Dani Stoller says she has loved theater “since the womb.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Stoller was passionate about the craft her entire life, performing and seeing shows in the city whenever possible. Stoller attended Ithaca College and found her way to Washington, DC, after graduating cum laude with a BFA in Acting in 2010.
As an actor, Stoller has been seen all around the DC Metro, with memorable performances such as Abigail Williams in Olney Theatre’s The Crucible, Phoebe in Folger Theatre’s As You Like It, Jeanie in Keegan Theatre’s production of Hair, and Emily Brontë in Kennedy Center’s Dizzy Miss Lizzie The Brontes.
But she also fell in love with playwriting, and is currently working on her MFA in playwriting at Catholic University—“perfect for a Jewish girl from Brooklyn,” she laughs!
And she’s had several scripts already produced around the area.
For instance, earlier this month, Stoller’s work The Voices on Blackwell Island was produced as part of the teen company at Signature Theatre.
And now Round House Theatre will present the world premiere of Stoller’s Girlhood, a play performed by the theater’s Teen Performance Company as part of Round House’s 21st Annual Sarah Metzger Memorial Play, staged February 17 to 19, 2023.
“I already write for Signature in the Schools, and that has to have an educational bent,” Stoller says. “I had assumed Round House was similar and wanted something educational, but they just wanted me to write about young people, which was fascinating because I could just write for young characters.”
She had come across various photographs of girls across America—everything from runaways to girls in their bedrooms to girls hanging out at an overpass.
“I also had read the book Girls & Sex: Navigating the New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein and watched several documentaries, including Cusp, about young girls in middle America, and was fascinated by this mystical world of when you’re in that in-between space between being a child and being an adult,” Stoller says. “That’s where my idea came from.”
Girlhood explores the dreams, fears, humor, and heartache of coming of age in an intimate series of vignettes. The stories follow a group of teenage girls as they navigate adolescence, talking about identity, sexuality, and their unique upbringings as they transition from childhood to young adulthood and contemplate their futures.
The play, directed by Eva Lee, deals with important issues and challenges of teens growing up in today’s society and includes frank discussions of sexual activity, assault, and bullying, among other sensitive topics.
“All of these vignettes were inspired by the photographs, and I was fascinated by the vicious, visceral, yet vulnerable power in the photos, which were both heartbreaking and inspiring,” Stoller says. “These are both kids and adults, so they are feeling new things and feeling them very strongly. Everything feels very life-and-death. So while they might feel smaller to adults, like a first love, it’s very much big to the young women.”
Being a teacher for a long time—Stoller also runs the musical theater intensive at Olney Theatre—she knew what young women talked about and wrote about those important topics for this show.
“I wanted to honor who they are, and that’s what this became,” she says.
It was two years ago when Stoller was offered the chance to be the writer for Signature in the Schools and she was thrilled at the opportunity.
“For them, it has to be something they are learning about or will cover in school, or an adaptation of a book they will read,” she explains. “The first year, I wrote an adaptation of The Great Gatsby that was just published through Broadway Licensing, which was really cool.”
This past year was the play The Voices on Blackwell Island, which was inspired by two fearless women—Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Packard.
“The show was very obviously about the way we control women and call women crazy, and also ableism came up a lot; the kids all know what’s going on and are very aware, they have incredible insight,” she says. “This generation of young people have such finely tuned moral compasses and such activist spirits. They want to change the world and make art that reflects the world they want to see.”
For both programs—Signature in the Schools and Round House—Stoller had to “give her play away” so it was a more hands-off experience, though she was there to answer questions if needed.
Working with young voices is important to Stoller, as she had great mentors as a teen and she’s paying it forward.
“The teachers in my life have made me into the person I am today because they were able to have faith in me, so this is my chance to give back and pass down what was given to me,” she says. “But also, I believe participating in the arts makes you a better person. There’s something beautiful about learning about vulnerability and collaboration and empathy and fearlessness that comes from the arts.”
And while she knows not everyone she works with will go into the craft as a career, she hopes everyone will take what they learn and bring it with them to whatever field they go into later in life.
“It teaches confidence and self-love in a lot of ways,” Stoller says. “Plus, I love working with them because they are just great people and they teach me a lot also. I feel like an old fogey and they are able to make me feel way hipper than I am.”
Stoller continues to act as well, recently appearing in Which Way to the Stage at Signature Theatre, and has some other pieces—both as a performer and writer—coming in the near future.
“What I love about the DC area is that you are able to be a multihyphenate and can do it all, which is why I want to be here,” she says. “I can teach, I can write, and I can perform. I would love to see the plays I’ve written have a life outside of DC, as well and collaborate with more theaters, but I live a very charmed existence and I am very thankful for that.”
Teen Takeover Weekend at Round House Theatre February 17 to 19, 2023, includes three performances of Dani Stoller’s Girlhood, performed and designed by the Round House Theatre Teen Performance Company. Tickets ($25) are available online. Students can book free tickets here.
Playwright Dani Stoller is also an actor in the DC area and was recently nominated for a 2023 Helen Hayes Award for her supporting role in My Body No Choice at Arena Stage. Her play Girlhood was commissioned by Round House as part of the theater’s artistic Equal Play mission to produce plays by women and people of color.
About the Wendi Winters Memorial Series: DC Theater Arts has partnered with the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation to honor the life and work of Wendi Winters, the DC Theater Arts writer who died in the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 28, 2018. To honor Wendi’s legacy, the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation has funded the Wendi Winters Memorial Series, monthly articles to be produced by DC Theater Arts to bring attention to theater companies and theater practitioners in our region who engage in exemplary work that makes our community a better place.
For more information on DC Theater Arts’ Wendi Winters Memorial Series, check out this article graciously published by our friends at District Fray Magazine.
See DC Theater Arts’ seven previous Artists Who Inspire! here.