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An interview with Playwright Eleanor Burgess and Director Kimberly Senior

IN ELEANOR BURGESS’ THE NICETIES, JANINE, A PROFESSOR OF GLOBAL REVOLUTIONS, MEETS TO DISCUSS A TERM PAPER WITH ZOE, A STUDENT WHO WANTS TO START A REVOLUTION HERE AND NOW. THROUGH THEIR CONVERSATION, BURGESS CREATES AN ELECTRIFYING DEBATE BETWEEN THE TWO WOMEN. PRIOR TO WHEN REHEARSALS BEGAN, BURGESS AND THE NICETIES DIRECTOR KIMBERLY SENIOR SPOKE ABOUT WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE IN THE AUDIENCE FOR THE PLAY AND WHAT CONVERSATIONS THEY HOPE IT SPARKS.

What does it feel like to be in the audience of this play?
Kimberly Senior: The exciting thing to experience with this play is that, when you watch these two women have a conversation, they are both right and they are both wrong. You're in a gladiatorial arena where the upper hand changes moment to moment.

Eleanor Burgess: Boston is my hometown, and this is a very Boston play. All plays are about being in a room with other people in an audience — but this play especially is about having a conversation that is both right now and very challenging. Hearing other people react to it is part of the experience, and it starts aconversation that lasts long after you’ve seen the play. There’s no point in this play that isn’t, "let’s all use this as a jumping off point to go further and talk," and I am looking forward to having a conversation with Boston about these issues.

Eleanor, what does it mean to see this play produced at theHuntington?
EB: The first time I came to a play at the Huntington, I was 14. The Huntington is where I went to most of the plays that I saw until I was 20. The Huntington has shaped my understanding of what theatre is, and has meant so much to me long before I knew I wanted to write plays. On top of that, the Huntington is also the place that gave me my first "yes" as a professional playwright. Becoming a Huntington Playwriting Fellow was the first time that a real theatre said, “yeah we like what you’re doing,”and that fellowship was the kickstarter that made me pursue theatre more seriously.

Can you talk about the play’s setting in 2016? What interested you about that moment?
EB: It is set during the primaries of the Republican and Democratic parties. It’s partly set there because that was when I wrote the first draft — but also ever since the election, I’ve wondered about updating it, and that would be wrong. One thing I like about the timing of the play is that the characters on stage don’t know what’s coming in this country, and we in the audience know very well. We know the stakes of liberals not agreeing with each other and not being enthusiastic about the same things. We know the consequences of a white woman failing to win over people who aren’t white and the consequences of a woman in her 60s failing to win over a millennial. We also know more than they do about how far Americans are willing to go to defend their beliefs about America and their understanding of race in America. There is a dramatic irony present in the play; we have a fear of where the conversation is going that neither of them knows or sees. We also know how much they’re going to lose and how dangerous the world is going to get for both of them.

KS: And there are some really good groaner jokes.

EB: Yes, there’s a joke about Jeb Bush that gets a good laugh.

What questions do you hope audiences will ask themselves after seeing it?
EB: What is the story of America? What has happened in this country? What is this country supposed to be? What has it never been? Both of these women in the play want to change the world and would call themselves good liberals: Janine would call herself an excellent liberal, and Zoe would say “ugh, liberalism, I’m further left than that.”

KS: She’s post-liberalism.

EB: But they’re both on the left wing of American politics and can’t agree. That divide is something that — both in this country and very specifically in the city of Boston — is highly relevant right now.

KS: The questions of the play start on a college campus: who should be teaching what to whom? How is American culture being taught to students? How is that content being determined?

EB: Can we ever know something for certain? How do we know?

KS: Then the questions get bigger: how is history written?

EB: How do you prove that you experienced something? How do you prove that something happened in this country? Can you ever prove it? Does feeling something make it true?

KS: The play takes these questions and explores them throughan explosive and dynamic conversation.

EB: We hope the play will shake people’s beliefs.

KS: And that’s what we’re supposed to do in the theatre.

EB: Yes, that’s what theatre should do.


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