Jenifer Nii’s plays WALLACE (co-written with Debora Threedy), THE SCARLET LETTER and SUFFRAGE have premiered at Plan-B, the latter two garnering back-to-back nominations for the American Theatre Critics Association/Steinberg Award for Best New American Play Produced Outside New York. She spent a decade as a newspaper reporter after her university aspirations to be a concert pianist were thwarted by a pinky finger that snapped three times during a single Schumann sonata. She now trains dogs and writes plays, proudly calling Plan-B her creative home.

When Jerry Rapier commissioned me as one of the five playwrights to create work for Plan-B’s Free Elementary School Tour, I wondered what kind of nuttiness had possessed him. I am childless, terrified of children, and I believe equally terrifying to them. I’m the dog lady! What story could I possibly tell that would be of interest to tiny humans? “Dogs, silly,” said Jerry. “You’re a playwright who’s obsessed with dogs. So write. Tell a story. Say it with dogs.”

It turns out that writing plays and training dogs are similar processes. They both require discipline, openness, patience and perseverance. They both require me to face fear, do my homework, step out into the unknown, and believe. Training dogs requires creativity, to be able to look at a situation and see possibility, and then make the possibility a reality. In so many ways that’s exactly what writing is for me: overcoming doubt, allowing myself the freedom to act on an idea, and then willing myself to keep trying.

I have seen firsthand the special connection between animals and children. I see it again and again, almost daily, between real dogs and real children—dogs that help frightened children forget fear, if only for a moment. Dogs who help sad children smile. Dogs who help sick children forget, again if only for a moment, pain and suffering. There is something magical about it.

For the kids who are afraid, shy or doubting whether they can be as strong as their current life circumstance seems to need them to be, I hope RUFF! will help them believe in themselves and in their own potential. I hope it asks them to look at other people differently as well, to look more deeply, love more freely, and act more kindly. And eventually, I hope some of them adopt dogs. Doing so changed my life.

I met Cora about five years ago while volunteering at a pet adoption event. A rather non-descript, brown pit bull mix, the event was her last chance—she was slated to be euthanized the following day. Millions of dogs are euthanized in this country each year, I know this. I’d only just met Cora and yet, when the event ended and no one wanted her, I couldn’t bear the thought of this dog being euthanized. So I adopted her.

Cora was a mess, petrified to the point of immobility of everything: doorways, walking on hardwood, lawn ornaments . . . it went on and on. Another trainer and I worked with her seven days a week for three years. Gradually the real Cora emerged. Today, she is an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen and an exemplary-if-still-quirky dog.

Cora opened up my world and made it better, deeper, and more meaningful. Life has never been clearer, and I attribute this to her. So in 2013, at the age of 41, I left a rather snooty office job to devote more time to playwriting and become a professional dog trainer.

RUFF! is a story about shelter life, told through the perspective of two canine kennelmates. One is a little like my Cora: new and scared but also stronger than she knows. The other is a bit like a lot of dogs (and people) I have known over the years, who put on a tough face to hide a soft, wounded heart. The story is about dogs, sure. But mostly it’s about getting past first impressions, facing fear, and claiming hope.

It’s what I would’ve liked someone to say to me when I was young. It’s what I learned from Cora.

Jenifer Nii’s RUFF! receives its world premiere as Plan-B’s third annual Free Elementary School Tour, which kicks off with free public performances August 6-9 at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival. Intermountain Therapy Animals will have therapy dogs available at all performances. Click here for more information and tickets.

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