Plan B’s “tail” of two shelter dogs.
—by Jenifer Nii
A former journalist and concert pianist, playwright and dog trainer Jenifer Nii has premiered her plays Wallace (co-written with Debora Threedy), The Scarlet Letter and Suffrage at Plan-B Theatre Company. The latter two were nominated for the American Theatre Critics Association/Steinberg Award for Best New American Play Produced Outside New York. Her latest play, Ruff!, created specifically for grades K-3, is a metaphorical “tail” of two shelter dogs: Axel, a shelter regular and Buddy, a shelter novice. Together they discover what’s possible when dogs (and their people) learn to see past stereotypes and summon the courage to be the best they can be.
I’m one of those people comedienne Amy Schumer makes fun of in her sketch about rescue dogs. Each of my dogs (currently there are eight in my pack) has a “story” that makes them special—exceptional, really. And I am freakishly proud of each of them.
But actual human children? Not for me. So when Plan-B Theatre asked if I’d be interested in being part of its Free Elementary School Tour bringing live theatre to Utah school kids, a part of me balked. Of course I’d be honored to participate. But what could I possibly have to say to kids in grades K-3? I don’t have them, won’t, and am okay with that. I have my dogs.
By day, I’m a professional dog trainer. I’m also active in the dog rescue community, and serve as a foster “mom” when I can. I know dogs, and rescue dogs in particular. They’re my passion. It’s tremendously fulfilling, but it’s a world filled with harsh realities. For example:
Every year, millions of dogs are euthanized at animal shelters across the United States. They die because there are too many, because they are too old, too big, too rowdy, too shy, the wrong breed, the wrong color. In some places, they die within days of intake.
The lucky ones are typically smaller, younger, not black. They have no discernible health issues. They seem calm but not withdrawn, friendly but not frantic.
Even for the lucky ones, the life of rescue dog is rough. Something separated them from their home. They survived for some period of time on their own in the elements. And they made it through shelter life which, even under the best circumstances, can be overwhelming.
And this is where my playwright’s mind said there’s a play here for kids. Kids who are just embarking on life outside the home, away from their pack. Kids who will—if they have not already —encounter insecurity, disorientation, judgment and fear. Kids who may be asked for the first time to stand up for themselves in the face of harshness and prejudice; to find their unique beauty, strength and incomparable worth. Kids who are maybe for the first time meeting people who are different from them —who may seem scary but who, if given the chance, could become dear friends. Pack, even.
These are things I have learned from my own dogs, and from the dogs I’ve been fortunate to help train. They show me every day what can be done: experience, overcome, accept, appreciate and bond.
This is what I have to share with the kids. I hope they like RUFF!. I hope it maybe prompts them to say “hello” to a new classmate, to believe in their own specialness and, where appropriate, to visit their local shelter.
Plan-B Theatre’s world premiere of Jenifer Nii’s Ruff! plays six free public performances August 6-9 at the Sprague Library as part of the inaugural Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival before embarking on the Free Elementary School Tour in Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Utah and Juab Counties. Details at planbtheatre.org.