February 21, 2001

 
Playwright Jeffrey Stanley awarded Copeland Fellowship, will spend semester at Amherst
Alex Kerr, Contributing Writer

In exchange for housing, access to academic resources and a chance to work in a stimulating environment with other accomplished scholars in a variety of fields, Copeland Fellow and playwright Jeffrey Stanley is giving the Amherst community UFOs and group suicides.

The Copeland Fellowship is designed to allow rising, young scholars an opportunity to work without financial or time hindrances.  "Fellowships last for a semester [and they're] generally givenin the spring semester," explained Professor of French Rosalina de la Carrera who is Stanley's on-campus supervisor.  "What's expected of [fellows] is that they interact with other fellows and with the College at large, and present some aspect of their work to the College community at some point in their fellowship."

Stanley, 33, is drafting his most recent play at the College, UFOs Over Brooklyn, a dark comedy loosely based on the cult activities related to the arrival of the Hale Bopp comet. The play was inspired by the story of the Heaven's Gate cult in California who, anticipating the accompaniment of a mother spaceship with the comet, engaged in unusual sexual practices followed by ritual, group suicide.

<>"It explores the intersection of sex and religion with a lot of humor added to it," he said.

<>Judging from the success of his other works, UFOs Over Brooklyn promises to be a hit. He has received critical acclaim, both domestically and abroad, for his play, Tesla’s Letters, which world premiered Off Broadway in 1999 and was published by Samuel French in 2000.  That play was inspired by a “disturbing, eye-opening” trip to the Balkans in 1997, according to Stanley. Set during the civil war between the Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia, Tesla’s Letters, revolves around a brash American graduate who struggles to understand the workings and savagery of people at war.

In an interview with Anna Wentworth for Roanoke.com [for the Virginia premiere of Tesla's Letters in January 2001], Stanley described Tesla’s Letters as having a grave message but hopefully also a call for positive change. “The play has a very strong, perhaps, even a dark message at the end, that peace is very unlikely; it’s very unlikely in our age. But if we’re going to survive as a species, we’ve got to rise above the savagery.  I would love people to come away from the play thinking that I’m wrong,” he said. “Let them challenge me. Let them say, ‘The writer is wrong. We’re not savages,’ and let them do a good deed on the way home. That would be wonderful.”

Stanley is also working on his screenplay, Brain on Fire, which focuses on the culture of teen violence in America. In fact, his interest in teen violence has led to audit the American Studies course “Violence in America” this semester with Professor of Sociology Jan Dizard.

“Because of his openness and his interest to study everything, he’s the perfect kind of person to have on this campus because he could be so accessible, and so far, that's proved to be the case,” said de la Carrera. “Not to mention his brilliance as a playwright.”

UFOs Over Brooklyn will be read sometime this spring in the Amherst College observatory. “When I learned that Amherst College has an observatory, I got really excited,” said Stanley. “It’s the perfect setting for my play.”

The observatory, which is presently undergoing renovations, will reopen this spring, and with any luck, the play’s reading will coincide with the reopening festivities.

Currently, Stanley is in the process of revising the play. “The play is complete in that it has a beginning, middle and end, but it still needs a lot of polishing,” Stanley said. “The purpose of the reading is for me to hear the play out loud. This helps me make some modifications and do some refining.” For the reading, he plans to cast Amherst students and use a student director.

So far, his experience at Amherst has been a positive one. “It’s been really cool being at Amherst College,” said Stanley. “I’ve spent a lot of time going to Amherst’s museums and exhibits, like the planetarium and the natural history museum. It’s fascinating and I really like the area. It’s been a little dream of mine to live here, and now I get to, at least for one semester.”

“He’s been going to just about everything he can go to on campus,” said de la Carrera.

When Stanley isn’t refining his witty dialogues or auditing Amherst courses, he can be found off-campus at New York University where he teaches dramatic writing at the Tisch School of the Arts.