Words. We use them to empower and to denigrate. We throw them like missiles at those upon whom we seek to inflict pain and we wrap them lovingly around those in need of comfort. Little wonder that some of us are drawn to the exploration of words, and all the forms of expression the use of words may take. And while one could be forgiven for thinking that all word-lovers are cat-owning tea drinkers who curl up beside bookshelves lined with Dickens (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the truth is that words can sometimes become appealing for not just what they are saying, but how they are saying it.
When I sit down for a chat with Stefanie Brooke Harper, she has just returned home after a month-long stay in a Writer’s Residence in Auckland. Nestled on a mountain surrounded by views of the water, Stefanie spent her Christmas in self-imposed exile, with words as her companion (a much-needed retreat from what can only be described as a manic year).
In July, the Brisbane Powerhouse awarded her full-length play Slammed a coveted two-week season, which required the 31-year-old to focus her energy entirely on production.
A unique and authentic account of the issues faced by teenagers and their companions, Slammed tells the story of Jake Ryan, a young man raised by his uncaring and criminally-minded father, who at various junctures is required to choose between what is familiar and what is right. Set inside a fictitious high school, Slammed explores the issues faced by other characters with whom Jake interacts – teachers, other students and their parents. It deals with topics of violence, drug use, and the raft of issues faced in the interpersonal relationships of high school students and those around them. Critically acclaimed, it won Favourite Script, Favourite Play, Best Supporting Actor for Chris Kellet and Best Direction for John Peek by Del Arte Charts in 2015, and recently received Matilda Award nominations for Best Independent Production, Best Director and The Lord Mayor’s Award for Best New Australian Work. Slammed was a labour of love for Stefanie; she wrote the play on her downtime in between full-time work as a high school and private performing arts teacher.
“Backstage on opening night we had a sell out crowd with mostly high school kids in the audience, and to be the writer behind that thin wall and hear them cry and laugh and clap and cheer was a surreal and beautiful thing. That opening night was for the students. The most important audience members were always the high school kids.”
One of the unique things about Slammed is its use of slam poetry in the characters’ monologues, which was something Stefanie always knew she wanted to incorporate. “The power of slam poetry is huge, and knowing students resist poetry in the classroom means slam is a way they might be more likely to connect with poetic writing. Those suspended moments where a character has the floor to do a slam piece are important – it’s just something we see so infrequently. How often do we get the chance to pour out every single thing that’s in our head for three or four minutes and know that people are going to listen?”
Having a long-standing fondness for hip hop, the rap-style word throw downs of slam poems were something Stefanie hoped would both attract kids in the classroom, but also provide an auditory feast.
“I think what really drew me to rap in the early days was the density of the words. If you compare a normal pop song of three to four minutes with a rap song of the same length, you’ll get more bang for your buck with rap. You’ll get more words, and if you love words, that’s something that’s going to make you happier.”
An innate love of words is – along with the encouraging words of a few committed teachers – what led Stefanie to pursue a degree in creative industries when she finished school. Unfortunately, Stefanie was unable to complete her first semester of university when she fell ill with a number of autoimmune illnesses.
“My doctor told me I couldn’t drive for more than 20 minutes at a time or I would fatigue, so any job I found had to be within 20 minutes of my home, which was very disheartening for someone keen to get out in the world.”
In a twist of fate that helped pave the way for her future career, a local primary school needed literacy support staff to assist kids with their reading and connection with words. Stefanie describes this role as the best thing that ever happened to her.
“It was a complete fluke but it was the best thing. It was borne out of that horrible illness, but it was such a gift. I stayed there a year, and during that time I became very inspired by the principal. He would come in at 5am, do all his paperwork in the morning, then spend the rest of the day engaging with kids in the school. He was an incredible man. So I got to see what a good teacher looked like, what a good principal looked like and what a good role model for kids looked like as well.”
It didn’t take long for the teaching bug to bite.
“There was a little boy in grade three whose dad had passed away and his mum worked a lot to keep them afloat. Mum had become a bit cold emotionally and quite disengaged and he hung around with me a lot. He helped me in the library, helped me with my photocopying. And it occurred to me that kids need good people around them and they need positive people around them, and that sometimes these people have to be found at a child’s school because they may not be at home. The words you choose when you teach and when you interact with young people are everything. Words can raise them up or drag them down – we have to be careful in our approach.”
