“Good ideas come from everywhere,” says Mark Booher, associate dean at Allan Hancock College and Artistic Director of the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA). He’s talking about choosing plays, but he might just as well be expressing the mind-set of the great playwrights, past and present, whose scripts have earned enduring places in the repertoire. Because nothing human is alien to the stage, theater, an art form that’s thousands of years old, continues to evolve. In recent times, that evolution has meant more stories by, for, and about women.
Take The Wolves, the fascinating new play that’s at PCPA’s Severson Theatre in Santa Maria through March 24. Sarah DeLappe’s award-winning 2016 drama follows a girls’ club soccer team through six weeks of a tumultuous indoor season. Each scene occurs in the warmup area of a bubble-covered playing field, where the performers stretch, practice, talk, and grow up. The script identifies cast members by number rather than by name, a deliberate artistic choice on the part of the playwright that has important consequences. According to director Karin Hendricks, DeLappe “wanted it to be a huge choice,” adding that “it works very well.”
Bright-green synthetic turf covers Jason Bolen’s eye-catching set, and Elisabeth Weidner’s sound design pumps punkish riot-grrrl rock during the changeovers. The Wolves takes place in the present, somewhere in the American suburbs. With its all-female cast and a fearless approach that depicts these nine young women as at once tender and profane, harsh and vulnerable, The Wolves quickly became the hottest new play to hit the American stage in recent years. In order to better understand how one of the most talked-about shows of the 2016 Off-Broadway season became a nationwide phenomenon, I traveled to Santa Maria to see what the excitement was about.
From Thrust and Parry to Dribble and Kick
As a prelude to observing The Wolves in rehearsal, I met Dean Booher in PCPA’s Marian Theatre on a Saturday afternoon to watch a pre-matinee fight call for Shakespeare in Love. When a script calls for actors to fight, the cast continues to practice the scene before every day’s performances. Even after the show has opened and ordinary rehearsals have ended, fight call goes on. It’s a way for the actors to keep their reflexes sharp; it’s also a chance for the director to notice if someone is off form, or if something is out of rhythm.
The Shakespeare in Love fight call was wild and wonderful. Overlapping skirmishes sent actors scrambling around the elaborate two-tiered set in a bravura action sequence requiring advanced training in stage combat. To no one’s surprise, all the fighters were men. The scene’s lone female character, Viola de Lesseps, flees the male melee without looking back. In Shakespeare’s day, of course, Viola too would have been played by a man. At the turn of the 17th century, boy apprentices played all the women’s roles.
Wild and wonderful, yes, but it wasn’t what I came to Santa Maria to see. Across the street, in a brightly lit rehearsal studio, I found another cast working hard to perfect a different set of physical skills. There were no swords this time, and no men either. Instead, there was an all-female directing team and 17 young women (including understudies) who began by talking among themselves as they stretched and warmed up. What followed was a heady mix of theater and choreography unlike anything I had seen before. These actors were really playing soccer, not miming it, and they were doing it while running complex lines of dialogue.
Director Karin Hendricks clearly relishes her role as the leader of the wolf pack. She’s been working on The Wolves for eight months, and the intensity she brings is mirrored in her description of the experience as “like a tornado.” Asked to express her feelings about the material, Hendricks answers swiftly and with conviction, saying, “It’s exactly the kind of play that I want to see. I would fly to New York to see a play like this,” adding that “working on something I love so much is amazing.”
It’s a collective project, and Hendricks; sees that most ineffable of qualities, team spirit, as not only essential to the success of the production, but also as the heart of the play’s subject. The Wolves is “not just brilliantly written,” according to Hendricks; it’s “a feminist piece.” “Giving the spotlight to a group of 16- and 17-year-old girls, people whose voices are usually disregarded—that’s already a feminist statement,” says Hendricks. The play represents a major advance over the Bechdel test, and over all other measures of how dependently women have been portrayed in literature of the past. These young women achieve their identities through the context of their team.
No opposing players appear in The Wolves, and we never see any games. What we do see is the borderline space of warmup, a transitional realm where life and sports rub up against one another. For these characters, warmup provides a forum where they can test out new personae, share information, and even wage internecine emotional warfare. Hendricks sees the playwright’s decision to use numbers instead of names as an aspect of the play’s naturalism, and as a call to develop characterizations through direct contact with the others in the ensemble. “We don’t call people by number in life, and so they don’t do it onstage, except in relation to positions,” she told me. “It feels naturalistic to not have names sprinkled through the text. The choice has to do with letting their identity be defined by their place as part of this ensemble, as part of this pack.”
In her preface to the reader’s edition of The Wolves, DeLappe writes that she “thought of the play like a war movie. Instead of a troop of young men preparing for battle, we watch a team of young women. … There’s a captain, a rebel, an innocent, a recent recruit, a common enemy. The arc follows an escalation of blood and viscera, both in the content of their speech and the actual sustained injuries and traumas.” The traumas in The Wolves follow the typical pattern of sports-related injuries, such as concussions and torn ACLs — until they don’t. DeLappe understands that adolescence is a time when “the stakes of everyday life could not be higher,” and that these girls “are desperate to understand themselves and the world around them, but they can only see so far.” For Hendricks, this means that The Wolves is “a coming-of-age story,” where the young women begin by talking about fearful and gruesome events such as mass murders “somewhat glibly, and then we see how they react when tragedy strikes in their own lives.”
Who Are the Wolves?
As DeLappe indicates through her comparison of the team to a troop in battle, each character comes with a set of expectations. The captain, #25, is played by Katie Fuchs-Wackowski, a resident artist and teacher at PCPA. She’s the only Wolf who is not a PCPA student, and with her lean, athletic frame and awesome buzz cut, she embodies the dead- serious, do-or-die spirit that has kept the team on top of their league. 25’s poise and intensity remain intact to the end, but beneath her tough exterior, one glimpses conflicting emotions struggling to emerge.
