On March 27, Jeffrey Stanley, from 11th and Emily streets, workshopped his play “UFOs Over Brooklyn,” which has been in development since 2001.
“The intention is a little more of a showcase, for who in Philly might be interested in producing it,” Stanley said.
Stanley is a resident at Plays and Players Theater, along with Jeremy Gable and Brian Grace-Duff, until September. As such, the writer has access to stages and actors, as well as exposure within the local community.
“Promotion is also part of their agenda. They are not necessarily going to produce all plays residents write,” Stanley said. “It’s an introduction to other professionals in the Philly theater world, so there is a publicity component involved when they showcase us and Plays and Players gets to showcase itself.”
A New York transplant Stanley has spent the past year diving head first into the local community. His debut was a one-man show he wrote and starred in for last year’s Fringe Festival, entitled “Beautiful Zion: A Book of the Dead.”
“Why I did the Fringe was to announce my presence. It worked.
Well, it made them more aware. The decision makers … put me on the radar. They all came and saw,” the 44-year-old said. “It’s a dark comedy and autobiographical. A close relative of mine died of acute alcoholism, drank himself to death, and it’s about my year spent dealing with that.”
The show, which Stanley performed in a basement in West Philly, involved monologue pieces, as well as audience participation. Stanley asked for viewers to help him reach out to his dead relative through the use of a Ouija board, the result of which is the show’s grand finale.
“It culminates with starting them in another room, trying to make contact with the spirit world on my behalf,” he said of the show he kept to a small audience. “I wanted to test the waters with it splitting in two: What’s going to happen with introducing an element of randomness and chaos into the show? Can I have that and still bring the show in for a landing?”
Stanley was able to navigate the waters and the show, he said, was a success — so much so that Stanley is workshopping it during his residency for a return.
“Back in January, the Live Arts had a monthly show called Scratch Night, for works-in-progress, and I went to perform it there, just 10 minutes of it,” Stanley said, adding that the show only requires him and a suitcase of props. “I was seeing if I could translate it to a traditional theater, while remaining intimate and low-tech.
“I came away with mixed feelings. Usually it’s small enough I can take [props] out and hand them to people. I think I like it smaller, in creepy, old basements.”
Stanley came to Philly after splitting time between here and New York City for some time over the past handful of years.
“My wife got a job in Philly and at first, we were back-and-forth commuting for close to two years,” the Roanoke, Va., native said. “Once I started coming more and more, I really loved Philly and I realized there was a thriving arts community and plenty to get involved in.”
Stanley had made his way to the Big Apple 20 years prior, as an undergraduate at New York University’s film program. He went on to matriculate in the university’s master’s program for dramatic writing.
“I had grown up in high school involved in the community, involved in theater,” he said. “I was extremely interested in film and I wanted to do it in a serious way, so I was torn between theater and film. New York fit the bill for me cause I could do both.”
Immersed in New York’s culture, the film-production major eventually tipped more into the live performance genre and wanted to stir things up.
“In 1999, I was just coming out. I had a screenplay, ‘Tesla’s Letters.’ It was a controversial political drama about ethnic rivalry in the Balkans … and play agents at the time thought it was way too political,” he said. “I started sending it to theaters on my own; Curt Dempster wound up directing it himself.
“It was a happy coincidence for me that it happened at all. It got rave reviews in The [New York] Times. And it keeps becoming relevant history and somebody does it again.”
Stanley has been adjunct faculty at NYU since ’98, teaching screenwriting. As he transitions to Philadelphia he has started teaching film and writing courses at Drexel University and working on new works with local ties.
“It’s connected to ‘Zion’ and my working title is ‘Grave Digger’s Bawl.’ It’s got visual aide like the first show, but this is not a history of Laurel Hill,” Stanley, who is working on a work based on research at Laurel Hill Cemetery, said. “Me performing is still a relatively new concept for me, being on stage. It’s a history of mourning rituals. It’s about staring death in the face and talking about it and demystifying it.”
Performing is just another way that Stanley has been able to step outside his box and continue to grow as an artist.
“I’m not sure I’ve caught the bug; I like pushing myself. I like doing things to push my comfort level,” Stanley said. “I came to NYU for film and then in the graduate program I got pigeonholed.
“In my first year I wrote a feature-length script that won an award and was mentioned in Variety, so I was known as a screenwriter in the department. So I did my MFA in playwriting instead of screenwriting. … I chose to do what I’m less comfortable doing.”
Stanley has continued to develop as a playwright, while harboring a soft spot for film. Having written many scripts in the past for other directors, Stanley intends to take things to the next level in his new hometown.
“I would love to have a production of a full-length play here in Philly — a world premiere here in Philly,” he said. “And right after that, shoot a movie. I want to make a movie within the year. I want to direct and write.”
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