Writing "Ruff," a children's play about a pair of shelter dogs, gave Jenifer Nii a chance to anthropomorphize her beloved dogs, the same impulse she works to avoid in her day job.
As a dog trainer, Nii frequently reminds her clients that dogs aren't people. In particular, she says, "they are not our babies."
But when she was commissioned to write "Ruff" for Plan-B Theatre Company's third Free Elementary School Tour, she took the chance to draw upon what she had learned from watching her own pack.
Nii owns seven dogs, plus she's caring for an additional foster dog. All of her dogs have varying degrees of anger management issues, while some are also quite old and grumpy, she says. A few of them have additional behavioral issues, all of which made them not particularly good prospects for adoption. "These are dogs who, bless their hearts, they've done what they've had to do to get by," she says.
"Ruff," tells the story of Axel (Tyson Baker), a tough dog and shelter regular, and Buddy (Latoya Rhodes), a soft and scared dog who's a shelter newbie.
Together, the pair learn how to survive in the shelter, where dogs experience a kind of secondary trauma, from "being confined in this hyper-sensory environment where everything is very loud and very stinky and very crowded," Nii says. "Every noise seems amplified, the food is strange, and you have bunkmates you don't choose."
And in creating Axel and Buddy, Nii drew parallels to the kind of experiences young children might face as they venture away from their own families. A few of the questions Nii wove through the experiences of her canine characters: What is the appropriate response to people who are behaving in ways that are unfamiliar? How do I determine if this person is safe? And what do I do if someone doesn't look like the people that I like or the people who I am familiar with?
"Ruff" will premiere with free shows Aug. 6-8 at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival at the Sprague branch of the City Library (2131 S. Highland Dr., Salt Lake City). In the fall, the show will be performed for an estimated 10,000 elementary students from Weber to Juab counties.
The school tour is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Salt Lake Arts Council, which allows Plan-B to make live performances available to kids without a price barrier, says Jerry Rapier, producing director of Plan-B Theatre Company, who commissioned "Ruff."
In learning to write a play for children, Nii aimed for simplicity. "My hope was if I just wrote the story as clearly as I could, that if I kept the writing tight, then that would translate to clarity without condescension," she says.
For the actors, this show serves as a reunion, after working together in the company's last children's show, "Different = Amazing," by Matthew Ivan Bennet. Both say performing for children offers an immediacy that isn't always available in theater aimed at adult audiences.
"Having two human beings portraying dogs will, I hope, allow other people to see themselves as those dogs, as well," Rhodes says.
Many plays for children employ the use of animal characters, but what's different about "Ruff" is the magical way Nii invites audiences to view the world through dogs' eyes, says Rapier, who is directing the play.
The production aims to pull audiences into the story. Before the show, children will learn a dog-training technique that later they will be asked to help teach to one of the dogs.
In addition, every performance will feature an appearance by a therapy dog, specially trained to be calm and gentle with those who might be frightened by a dog.
Baker, who calls himself a life-long dog lover, appreciates the way the story reminds listeners to accept the people — and dogs — around you who might be different.
And for Nii, "Ruff" offered a chance to honor Cora, her first rescue dog, and the dog that changed her life.
Five or six years ago, after training as a concert pianist and working as a journalist, Nii felt stalled while working in corporate America. It was the kind of job, she says, where she sat in a cubicle writing emails recapping meetings, which always included the phrase: "As per our discussion." "That was my life, and I was becoming really embittered by it," she says.
One weekend, as an animal rescue volunteer, she was assigned to walk was Cora, who was on the list to be euthanzed if she wasn't adopted.
Nii couldn't allow that to happen, so she took the pitbull home to join her two dachshunds. "I was a small dog kind of person," she says, "and then suddenly I had a pitbull who was afraid of everything."
Learning how to work with that dog led Nii to leave the cubicle farms of corporate life behind. After apprenticing at Western States K-9 college, now she works for the company as a professional dog trainer.
She hopes "Ruff" might help kids understand that what they see on the outside of a person, or a dog, might not be the full story. "My hope is also that when they decide to get a dog they will go to their local shelter and find one there.
"They have certainly changed my life for the good," the playwright says. "That I have found a way to be helpful I owe entirely to Cora."