by Laura Frustaci
“Entertainment is the most effective form of advocacy,” says Desta Tedros Reff, HLS ‘13. Most recently, she’s been executive producing the Amazon TV series A League of Their Own. The show has seen really positive reviews, especially with regard to its LGBTQ+-centered content. “We’re infusing both queerness and Blackness into this classic American film,” says Desta. “I was a lover of the film. As a queer Black woman, I’m very excited about putting myself into a narrative I always had to imagine myself in.” That’s part of what makes the show so resonant with audiences right now. Desta explains, “This was the first show I’ve ever been on where the room was so diverse in so many ways - queer writers, writers of color, trans writers, and non-binary writers. More than just the writers’ room, across the spectrum of the show, it was a supportive and safe space that translated to the screen.”
This is too infrequently the case in Hollywood spaces. “When I’m trying to translate my experiences, there's usually a communication barrier being surrounded by the straight white male as I try to explain myself to them,” Desta says. But, on A League of Their Own, Desta and the rest of the team have discovered, “We’re all speaking the same language, so we can have more nuanced and specific portrayals that people don’t usually see.”
Desta didn’t always intend to go into TV writing. She attended Harvard Law School and graduated in 2013, then pursued social justice work, most notably in a small town in Mississippi (where she earned a Community Public Health Award, one of her proudest accomplishments). “They don’t give [the award] to outsiders very often, but I worked hard to be accepted into their community,” she smiles. And Desta continues this legacy in her work in the entertainment industry, citing a self-imposed “advocacy mandate” in everything she creates.
Desta has certainly found television, film, and media to be extraordinarily effective advocacy resources. “I’ve done advocacy on multiple levels, and the hardest part is getting people to show up and listen,” Desta explains. “There’s much less convincing in entertainment. People come to you and they want to see what you have to say.” So, it’s been a rewarding career shift for her to be able to continue focusing her talents on helping people, but using television to appeal to a much broader and more willing audience. “We’re shaping culture and the way people see the world, so it’s the highest opportunity for advocacy. There’s opportunities in everything we create, and for me I’m always looking for that.” She parallels law and entertainment: “[TV] is not that different from what I do in the legal spaces. I’m working with smart, interesting people with diverse backgrounds trying to build something, whether that’s an argument or a story. It’s the same skills: I have to convince you, either to be on my side or to emotionally invest in the story I’m telling.”
Desta also points out that, “Advocacy exists on different shows on different levels. When I was a staff writer for Shooter, I wrote this scene in the show, and the leads drive by a confederate flag, the white lead and Black co-lead, and they have a semi-critical conversation about the confederate flag, and on that type of show with that type of audience, that can lead to tremendous change.”
What does she like best about TV? Well, “What’s nice about television is that it’s really collaborative, which is what I enjoyed about law school. You are all the time creating with really cool people with really unique points of view and they bring pieces to a project that make it better and make you better…The strength of your collaborators elevates your skill.” How is this different from film? “I like the idea of film,” says Desta, “Most people who are writers start writing features, but it’s different in film because there’s so much time. [TV] is more think-on-your-feet in a way that I find really engaging.”
When asked what advice she had for aspiring writers and creatives, Desta replies, “Don’t lose your point of view because that’s what makes you special. Your POV can be a lot of things, for example, mine is a deep empathic storytelling - I always have to figure out what motivates people and the way people work, and I can’t help but empathize with them.” She continues, “What is your unique lens? Finding ways to show that is what will set you apart. A lot of scripts don’t jump off the page; there are good bits and pieces, but it still doesn’t jump off the page. What jumps off the page is pieces of you, as many pieces of you that you can put on the page, it makes a difference.” She also says to never stop creating. “The more you do things and put out into the world, it will help you be seen and it will help you get better.”
Desta also emphasizes the importance of living life in order to feed creativity. “You need to write and have interesting experiences. I’ve lived a full life, and it helps me balance the stakes of the career which can feel completely all-consuming. It’s so high stakes and so low stakes at the same time, so having a life helps you be a better creator and helps you weather the storm better. And it was the same thing when I went to law school.” Finally, she recalls, “Another writer gave me this advice once: 'Listen to your life, and it will actually guide you.' It’s not a race. If you put enough effort into something you will be successful you just can’t control when.”
Her success in the entertainment industry has come at the perfect time for her. Looking ahead, Desta is excited to be co-writing a pilot for HBO and hoping for a second season of A League of Their Own. In this industry, Desta says, “You’re always doing 50 things and nothing simultaneously.” In the time between that, Desta enjoys finding low-stakes, tangible creative projects with a beginning, middle, and end (like building her kids a playhouse) and then playing with her kids (in said playhouse).
Desta Tedros Reff is a writer and director that has written for a variety of different shows, from character dramas (Sorry for Your Loss, The Last Tycoon) to action (Shooter) and then some (The Purge, Grand Hotel). Currently, she serves as an Executive Producer on Amazon's television reboot of A League of Their Own. Before transitioning to entertainment, Desta had a former career as a lawyer and spent several years in the Mississippi Delta working as a social justice advocate. Desta loves to tell stories from a place of empathy and is driven to bring marginalized perspectives into the mainstream, specifically through authentic portrayals of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC characters and stories.
Laura Frustaci ('21) is an NYC-based actor and writer. She recently completed a yearlong Harvard Postgraduate Traveling fellowship in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she wrote her first full-length play. While at Harvard, Laura studied English and performed with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the HRDC, On Thin Ice, and the American Repertory Theater.