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How Steph Del Rosso turned anger into laughs in ‘The Gradient’

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The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
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"The Gradient" depicts life at a startup in the not-so-distant future and its work trying to rehabilitate men accused of misconduct.

Steph Del Rosso’s sharply funny new play is set at a startup, one with an ambitious boast: It can take men accused of sexual misconduct and, using a groundbreaking algorithm, rehabilitate them into responsible members of society. “The Gradient” is a satire — but like all good satires, it may hit a bit too close to home.

“I usually write from a place of obsession, I would say,” Del Rosso explained on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And I started the play the summer of 2018, when I'd spent many, many months pretty obsessed with tracking the people, most of whom are men, who've been accused of sexual misconduct and assault and just reading their apologies.

“And they seem to all have one thing in common which was, in my eyes, they were just wholly insufficient and inadequate.”

“The Gradient,” which premieres at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis on Friday, sets up those performative apologies before funhouse mirrors reflecting our society’s penchant for measuring and commodifying, reducing even the most complicated human emotions to a data set.

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The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Playwright Steph Del Rosso's new play, "The Gradient," will have its world premiere in St. Louis.

“I wanted to challenge my own thinking about, like, ‘So what do I want when I say that I want these genuine apologies and genuine accountability?’” Del Rosso explained. “And then what if that aim were mismanaged? What if it were funneled through our cultural obsession with instant gratification and fast results and low risk, high reward and you know, all the things that I think capitalism and also certain startup culture emphasizes and reifies.”

She added: “I think in general rehabilitative, noncarceral solutions to harm are good. I think that is what we should be doing. But I just think that repairing this type of harm, it's messier; I don't think it's as tidy as an algorithm is purporting to be. It's not linear, it's messy, it doesn't always feel good or satisfying.”

Del Rosso is based in New York City but said she’s been thrilled to see the play produced here. Hana Sharif, the Rep’s artistic director, caught a workshop production of “The Gradient” back in 2019 and encouraged her to have its debut here. Del Rosso “jumped at the opportunity.”

'Comedy is a great vehicle'
Listen to the playwright on St. Louis on the Air

In addition to writing plays, Del Rosso teaches at New York University. She said she’s finally starting to build a real, full-time career in the medium she dreamed of as a theater kid, dancing and singing her way across community theater stages.

“I think I'm maybe on the cusp of being at a position in which I can abandon waitressing jobs and other things that sustained me earlier on in my career,” she said. “And that's really an exciting prospect.”

Del Rosso said she’s been loving the opportunity to watch the play in previews at COCA and continues to tinker with small moments in the days leading up to its premiere.

“It's been so exciting to hear the different moments when laughter emerges,” she said. “Like, you can laugh out of discomfort or recognition, or you can laugh out of catharsis. I think comedy is a great vehicle for that.”

Related Event

What: “The Gradient”
When: Oct. 8-24
Where: The Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA, 6880 Washington Ave., St. Louis, MO 63130

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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