A standout high school teacher and director for decades, she now fosters theater at every level throughout the state.
Carmel De Stefano loved theater as a child, studied it as an undergrad and beyond, and taught and directed it for decades at the high school level. All of that has prepared her well for her current theatrical turn, as a leader since 2016 in the Illinois Theatre Association.
After immersing herself in theater throughout her youth and earning a bachelor of arts in theater and broadcasting out east, the Niagara Falls, New York, native decided to head west. Arriving in Chicago in 1976 to attend the Goodman School of Drama, she was offered a chance to direct a play at a girls’ Catholic high school. She got hired and taught there for eight years, then became head drama coach at Reavis High School in Burbank for 26 years. There, she taught, directed plays and prepared students for the Illinois High School Association’s theatrical competitions, enjoying a string of successes.
After De Stefano retired from the ranks of high school educators in 2016, she began the fourth act in her highly theatrical life. That same year, she became executive director of the Illinois High School Theatre Festival, an annual celebration of theater with more than 4,000 student and teacher attendees and participants. She went on to serve as second vice president of the festival’s sponsoring organization, the Illinois Theatre Association, which works with high school, college, community, and professional programs and companies throughout the state. The spotlight is now on her as president of the ITA.
Fra Noi: When was your first exposure to theater, and what was your reaction to it?
De Stefano: I think “Fiddler on the Roof” was the first show I saw. It was just the fact you were transported into another world. You’re sitting there in that theater, and those actors became friends of yours, and they were talking to you.
Fra Noi: What is it about theater that you loved then? Has your love for theater, or relationship with it, changed over the years?
De Stefano: Yeah, it probably went from a love to an addiction or an obsession. I adore theater. I adore directing. I adore seeing theater. I love working with people and creating shows.
Fra Noi: Tell us about your Italian family.
De Stefano: My parents were my rock and my protector, and my mom was a sounding board. You could talk and she would listen, and she wouldn’t say anything. But later, she’d say one thing and put it all in perspective. I miss that.
My family was very Italian. We still do some of the traditions, getting together before Christmas and making cappelletti, and always having a house full of people.
My father made sure when I graduated from SUNY (State University of New York) that I had a degree in theater and broadcasting, but he also made sure I had a teaching certification, which I thought I’d never use. My father was not thrilled about me going into theater, but when he realized I was going to do it, he gave me a program of a show that his older brothers had been in, and my dad said he had helped. So members of the family were interested in theater.
When I said, “Dad, I’m going to move out,” he said, “You should stay home and marry a nice boy.” When I moved to Chicago, they came out and helped me fix up my studio apartment. I said, “I don’t think I’m ever going to get married,” so he drove a car out here and gave it to me and said, “Here, this was your wedding money.”
Fra Noi: How did you get to Chicago?
De Stefano: After my final year of college, I remember thinking I needed to move someplace else. There was no way my dad would let me move to New York. My sister had just married a guy from Chicago, and if there’s family there, it’s OK. I came here in 1976.
I asked a professor at SUNY, who had done Broadway shows and we really respected him, where to go in Chicago, and he said the Goodman School of Drama, and I auditioned and got in.
Fra Noi: What were and are your impressions of Chicago’s theater scene compared to other places?
De Stefano: I was in awe of it. In 1976-77, it was the year Steppenwolf started performing. I was gobbling it up. I lived in the city in an apartment, even though my sister was in a suburb. It was exciting. There were young people, and there was storefront theater. And it was very accessible to go see shows. Most theaters are expensive now, even storefronts.
Fra Noi: What happened at Goodman and afterward?
De Stefano: At Goodman, I was finishing up the second year, and one of my professors said to me, “Carm, you’ve worked with high school kids. My cousin is the head of a girls’ school, and she needs a director for a show.” So I did it, and I loved it. It was the Academy of the Sacred Heart.
They made me the dean of students. I adored it. The only problem was it didn’t pay a lot, and I had to waitress at the same time.
Then, I got a job at Reavis High School in Burbank, south of Midway Airport. I went from a 105-person girls’ school to having 150 kids in my class during the day in a more blue-collar setting.
We would do a comedy, a drama, a musical and a competition piece for the Illinois High School Association’s theatrical division. [The competition entry is] a 40-minute contest play. You take it to a place to perform, and you have 15 minutes to put up your set.
Then we did group interp (another category in the IHSA theatrical competition), which is more like a reader’s theater.
Reavis, for a school that didn’t have a theater curriculum, grew into a powerhouse for contest play and group interp. With group interp, I think I did 22 of them, and 17 went down to state. We won first place once.
Fra Noi: So you retired and took another job?
De Stefano: The year I retired from Reavis High School, 2016, I was asked to be executive director of the Illinois High School Theatre Festival. It’s sponsored by the Illinois Theatre Association.
After that, I joined the Illinois Theatre Association board. I ran for second vice president. Now I’m president. All the board members are volunteer positions.
The focus of the Illinois Theatre Association is more on schools. But we have all the other categories: professional, theater for young audiences, community theater, etc.
Fra Noi: What’s your advice for someone who aspires to work in theater?
De Stefano: My advice to students, and parents who’d panic about kids majoring in theater in college: I’d say let them do it. Go for it. You may go down a different path, but at least you tried it. I meet so many people who regret not trying.
I got to do theater, but I also got to make a pretty good living by teaching.
The above appears in the October 2021 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.