The script of The Wolves looks quite different from that of most other plays, and it’s not just that the characters’ names appear as numbers. DeLappe staggers lines across the page, with some that begin almost at the right-hand margin. This device shows when and how she wants the dialogue to overlap. In rehearsal, it’s easy to see how challenging this Altman-esque approach becomes when applied to the stage. At any given moment, there are three or more different dialogues happening, with each pair or trio of characters practicing a certain soccer drill while talking. Later, on opening night, when the cast has got their timing down, the challenge posed by the simultaneity shifts onto the audience. While listening to one conversation, one sometimes loses track of the others, until laughter from across the room draws your attention back.
The precision with which the playwright specifies when and where each character must pause, say “um,” or respond to an overheard remark coming from another conversation makes the script a difficult one to master. Talking with Fuchs-Wackowski and Sanders about the work during a break, they agreed that there is no room for improvisation when it comes to acting DeLappe’s complex, contrapuntal composition. For Fuchs-Wackowski, creating and maintaining the integrity of these synchronizations was a challenge. She described the work as “using different circuits in the brain.” As a dancer and a movement teacher, she said she’s comfortable putting words and actions together, “so you would think that the demands would come easily, but it turns out that attaching these stretches to the lines is difficult in a different way.”
“It’s exactly the kind of play that I want to see. I would fly to New York to see a play like this.”
At the same time, and perhaps in part as a result of these rigors, which included training with the Allan Hancock women’s soccer team, the cast as a whole displays a remarkable feel for the mind and sensibility of the author. One early scene ends with the team enjoying a snack of orange slices, and when the next one begins, they go straight into a strenuous round of laps. As the performers reentered the room during rehearsal, I overheard the following exchange: “I love how we eat oranges and then have to go do cardio.” “Yeah, thanks, Sarah.” The latter of course referring to the author, Sarah DeLappe.
For Sanders, the sense that the playwright is present through the script makes working on The Wolves more exciting. “Sarah is very much in the room,” she said, adding that the script’s powerful naturalism only became apparent to her on second and subsequent readings. Speaking of this deepening through repetition, she said of the playwright, “It’s like she leaves treasures along the way. She captures the female voice.”
The Mind-Body Connection
Over the course of the show’s brilliant and moving opening-night performance on Saturday, March 9, it became apparent that the marriage of overlapping dialogue with synchronized movement is essential to the impact of The Wolves. DeLappe has written that her play is “not really about soccer,” and that’s true, but bringing the necessary soccer skills to the stage nevertheless represents a new and remarkably original innovation for the actors. Observing the fight call and the soccer rehearsal back to back clarified the fact that onstage, a live ball poses as much of a risk as a sword. With the audience only steps away, an errant pass could break the fourth wall and derail a scene. Spacing, always an issue in any show, becomes a safety concern when a player has to enter the stage blind while everyone else has a partner and with exercise of her own occupying her full attention.
Where DeLappe’s writing really dazzles is in those sequences when the intensity of the physical activity gives rise to unfiltered expression. Conversations that begin in gossip and giggles can quickly escalate into tangible aggression. Along with the players’ heart rates, their interpersonal heat also rises. As the night goes on, moments when anger and jealousy slip out from beneath the veneer of friendship accumulate, setting everyone on edge.
None of this would matter as much as it does if DeLappe were not interested in something that’s not only “not soccer,” but that’s also not a familiar theme in the theater, which is the gnawing ambivalence that comes with living inside a bubble. These sheltered young people are literally inside one, and they know it. The play opens with a conversation between two of the girls about the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, and their limited knowledge of history lends poignancy to the fact that they are talking about it at all. When a second, overlapping conversation about menstruation begins between two other players, two key points are made: These people are young, barely past puberty, and blood is still blood. Their bubble is permeable; they are not yet able to escape their green and gilded cage, but information about what’s outside, however distorted and potentially unreliable, inevitably trickles in.
What’s most striking about The Wolves in performance is the degree to which every character leaves a strong impression. Led to assume the predominance of 7, 14, 25, and 46 by the story arc, I was stunned by how definite and absorbing I found the characters portrayed by Madison Davis as #2 and Willow Orthwein as #8, to name just two. Sanders said that she too had this revelation, but much earlier in the process and from the point of view of an actor. “I’ve never been in a show where the girls are all so relatable. When I read it, I could identify with at least five of the nine characters, and could imagine playing any one of them,” she told me. Another distinctive aspect of the way that this play works has to do with the fact that the characters take on their unique personalities through interaction with one another. Fuchs-Wackowski said that her “character became more clear” as she got to know the other characters better. Sanders and Fuchs-Wackowski agreed that in this play, the women are “defined by what they do.”
And by what they say. There’s a reason for every little “like,” “so,” and “um” in DeLappe’s script, and in this excellent production, the cast has found them. Hearing this symphony of teen speak, and seeing it set to such an exquisite dance, one appreciates anew the beauty and irrepressible vitality of the language as it lives in our ears and mouths. In the show’s heart-wrenching finale, PCPA artist and teacher Kitty Balay appears as the Soccer Mom, and her speech, which I won’t spoil, concludes with a parent’s remorse over resisting the underrated appeal and significance of oft-maligned adolescent speech patterns. Although The Wolves leaves overt moralizing to the audience, it ends with a powerful message, which is that it’s, like, never too late to love your girls.
The Wolves runs through March 24 at Severson Theatre, 800 S. College Drive, Santa Maria. Call 922-8313 or see pcpa.org.