By Jennifer O’Reilly
When Peter Neofotis was a boy, he never dreamed of gracing the Great White Way he wanted to be the next Sherwood Anderson or Eudora Welty. But as John Lennon says, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans,” and recently Neofotis’ career path has taken a turn that’s led him straight to a future in performing.
Peter Neofotis’s one-man show, “Concord, VA,” revives the tradition of oral storytelling with an evening of short stories performed with an assortment of accents and physicalities to portray different characters. The play tells the tale of a group of individuals living in a small town in Virginia, tracing their history from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1970s, when modernity begins to encroach on their way of life. He began performing the show over a year ago at Dixon Place, and has since gained a following, allowing him to perform there on a regular basis.
Neofotis’s literary career began back at Columbia University where he had a double major in creative writing and environmental biology. During the time he was in college, he wrote what he calls a “thinly veiled memoir,” of which his professor cruelly remarked, “ ‘You may think your life is interesting, but no one else does.’ ”
After this first disappointment he abandoned writing altogether. But the death of someone close to him, a former high school teacher, spurred him to write a short story called, “The Abandoned Church,” which he set in a fictional Virginia town. Over the next few years, he used his knowledge of his Lexington, VA hometown to create a fictional world with a host of characters including “murderers, equestrians, army veterans, European refugees, slanderers, fools, sages, patricides, and the occasional law-abiding citizen.”
Neofotis originally tried to publish his volume of short stories the traditional way by submitting them to literary agents. His queries were repeatedly rejected. Finally, through the advice of a friend, he submitted his stories to the Cornelia Street Café in March 2006, where they were accepted into an evening called “Over the Transom,” in which unpublished writers have the chance to read their works. Neofotis prepared for the show by memorizing his story for maximum dramatic impact. The result was an evening that was more of a performance than a reading. Angelo Verga, the curator at the Cornelia Street Café, was so impressed with his work that he asked him to come back for more shows. Separately, Neofotis had booked a show at Dixon Place as part of their annual Hot! Festival.
“At this point I decided I needed some help,” Neofotis recalls. “Because it was basically me in front of a mirror every night. And I was talking to a friend of mine, and I said ‘I need help’ and he said, ‘Well, I know someone who’s involved in theater.’” That person was Richard Gottlieb, a director who helped him shape the readings into more of a play, with an emotional arc.
“It’s more like radio than a stage piece,” Gottlieb explains, adding that because the focus is the words, not everything has to be acted out literally. In one of the stories, which involves a flock of “invading vultures,” Neofotis used to flap his arms to represent them on stage. Gottlieb quickly set him straight. “You don’t have to spell everything out, and there’s a tendency to want to do that,” Gottlieb says. “So my main focus was keeping it minimal. I always tell him he has to trust the guy who wrote the stories, and that’s what makes it work.”
Though Neofotis never planned on being an actor, several years ago his ability to tap into his emotions earned him a small part with one speaking line in the 2003 film “Gods and Generals,” with Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall. “They were doing tryouts for a movie, and my friend said we should tryout. So I did my audition and I cried on cue, and I got the part,” Neofotis recalls. “They paid me a substantial amount of money to do it… and I got to die on Jeff Daniels.”
The cast of characters in “Concord, VA” is pulled straight from Neofotis’s background growing up in a small Virginia town and the stories span a wide variety of subject matter. “The Botanist” is about a man who is persecuted for his homosexuality at a local university, and is based on a compilation of sources experiences from Peter’s own life, an incident at a Virginia university four years ago, and a sodomy trial in Idaho in the 1960s. “The Strangers” focuses on two World War II survivors who try to make a new start in America, combating not just the memory of their own painful pasts but also the prejudices of a town that doesn’t quite understand them. Neofotis uses real life details to root the stories in reality, but also admits that part of the fun of stories is that they take place in an “alternate universe.”
He also uses his impressive scientific background as a way to root the stories in nature. By day, he works as a research associate at the NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Washington D.C., where he studies climate change. Last year he was a contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Al Gore. “I really think the science has been helpful because it gives me an outside perspective,” he says. “There’s a part in ‘The Ghost’ (one of his stories) where there’s a walk through the forest and I don’t know if I would’ve been able to write that had I not had that background.”
Neofotis’s work has been running now for over a year at Dixon Place, where he performs next on December 10. Although he still hasn’t formally published his short stories, he does now have a literary agent as the result of winning the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner gold medal, awarded by a literary association founded in honor of William Faulkner that helps young writers connect with publishers and agents. Neofotis traveled to accept the award in New Orleans this November.
“I never would have imagined last year at this time that I would be where I am now,” says Neofotis. “I enjoy this so much, and I enjoy telling the stories that are important to me.” But acting still plays second fiddle to his literary goals, he says. “I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘Oh God, I want to be in ‘Oceans 14.’ ”