Stefanie enrolled in a double degree at the Queensland University of Technology, embarking on a dual degree in Drama and a Bachelor of Secondary Education in English. Around the same time, she delved into the world of stand-up comedy.
“I started comedy when I was still in high school. I was originally in a duo with a close friend and our first gig was an open mic at this rough and scary suburban pub. Some of our teachers even came to watch us. And there we were: two little girls in Bonds shirts and jeans doing observational comedy and we were actually getting laughs. I realised early that feeling is quite addictive.”
For the next few years, Stefanie would meet a range of comedians who went on to do big things in the world of entertainment. Brendan Lovechild, Greg Sullivan, Meshel Laurie, Stav Davidson, Matt Okine and Josh Thomas all became familiar faces to Stefanie in the small Brisbane comedy community. Stefanie says that although predominantly a boys’ club, the world of comedy was quite accepting of the presence of females.
“I heard a bit of ‘I don’t like female comics’ type statements that people would throw around, and I would just say ‘Maybe check out a comedian’s routine to decide whether you like them instead of just checking out their genitals’. And I suppose we were a bit of a novelty at the time. Once I started performing solo, the manager of one comedy club would often book me to perform by saying, ‘Stef, the show needs a vagina,’ to which I would say, ‘I have one, I’ll bring it with me’.”
“I think the allure of comedy was again about words. A comedian’s fundamental job is to notice something happening around them and make comment on it. The challenge is to use words to package this observation in the most effective and entertaining way possible. It’s a true test of your skill with words.”
After 11 years of doing comedy, Stefanie travelled to Montreal in 2013 to perform stand-up, where she later met Judah Friedlander of 30 Rock fame in New York. “I got some beautiful words of encouragement from a man of few words,” she says.
Over the course of eight years, Stefanie taught in high schools across Brisbane, using her (limited) spare time to work at Brisbane radio station 100.3 FM and oversee her senior students’ drama productions.
“In my first year of teaching I wrote the school production from scratch – a Robin Hood parody. Looking back, what I realise is that even when I was employed to do something else, I was forever squeezing writing in to my life. Every year I wrote from scratch an original show for the senior classes that I also directed. People might have called me a workaholic but I was just trying to get the words out of me; I had ideas so I just wanted to write. And the interactions I had in high school classrooms and in community performing arts settings made it really clear to me that there’s a lot of kids who need a voice and who have things they want to say; they just need to be heard. Slammed was my way of giving those kids a voice because a lot of our kids are just not okay. If we pull the lens back we can see that often it’s because our adults are not okay. If so many of us are not okay what are we going to do about it and how do we give that a voice?”
After seeing much youth violence in the local community, Stefanie knew this issue needed to be included in a play geared toward teens. “Because there’s a strong theme of violence in the play, a friend who is a police officer suggested I contact One Punch Can Kill, just to see if Slammed was something they might be interested in supporting. They were so receptive to someone who wanted to give this issue of violence airtime, and they were passionate and enthusiastic about having someone promote this cause.”
Stefanie was put in touch with the Qld Homicide Victims Support Group, who asked her to speak at King George Square in Brisbane as part of their Awareness Day. The key focus was on youth violence, and in particular, the One Punch Can Kill campaign.
“They wanted me to talk – I thought I would write a slam poem instead. That’s how The Topic was born.”
Stefanie will be returning to the classroom this year, but she knows the words will still be on her mind. “The world is wide, and young people everywhere need a voice, and they need committed teachers. I think the saddest thing for our youth is that they are already hurting so much but what is even worse is the fact that they are hurting each other. Sometimes they don’t even have the tools or the capacity to think about how or why they’re doing it, and how a spilt second can change everything.”
“I’m setting about creating a mobile life to work with disengaged youth and to continue writing. But for the first time I will let the words drive me into whatever it is I do next. Someone once told me that’s what makes someone a true writer – when words just pour out of you. So maybe instead of pushing them aside, or squeezing them in, it’s time to welcome those words and listen to exactly what they have to say.”
For more of Stefanie’s words, you can follow her on Instagram @stefaniebharper or on Facebook.
Images: Dylan Evans and Matt Dale
Sarah Tucker is a Brisbane-raised, Melbourne-based writer, blogger and lawyer whose writing explores themes of family, friendship and mental health. She is a proud mum to two little men and a cattle dog with even more psychological issues than she has. For more of her writing, visit allmydirtylaundry.com.