By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The Wolves, opening the Citadel’s Highwire Series Thursday, does something no production has ever done at the big brick-and-glass playhouse downtown. It turns the Rice, the smallest of the Citadel’s theatres, into an indoor soccer field, complete with AstroTurf.
That’s where we’ll see, up (very) close from the sidelines, nine teenage members of a girls’ soccer team, 16- and 17-year-olds, warming up for games on successive Saturdays. One is an outsider, struggling to find a place in an established team. Later they’re joined briefly by a tenth character, a soccer mom.
“A planet of teenage girls”: that’s how the young American playwright Sarah DeLappe puts it in introductory notes to her 2016 Pulitzer-nominated play, amazingly her first to be produced. There are no fathers, or boyfriends, or teachers. “We meet them with each other. We’re on their turf. They’re not on ours.”
It’s a Maggie Tree production, part of a Citadel initiative to collaborate with smaller companies and amplify their audiences and profile. With The Wolves, originally planned for 2020, the indie company — started by Kristi Hansen and Vanessa Sabourin to produce and showcase the work of female artists — is back.
Sabourin is directing; Hansen is producing. We caught up with the pair pre-rehearsal this past week to talk about a play that takes us into the world of teenage girls on the move, both physically and emotionally, as they stretch and jog, converse and interrupt each other, about teen things and about the world and their place in it. It’s a view from the confusing coming-of-age bridge they’re about to cross.
“That’s the beautiful thing about the piece,” says Sabourin. The players “are trying to get ready physically for a game, of course, warming up; they have a goal. But they’re also dealing with big questions in the world.” Says Hansen, “it’s thresholds! thresholds they’re about to cross.”
The most obvious is that they’re pre-game. “But there’s also childhood into adulthood,” says Sabourin. “Being responsible for things you say, between understanding political as a global thing but also understanding it as a personal thing. This is teens trying to figure out how and where they fit in the world — what they think as opposed to saying the things their parents say. Figuring out what happens when someone holds you accountable for something; the ‘oh, I don’t know if I can back that up’.”
Ten actors? In the Rice? The Maggie Tree partnership with the mighty regional is mutually beneficial, both parties have said. “In the theatre eco-system where we co-exist,” as Sabourin points out, “indie companies can have an agility that institutions sometimes have to work a little harder to achieve.”
It was Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran who proposed the script originally. And its appeal to Sabourin and Hansen, who often use the term “community-building,” was multi-faceted. “We liked the idea of giving a group of young performers at various stages of their craft and careers the opportunity to dive into something that was both physical and had so many layers of story to it.” The “integration of text and movement” gave the Maggie Tree the chance to work again with long-time collaborator Amber Borotsik, a choreographer with an expansively creative sense of what that term means.
Written, astonishingly, in three weeks (“the first scene written on a train, on a phone!” Hansen marvels), The Wolves presents a unique sort of ensemble-building challenge. The players are identified by numbers, not names. And, as you’ll discover in the script, they seem to all talk at the same time, over each other, in a cross-hatching of simultaneous conversations and fragments.
“It only started to be clear when people were moving, on their feet,” says Sabourin, who made photo tags for the actors, to put faces to the numbers. Gradually, even in reading the script, you begin to distinguish the individual personalities.
Their original audition call elicited 140 applications. “We could have cast the show ten times over,” Hansen says of the response. Some of those actors have inevitably moved on since 2020. The cast we’ll see, a mix of Equity and non-Equity actors, are all local, from a variety of backgrounds and theatre experience. No soccer expertise was required; Sabourin’s cousin, a long-time coach to teenage soccer teams, came in to help out with skills.
The only requirements were “being able to pick up movement, and not be afraid of the ball,” Sabourin laughs. “In auditions we heard ‘OK, I don’t know how, but I’m going to go after that ball!’”
There are improv stars like Marguerite Lawler (who plays the captain #25), for example, and musical theatre triple-threats like Jameela McNeil (#14) and Michelle Diaz (#13). “It’s very helpful,” says Sabourin who’s discovered “a certain musicality” in the script, and the way it builds and subsides.
The rhythms of the play are complicated, she says. One moment there’s an exchange about how to pronounce Khmer Rouge, the next about pads vs. tampons. The players “warm up, they get distracted (by talk) on another path, they come back together…. It’s about finding the ebb and flow of that, and how the movement informs it.”
“It has to breathe and be in motion: so much fun for a director.”
A soccer “team” on the field and a theatre “team on the stage? Not a big stretch, of course. “One of the crucial questions for us,” says Hansen, “was what’s this team we’re going to make? What’s the experience we’re going to offer? Where can we give? Where can we take?” The idea is ‘to care for our team as best we can.”
When The Wolves was postponed indefinitely in 2020, Hansen says they wondered “could we do this outside? in a park? in a field? But it’s such an intimate script.” Sabourin says they even thought, for a second, “could we do this with a camera? Uh, no.”
“When we came back to the script after the pandemic, we were all different. Something (about everything) feels different…. A theme we heard so often at auditions was ‘transition’, ‘transformation’, A lot of people are carrying grief they weren’t carrying before. We’re all managing so much more than we did before.….”
There’s a kind of gradual immersion experience in The Wolves, as Hansen describes. People are talking all at once. “It starts out ‘my ears don’t understand! How do I listen to and watch this play?’ It’s a bit like Shakespeare that way,” she laughs.
In a succession of Saturday morning warm-ups, “each scene is a little bit different, in how it focuses, in its rules of theatricality,” says Sabourin. “People are talking all at once, and then it’s ‘oh, there’s a story here’. At first you’re super-attentive and then because you can’t follow it all anyhow, you take a step back, and you start to surf. And it’s fun!”
“You’re listening in a different way…. I can literally feel my ears shift in their listening!” Hansen, who’s been watching rehearsals, calls it “releasing yourself into the experience.”
And in the end, there’s an unpredictable cast member you can never quite control. The ball. “Balls don’t always do what you want them to,” grins Sabourin …. They require the performer to be alive and in the moment. Balls don’t let you go on auto-pilot.”
Theatre: The Maggie Tree in the Citadel Highwire Series
Written by: Sarah DeLappe
Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin
Starring: Michelle Diaz, Lebo Disele, Daniela Fernandez, Marguerite Lawler, Jameela McNeil, Sokhana Mfenyana, Pauline Miki, Dean Stockdale, Asia Weinkauf-Bowman, Kaeley Jade Wiebe
Where: Citadel Rice Theatre
Running: through Oct. 30
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com