa, and eventually was asked to create and chair the graduate playwriting and screenwriting department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She's the author of a book called simply To Be a Playwright.

So what's her most essential advice to budding playwrights? "Shut up and stop complaining."

Spoken like a true mother.

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