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INTERVIEW: Sami Pfeffer on Children’s Play and the Hideous Monster

Playwright Sami Pfeffer in December 2017 while working on an Art Shanty Project. 

Tomorrow, Gadfly Theatre Productions will premiere Children’s Play, a new theatrical work by Sami Pfeffer. This play for adult audiences explores melancholy and symptoms of mental health. Pfeffer spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about bringing this work to the stage.

What are your preferred pronouns?

Preferred pronouns: they/them.

Where did you grow up and where did you go to college?
I grew up in Concord, North Carolina. I went to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

How and when did you first get the ideas that became Children’s Play

A promotional image for Gadfly Theatre Productions’ upcoming production of The Children’s Play by Sami Pfeffer.

I started writing Children’s Play the first winter I lived in Minneapolis, in early 2011. I moved here from Massachusetts, right after graduating from college. I’d never lived in a city before and I wanted to move to a place where I didn’t know anyone. I’d been in spaces with constructed/manufactured community – by which I don’t mean disingenuous or false, but just community created more by structure than by choice.

That winter was super snow-heavy and I was under-prepared. I worked as a prep cook in a kitchen and was depressed as hell. I’d walk to work in late afternoon, walk home in around 2 or 3 AM, write for a bit, sleep ’til 2 or 3 PM, and completely miss the daylight.

The play was written in little spurts, in little playlets. I had an old typewriter that I was excited about at the time, because I couldn’t delete anything. All ideas had to be expanded upon instead of edited. I was also really into writing pieces that weren’t intended to be performed. (I’d been told in school to write plays that were producible (i.e, super small casts, realistic settings, 2, maybe 3 acts), so I felt energized to write weird short scripts that entertained me and, at that time, no one else.

Truth be told, I can’t write following formats very well. I can’t follow even my own outlines. So my plays always meander away from me and I sort of run after, hoping to catch snippets of what the characters are saying and doing. And I love that. I feel present and engaged with myself in ways that I don’t usually feel. I tend more towards dissociation in general, which is sort of occurring through this process, but in a way that honors the creativity that can come with dissociative thinking. I like that a survival skill becomes a coping mechanism [and then] becomes a process of creating art.

The Children’s Play follows the Prince of the Oceans, a mercurial melancholy being, and their interactions with Girl, the Fool, and the Hideous Monster, each of whom embody additional symptoms of mental health. These four main characters explore a strange, bleak world on a confusing and ultimately irrelevant quest. 

–Official Synopsis

How long did it take to complete the first draft?

Children’s Play was written through all these tiny plays over about a year and half. The original draft had a whole lot more chorus embodiments, including characters that even Manny didn’t see (but who were included accidentally on the cast list), such as the Man Who Seemed Religious But Was Not. The first drafts also had a lot of fat-shaming language in them.

At the time of the play’s inception, those words felt relevant to me, or present in my head in ways that led me to believe that I could include them in my work. At this point though, I feel that as a person with size privilege – regardless of my own dysmorphia – that type of shaming will never be used against me externally, and thus isn’t mine to claim.

I want to sincerely thank the cast and crew of the Gadfly production – both current participants and those who aren’t still involved – for holding me accountable to those choices in what felt like loving and compassionate ways.

Sami Pfeffer at work.

Some of your work has been performed by 20% Theatre and by Patrick’s Cabaret, both of which have missions that align with Gadfly’s. How important is the mission of a theatre company to you when preparing a new work or seeing it interpreted?

The intention of the producing theater has not yet been a challenge for me because the only companies currently interested in my work have mission-aligned values. That said, I have strongly resisted marketing my work in broader ways because I am unsure of how to hold responsibility for what those theaters could produce. I think about this mostly around accessibility – who will the theaters include in their productions, where are the venues located, what communities does the theaters serve and how genuinely, how affordable are the tickets, etc.

What are some of the things that drive you as a playwright to write?

Honestly, I have such obsessive, looped thoughts all the time that dialogue comes easy. (I hope that others feel there are distinctions between my characters, but I know that they are also all just me talking to me.) I work out a lot of shit through plays.

This play is an older play [for me], so I feel like my current work is being driven by different internal conversations. For example, there are many instances in this play where the audience is either directly addressed, or gently accused, or even reprimanded for its inaction. In most [of my] current works, I think that I offer the audience more consensual means of engaging with myself or the other artists involved.

I am very interested in resisting spectatorship because I worry that it cements habits of inaction, but I also don’t want to shame folks into action either.

Much of my current work, plays, films, and installations, is centered around violence and community healing. I’m interested in accountability and how we can better hold ourselves accountable for harm caused. I want to encourage folks to think more deeply about dichotomies between survivor and perpetrator, both on micro and macro levels, in order to prevent cycles of violence…such as the way that folks committing harmful acts are often then subjected to harmful acts by states and systems, [and keeping it] from escalating further.

What has the development process been like for this play? Have you been involved besides handing over the script and attending a few rehearsals?

My involvement in this production has been minimal. I attended the first read-through and then a few rehearsals very recently. At the read-through, I let all involved know that they were welcome to change any part of the script that they saw fit. This was my inadequate attempt to acknowledge that parts of the play felt problematic to me and that, if the cast and crew agreed, they could rewrite whatever they liked.

I didn’t feel able to dive back into this script for fuller rewrites because the play is honestly triggering and difficult for me to engage with at this point in time. I already tend towards finality – I rarely return to projects once I feel they’re completed. They instead serve as exoskeletons from which I can mark my growth.

However, [in retrospect,] I regret my distance with this production. I wish that I found a way earlier to take more responsibility for the work, regardless of my discomfort, and to do so especially because I think my absence passed discomfort along to the other artists involved. The piece is stronger and more interesting for the last-minute changes to the script that were made, in part because I voiced my own misgivings and listened to those expressed by the actors and director.

You mentioned newer plays – could you please tell me about the play(s) that you’re currently working on?

I just finished a play called “_____”, which I refer to as the ghost play. It was developed through 20% Theatre Company’s 2017 Q STAGE program. That play examines the hauntings of trauma and abuse by immersing the audience in a ghost tour. I’m in the extremely early stages of developing a new piece that also examines the repercussions of abuse, specifically harm sustained by perpetrators.

Gadfly Theatre’s production of Children’s Play opens March 2 at the Phoenix Theater in Minneapolis, and plays through March 10.

Basil Considine