Forming the Pack: A Conversation with the Cast and Creative Team of Goodman Theatre’s The Wolves

wolves

by Mariah Schultz

Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves centers on a female high school soccer team and how their lives intertwine on and off the field. Though we never see them actually play, Delappe delivers an intense, action packed ninety minutes of humor, heartache, and suspense as if we were at an actual game. This idea is further emulated as the play, currently running at the Goodman Theatre, is performed arena style with nets surrounding all sides. We are the spectators to these young women as they prevail and as they fall, and all the complicatedness that comes with both outcomes.

I was fortunate enough to interview some of the cast and creative team on the process of bringing this tender, yet gut punching play to life. Kristin Idaszak, served as the dramaturg for this production alongside powerforce director Vanessa Stalling. Idaszak recants on what it was like to first approach this project and facilitating conversations on topics that the girls nonchalantly discuss (and often expose their privilege in the process) such as the Khmer Rouge and the enslavement of Mexican children. I also chatted with two of the players themselves, Sarah Price and Taylor Blim. Price plays the overachieving, insistent source of authority on all school happenings and matters of political correctness #11. Blim plays #2, a well-intended, but misplaced empathic soul who secretly struggles with her exterior appearance.

MS: What were your initial thoughts when first reading The Wolves? What struck you about this play?

Kristin Idaszak (KI): ​I was immediately struck by the form of the play. Even reading it, I could begin to imagine the interplay of dialogue with movement. It’s incredibly skillful. I love that the play makes meaning in a very different way then we’re used to in traditional well-made plays. It’s very exciting, the way narrative accretes so subtly you don’t notice it right away. On the page, it’s so clearly a blueprint for a live performance. It’s meant to be experienced live, not on the page, but even so, Sarah’s dialogue is exquisite. It’s pretty incredible to juggle all of those things at once.

Taylor Blim (TB): This show, from my first read, makes me squirm a bit. I couldn’t place why at first, but I soon came to realize it was putting my mind’s eye on a time that I often try and forget. High school wasn’t always a smooth ride for me, and revisiting and truly personalizing some of these character’s struggles, really brought me back to that tumultuous time.

Sarah Price (SP): Erica [Sartini-Combs] got to do all the casting on this show. And they [Sartini-Combs along with casting associate, Rachael Jimenez] were very determined to use all Chicago actors, and we have a dumb amount of talent in this city, just a dumb amount. And so, some of my best friends and I that were practicing on Saturdays go to like a pick up game at Futsal in Edgewater and just play around and none of us had gotten the gig yet. We were all just having fun getting ready and hoping. And so that made the casting process a little tough in that way. You know this group of women is insanely talented and I’m really proud to be among them, but also there’s a lot of other women who didn’t get to tell the story and we take that responsibility very seriously because anybody could. We have so much talent in this city that there are so many other women who could have played the roles we played and it would have been different, but it would have been brilliant because of how personal this work is.

MS: What themes or ideas did you focus your research on and foster dialogue about in the rehearsal process?

KI: ​I wanted to make sure that we had a solid foundation on the topics the girls reference in the play – and there are a lot of them. So I definitely did research on Nuon Chea and Abu Ghraib and other humans rights violations that come up in conversation. We worked with a soccer coach, so I didn’t do as much research on soccer as I might have anticipated. However, I found some really interesting background on the personality traits that are characteristic of each position in soccer, and found that it tracked really clearly onto the characters in the play.

The research I did that probably sparked the most conversation in the rehearsal process was about two very disparate topics (but that seems appropriate for the play): wolf pack behavior and the “uncoolness” of teenage girls. In table work, wolf pack dynamics informed the politics of the team. And we also talked a lot about how the experiences of teenage girls are often invalidated or trivialized.

SP: We don’t really deal with bullying in the play because no one’s really being bullied. I mean we do it constantly. There’s like a little bit of that all the time, but we kind of related it more to the wolf pack of who’s the alpha, who’s the omega, the nips, the playing, the learning how to swat someone with your claws out, swatting someone without your claws out, and then the difference between those. We’re kind of learning all those, those little social manipulations and trying them on for size. And we don’t mean most of the things that we say, but we still say them, and then we find out there are consequences.

…We did a little bit of wolf research cause we’re like you know why not…Some things that we found really interesting is like the amount that wolves play. There’s always an alpha wolf, and there’s always an omega wolf. And those roles may change, but the pack can survive if the alpha wolf dies. The pack cannot survive without an omega wolf, if there’s not somebody that they can attack.  

