A fourth-year doctoral student in the English & Comparative Literature department, Emily Sferra splits her time between studying the writings of 19th-century British women writers, teaching classes, and working closely with PlayMakers Repertory Company and Kathryn Hunter-Williams as a part of her Arts Everywhere fellowship.
“I have it in my blood to over prepare for a theatrical experience.”
Sferra grew up in a family that valued and loved the performing arts. Her grandmother sang in the same church choir for 70 years. Sferra and her siblings were involved in community theater. And every few summers, the family would go to Stratford, Ontario to see a couple of the Shakespeare shows, an experience that they made sure to prepare for by reading the original text or at the very least, No Fear Shakespeare.
Even though Sferra participated in six high school musicals during her four years in high school, she eventually reached a point where being involved in the performing side of the arts no longer brought her joy. She knew her talents lay elsewhere and stepped away from the spotlight, although she has continued to perfect her tap-dancing skills! Despite her pivot away from being center stage, her love for theater never waned.
So when the opportunity came along for her to work with PlayMakers, she was thrilled to continue her journey in the performing arts.
Drama is Literature Coming to Life
Sferra first got involved with PlayMakers in the summer of 2018 when she was awarded the Humanities Professional Pathway Award, an award funded by the Humanities for the Public Good. She then continued her involvement the following year as a recipient of the Humanities for the Public Good Graduate Fellowship. During these two years, she worked on various projects, including being heavily involved in the Thomas Wolfe Playwriting Competition.
This year, her work with PlayMakers has continued under an Arts Everywhere fellowship in which her responsibilities are geared towards increasing community engagement, examining the various ways one can define community, and making the theater more accessible. Whether she’s teaming up with local charities to give them access to a PlayMakers production or bringing in members of PlayMakers into the classrooms, her goal is to help expand PlayMakers reach and connection.
Perhaps one of Sferra’s biggest projects is making sure that the word of the Bard is accessible to those who come to watch a William Shakespeare production at PlayMakers. As part of a federal grant, PlayMakers identifies and invites ten schools from underserved communities to attend a matinee of their Shakespeare show. In preparation for their visit, PlayMakers provides ample support material, books, and study guides for the teachers and their students.
Having prepared material for past shows, Sferra has now taken the helm on preparing the material needed for PlayMakers’ next Shakespearean production, As You Like It. However, just as she was in the midst of contacting teachers, scheduling teaching artists’ virtual classroom visits, and ordering all the necessary material needed for the participating schools, the pandemic struck. It was deemed unsafe to produce and record As You Like It and the production was postponed to Fall 2021.
Despite the setback, Sferra and Hunter-Williams remain hopeful and eager for the opportunities that come with creating a virtual experience. With fewer geographic limitations, they will be able to connect with more schools and more communities. Furthermore, there’s excitement about creating a film version of the play, a medium that requires logistics that one wouldn’t normally have to think about in theatre. However, it’s a medium that might be more familiar to students.
So Sferra continues to work diligently on the resources for As You Like It so that it will be ready to go by August. She recently attended the virtual first rehearsal and the table read, noting how helpful it was to hear from the design team; “It allows me to speak not only about the text, but also about the production as a whole.“
She hopes that these guides will help make the production more accessible to teachers, students, and anyone who may not be as familiar with the Shakespearean language. That way, when they come to the (virtual) theater they can fully engage with and focus on the most important elements of the production.
A crucial element to a complete and full experience at the theater is making sure that the text itself is accessible. “I find that there’s so much that we can learn from these texts about the past…to help us grow, both as a society and as individuals. The empathetic effects of text can be so important, especially in this time of division that we’re living through right now. Literature helps us to process what’s going on in our current day and in our individual lives.”
When Sferra speaks about how the combination of her passions for literature and drama have enriched her time with PlayMakers, it’s clear that she does this work not only for her own enjoyment but for the enjoyment and the betterment of the community around her.
A Community and Sense of Purpose
Joyous. That’s the first word that came to mind when Hunter-Williams was asked to describe her interactions and work with Emily. “It’s very helpful to have somebody outside of our building who can bring a different point of view. She brings a freshness and a spontaneity and is always game to try something new.”
In this unprecedented time filled with many new experiences, changes, and uncertainty, Sferra says that this year in particular, she is “so grateful to Arts Everywhere for making this fellowship possible. It’s wonderful to have this connection to the PlayMakers and to be able to work with them. It has given me a sense of purpose during a hard year.”
Throughout our conversation with her, Sferra expressed great gratitude for PlayMakers, calling it a “very sustaining” experience during her time in graduate school. “Overall, I think my work with the PlayMakers has given me an additional community here at UNC. I moved to North Carolina after living my entire life in Ohio and I came down here without knowing anyone.” Being able to work with Playmakers and being with other people on campus outside of her department helped Sferra fall in love with the UNC community.
Sferra feels very lucky to have been involved in this type of work throughout her time at UNC. While she aspires to be a professor one day, she knows that no matter what she ends up doing, her future will involve the public humanities in some shape or form. We know Arts Everywhere is certainly looking forward to seeing what the ambitious doctoral student does next.
Q: Favorite play?
A: Arthur Miller’s All My Sons – one of the most gut-wrenching American tragedies. Funnily enough, I have seen in onstage in Canada and London, but not in the USA!
Q: A work that you can read over and over again?
A: Short work: Wendy Cope’s “The Orange” — it reminds me to find joy in the little parts of life.
Longer work: Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility — I love rereading this novel every few years, because the characters with whom I identify change as I grow older.
Q: If you could invite any literary figure to dinner (dead or alive) who would it be?
A: Mary Wollstonecraft — her Vindication of the Rights of Woman blazed the trail for 19th century women’s rights advocates, and parts of it are, unfortunately, still relevant today.
Q: Favorite word?
A: Bootsie (also the name of my dog)
Q: Favorite quote?
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
— e. e. cummings