Playwright Steph DeFerie grew up on Cape Cod and lives there still with her cats Bunny, Rabbit, and Ted. The many, many terrific hours she spent studying, performing in and attending shows at the Harwich Junior Theatre comprise the majority of her theatrical training. Although she also writes for adults, for the last eight years she has worked with the Chatham Middle School Drama Club because she loves introducing kids to the fun of live performance. Her favorite part of writing for young audiences is incorporating audience participation into her work. She has published 13 scripts which have received countless productions in this country and abroad and won several awards. Her most popular works include Once Upon a Wolf, Mother Goose Is Eaten By Werewolves, I Hate Shakespeare! and Nick Tickle, Fairy Tale Detective. Out of almost 100 entries, her 10-minute play Nick Tickle In Witch Crook Took The Book? was voted “Audience Favorite” in the 2009 “Summer Shorts 4 Festival” in Williston, North Dakota. Her latest piece, an adaptation of A Tale Of Two Cities for middle school performers, is currently in rehearsal and will be staged in April. She is extremely proud that her script Puss ‘N Boots – A Tale Of A Tail won Second Prize in the 2009 NETC Aurand Harris Memorial Playwriting Competition and will premier at the Harwich Junior Theatre in August.
Q: Did you always want to write?
A: When I was a kid, I loved reading and that naturally led to my writing little poems and stories. I thought I might like to be a poet when I grew up but I couldn’t figure out how poets made any money. I figured they must all work for Hallmark Cards – can you imagine Sylvia Plath writing greeting cards? – so I thought I would work for them some day. (I still think that would be a neat job.) Then I decided it would be more fun to write books so I concentrated on writing short stories. When I was a senior in high school, I was chosen to attend the first “Young Writers” session at the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference and I came out feeling I should be writing a lot more stories and they should be a whole lot better. I was also pretty frustrated about not having done any acting in a long while – I loved acting in plays at school and the local community theater. Then I got the bright idea that it might be fun to combine the things I liked best and try to write a play. Once I started working on that first script, I realized, “Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing” and that was the end of fiction-writing for me.
Q: Where did you study?
A: I wish I could say I studied under Paula Vogel or went to Yale Drama School but the truth is that for better or worse, I’m completely self-taught. I took one playwriting class in college. We were supposed to meet with the professor every time we’d written a few pages for an evaluation but I just turned in my whole script at the end of the semester hoping to get a critique of the entire piece. I never got it – meaning that I ended up learning exactly nothing! One time, Robert Brustein attended a staged reading of one of my plays. Afterwards, several people came up to talk to me about it. Finally, I told the woman in charge that I hadn’t met Mr. Brustein yet and she said, “Oh, yes you did – he was that last man you were just talking with.” I had no idea! No one had pointed him out to me! I can’t remember anything he said about my script – I think he liked it. My one big chance to talk to a brilliant theatre professional about my work and I blew it!
Q: Was writing for children what you intended to concentrate on when you started writing plays?
A: No. I started out wanting to write “The Great American Drama” but I didn’t have much success. Then I had a couple of great opportunities to write some funny, shorter pieces and see them produced which is the most important thing for any playwright. It allowed me to lighten up and find out what worked in my writing and what didn’t. Then, a friend asked me for a children’s play and I wrote Once Upon a Wolf fairly quickly. Unfortunately, the production fell through so I ended up submitting it to other groups. It was picked up by a theater in Maine and when I went to see it, one of the actresses suggested I submit it to Baker’s. I completely forgot about that and she was so nice, she actually called me up a few weeks later and suggested that I send it to one of her friends who was an editor at Baker’s and use her name as a reference. It became my first published script and I owe it all to her! A few months after that, there was a local playwriting competition and I couldn’t come up with any ideas. I decided that since my first published script was for kids, I might have a good chance if I wrote another kids’ play but with only two weeks until the deadline, I had nothing! Then I got the idea for Nick Tickle, Fairy Tale Detective, won the “Youth” category and Baker’s published that script as well. A couple years after that, a woman I knew through a local community theater group asked if I wanted to work with her and the middle school drama club she was starting. That was eight years ago and we’re still going strong! I continue to write for adults but writing for young audiences and young performers is where I have the most success.
Q: What’s important when writing for young performers and audiences?
A: It’s crucial not to “write down” to them. I recently realized that when I’m working on a play, I always picture it being performed by adult actors and I think that makes a difference. You shouldn’t simplify things to a great extent just because kids will be involved – they’ll surprise you in what they can understand and accomplish. I also try to make my plays fun to perform – I’m very mindful of the actors. Plays should be just as entertaining to stage as they are to watch. If the actors aren’t having a good time, the audience isn’t either.
Q: What do you like best about writing kids’ plays?
A: I really enjoy including audience participation in my work. In the Nick Tickle plays, Nick asks the audience to serve as his partners – to watch for clues and help him solve the case. It’s so great how the kids in the audience really get caught up in it! And besides getting the kids to interact from their seats, I love getting some of them up on the stage to be part of the action. Years ago, I spent a summer working at a Renaissance Festival. I know everyone always rolls their eyes when they hear those words but the Sterling Ren Faire was really a special place. It was like being at improv boot camp! I had a terrific time and learned a great deal. One of my favorite parts was being in a “trunk show” where members of the audience came up on stage and played parts in the show. When I was working on Once Upon A Wolf, I thought it would be fun to use that technique with young audiences. In my last few plays, I’ve turned that idea around and had characters starting off pretending to be audience members and then getting up and entering into the action on-stage. It’s wonderful to blur that line between “audience” and “performing space.” Kids are so used to having a barrier between them and the action when it comes to movies and television and video games. I love to break that barrier when they attend a live performance. It’s such a pleasure to open them up to all kinds of creative possibilities.