Q&A: Stefan Lanfer ’97 continues work in playwriting

by Emma Guo | 2/6/18 2:30am

Stefan Lanfer ’97 discovered his passion for playwriting after winning the Frost and Dodd Student Play Festival as a Dartmouth student and seeing his work performed onstage. Though he went on to attend business school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and work in consulting and the nonprofit sector, he never stopped writing. This weekend, after five years of writing and perfecting his script, Lanfer’s play “An Education in Prudence” premieres at the Open Theatre Project in Boston. The play is based on one of the first desegregation battles in the United States regarding the education of African-American girls in Connecticut.

How did you get into playwriting, and when did you first realize it was something you could pursue outside of college?

SL: I started writing plays in college, but what really got me hooked on playwriting was a one-act play that I wrote in my Playwriting 2 class with [former theater professor] Peter Parnell ’74. It was one of the plays selected for the [Frost and Dodd Student Play Festival]. That was the first experience I had seeing my work fully realized onstage, and it was a fantastic experience.

How did you find time to balance your jobs in the business factor and your passion for playwriting?

SL: I get up around 5 a.m., and I work until my kids wake up. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but year after year it eventually adds up to something. I started my career thinking that I could make a career out of playwriting, and one of the first things I did out of college was work in professional theaters. The first time I applied to graduate school it was to do a Master of Fine Arts in playwriting, but at some point, I felt that there were other interests that I wanted to explore, and that’s when I began working for an education nonprofit in Boston. I went to business school in 2008 and have been working at the Barr Foundation since. I have been writing throughout, and when my kids were very young I took a small break from playwriting to blog about being a dad, but I wanted to get back into it. I joined a playwriting group in Boston called the Playwrights’ Platform, which is a collection of area writers who get together a couple times a month with actors who do a cold reading of their works. I started with 10-minute plays, but five years ago I had a chance meeting that led me to this new project.

About your play, “An Education in Prudence,” what compelled you to take on this challenge of writing about one of the first desegregation battles in the United States?

SL: It’s a story that found me. I was at an event for work in 2013, and this stranger came to me and said that she heard I was a playwright. She told me: “There’s this story that I’ve been haunted by ever since graduate school, and I’ve always imagined it as a play and I’d love to talk to you.”

I was looking for a project when this one arrived, so I decided to give this play a try. This was in 2013 — the first year of [former President Barack] Obama’s second term, the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech — the idea was bubbling up and people were talking about how we live in post-racial America and how wonderful that is. What drew me into it initially was that the story at its core stands out as an unmasking of northern racism in the 1830s. I found that really interesting, having grown up in Connecticut with the view that we were the northerners on the right side of history.

Even more so is that our world has continued to change, and the play has changed in response to it. The tagline of the play is “The past is not behind us,” and one of the key ideas that it tries to raise is the importance of looking into the cracks of history to get a sense of who the people who were not necessarily in the spotlight of recorded history. The very first drafts of the play that I wrote were very much centered on these heroic white men — the famous abolitionists who got involved, as well as this teacher, a white woman. In the sidelines of all these narratives are two dozen African American women who came at great personal risk into this hostile territory. In time, the play has found a way to be their story more than the others, putting them as the centerpiece. After the Presidential elections of 2016 and all that has happened since, this story is now also told from the perspective of today. The protagonist that we meet at the very beginning of the play is from an inner-city Hartford school. We’re looking at these events through her eyes, through the lens of today, and trying to reach into this place to find reasons to be hopeful about the moment that we are in.

So the story is not necessarily about the oppression and victimization of these two dozen African American women, but also about their courageousness and heroism. It’s very admirable, especially with regards to recent events.

SL: That’s it exactly. Here I am, this white guy writing this play. Every step of the way I have depended on the actors and directors to tell me where it was falling short. I’ve done my best to tell an authentic story about some of these characters who have been forgotten by history. They are some of the most important voices, especially now, to get us to think about how we can truly understand the experiences of other people.

How do you think your experiences at Dartmouth have shaped your experiences outside of campus and the “Dartmouth bubble”?

SL: The biggest shaper of my experience beyond the “Dartmouth bubble” has been a girl I met from Atlanta, who is now my wife of almost 19 years. Specific to the playwriting process, being surrounded by friends and having the few lines that were in The Dartmouth that had kind words about a project fuel you up with what at times can seem like irrational beliefs. After about nine months into this project, I started sending it out to theaters and festivals all around the country and got one rejection after another. We’re pushing over 100 rejections by now, and two years ago at 80-something “no’s,” I was pretty sure the universe was telling me it was time to move on. It’s certainly not all attributable to Dartmouth, but it’s one of those places that encouraged me to take risks, try new things and find and explore what those passions may be.

This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity and length.