Interview by Jen Bush
KJ Stewart’s play Cowgirl Summer tells the story of twin sisters, Melanie, and Theresa, as they write and record their own Harry Styles fan fiction in their school library. When their story becomes popular online, they come face to face with the reality of anonymity on the internet – the excitement, the uncertainty, and the danger. This play is a love letter to teen girl imagination, and an exploration of our new reality in a digital world.
What happens when fan fiction gets fans!
Find out in Cowgirl Summer by KJ Stewart
Part of the 2023 Fresh Fruit Festival, the most inclusive celebration of the LGBTQ arts in NYC.
Limited Run: Tuesday, May 2 at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 3 at 8:30 p.m., Saturday, May 6 at 7:15 p.m.
Fresh Fruit Festival at the Wild Project, 195 E 3rd St, New York City.
First, let’s see what Ms. Stewart has to say about her life and this work.
Ms. Stewart is not clowning around with Cowgirl Summer but she can when she needs to. “I am a playwright/director with a background in clown and physical comedy. I graduated from NYU Tisch’s Playwrights Horizons Theater School in 2020, where I directed several original plays and began working on what eventually became Cowgirl Summer. My work can be found in publications such as The Stonecoast Review and The Coachella Review. As an artist I am inspired by queer aesthetics, absurdity, and the unique fears and anxieties we grapple with as young people at the end of the world.”
The impetus to write this play came from more than one direction, no pun intended. “This play is largely inspired by my own experience being raised by the internet. Those who were there will remember: the One Direction fandom in the early 2010’s was beautiful chaos, and it shaped the way I think about love and obsession. Every generation of young queer people throughout history managed to find their own means of escapism from a reality in which they were forgotten, and for my generation this manifested in entirely fictionalized worlds online. I was interested in exploring why we became teenagers and felt the need to disappear. At the same time, I want to uplift and celebrate the ways in which fandom communities allowed us to live in the spotlight. I see this play as a love letter to teen girl imagination, and as a snapshot of the moment a vulnerable kid is forced to become an adult. Equally as important in my mind are the ways in which this play is inspired by true silliness, broad comedy, and the kind of indulgence in high fantasy I have only ever found in two places: 2013 tumblr, and the theater.”
Ms. Stewart enlists the aid of her friends in her joyful creative process. “My creative process starts with a series of late-night texts to friends in which I outline the most ridiculous play concept they’ve ever heard. I find it helpful to get gut reaction feedback on the most heightened version of a story, because it’s the easiest method of understanding where the joy comes from. I prioritize joy in my work and process alike, and while creation is necessarily a difficult and serious thing, it has to be joyful to be worth doing. As far as the nitty gritty of playwriting goes, I don’t find myself returning to the same process each time. I think the best thing about writing is that it can be spontaneous and driven by what is exciting in the moment, and if it takes a month to write or a year to write it’s worth the effort to give each story an individual process.”
Ms. Stewart already had a positive experience with the Fresh Fruit Festival. She is delighted that her own play is part of this year’s festival. “I am so grateful to be a part of such a wonderful festival this year. Having been the stage manager for a play involved in the 2022 festival, I have known for a while what an incredible opportunity this is and I give thanks to everyone involved. I am thrilled to get the chance to see the many other plays happening at The Wild Project these next few weeks!”
There are many things that Ms. Stewart is hoping that the audience takes away from Cowgirl Summer including answering one very interesting question. “My hope is that this play can offer some catharsis for the many of us who experienced a loss of innocence during a very specific time on the internet. The events that unfold in Cowgirl Summer are not uncommon, especially for people who experienced being a girl in spaces that adults could easily access. I hope that our production allows for levity amidst otherwise heartbreaking circumstances. I hope that it encourages people to rethink how they view the creativity of so-called “fangirls,” and allows those of us who have grown into queer adulthoods to bond over the absurdity of our teen years. Most of all, I hope that this play makes you ask yourself: would Harry Styles love me if I was a worm? And I hope you walk away forever in pursuit of the answer.”
Ms. Stewart will be busy for the foreseeable future and has some interesting projects coming up. Follow her on social media to find out all the fun things she’ll be up to. “I continue to write and clown in a variety of spaces in NYC. I am currently collaborating on a play I will also perform in, in part inspired by a formative experience I had at thirteen years old starring in a low budget documentary on the history of breastfeeding. For updates on this and other projects, follow me @kjessicastewart on instagram.”
Ms. Stewart has some parting words that contain excellent advice. “Treat People With Kindness!