MS: In what ways has The Wolves stirred memories of your own high school experience? How so?

TB: Sarah DeLappe quotes Gertrude Stein as a preface to the script, “We are always the same age inside”. I relate so strongly to that message when performing in The Wolves. It’s scary how easy it is to access emotions completely associated with a younger former self. I’d like to think I was past some of those insecurities or social anxieties, but this process demanded bringing them to the forefront.

KI: ​These characters are so well observed. I see parts of my high school and college self in several of them. Many of these memories are challenging to me now. But I also see the intellect and drive in these young women and think, they’re gonna be alright. It turned out alright for us.

SP: Vanessa did a very fantastic job of casting a lot of talented actors, but also a lot of people that very much identify with the characters that they play. I play #11 who’s kind of a little, budding elitist, liberal. Both of her parents are therapists. She’s very thoughtful, a little bit of a dark sense of humor or darker interests. And interested in definitely asserting herself in conversations about world topics, about anything that might be just outside of the scope of her grasp. That was definitely me in high school.

KI: I especially relate to #11, who’s described as “brainy, morbid, budding elitist, thoughtful” in the character descriptions. I think if you ask my friends about me at 16, they would say that was a pretty spot on description of who I was then. I think I avoided becoming an elitist, but I do still try to make quantum physics jokes at parties, so maybe not.

SP: I moved to North Carolina when I was 15 and I moved the day before freshman year started. I moved from Florida to North Carolina and it’s pretty different and figuring out, just hunting for even someone to sit with at lunch. I didn’t sit with anybody at lunch until the day the cast list went up for To Kill a Mockingbird and I had been cast as Scout. And I was looking at that list, and some people turned to me and asked, “Oh, do you want to sit with us?” and I was like, “Oh yeah. That would be cool.” So finding that community really helped. You can’t really flourish unless you feel comfortable around people. Or you can, but you know like #00 [played by Angela Elise] puts a ton of pressure on herself and is never really happy before any game. She clams up, the nervous condition, you know and there’s success there too if you buckle down and put all the pressure there, but it’s not something you can sustain. And so if you can find a group that really embraces who you are then it just makes everything else a little easier.

MS: This play tackles a lot of individualized high school experiences that many of us have experienced to some extent (being home schooled, eating disorders, the pressure to be sexually active). What messages do you feel the play communicates from having all these distinct experiences woven together?

SP: Making each of these women in this cast not a stereotype…We’re laughing with them, not at them.

TB: What I love about this play, is that it never hammers you over the head with high school cliches. It is so easy to reduce the pain and trauma of teenagers upon growing up. I think this play successfully gives validity to each character’s experience without commenting on it. The lack of narrative judgement or resolve is just like real life. I think weaving all of these experiences together allows the audience to see their own teams and classmates in each of these characters. They can find a familiarity in this community in the diversity of experiences.

KI: ​More than anything, I think this play says, these young women deserve to be taken seriously. ​I think the reception the play has received reinforces the power of these combined experiences and the hunger we have for these stories. Since we went into rehearsals, the conversation around the power of adolescents has exploded. Look at someone like Emma Gonzalez. Young women are powerful, they are our future, and we are lucky.

SP: High school’s just such an interesting time because you are figuring out what your personal values are. And you see the characters struggle with that a lot in this show. And so, offering up just like a fun tidbit of information with all the enthusiasm of which you’ve learned it, and then finding that the room doesn’t care or doesn’t like, thinks whatever you said is dumb or weird, and you just start learning in different social circles what’s valued and what’s not…And I think high school’s all about navigating that, and so I definitely working in the show the way that they kind of tease #11 for being a little bit of a know-it-all or using words like Twitter platform. #25 [played by Isa Arciniegas] has a great line where I’m like, “I’m pretty sure they have a Twitter like platform in China”, and she goes, “A platform?” Like that, that echoed in my ears of like yeah, that’s definitely happened to me before.

I think all of the girls have a way of knowing like they figured out what’s valued, and some are friendship and kindness, and that’s what they value and that’s what they can bring to the table. You know, sex knowledge or cursing or knowing how to do your hair which are all very important things in high school. I don’t mean to diminish it …#11 is definitely while I might not be involved in the conversation, but I can add information. Everyone needs information, and that’s my in, and these girls we’re kind of pushed together. We choose to be here, but we didn’t get to choose each other.


MS: This production has an all-female cast and a predominantly female creative team. How do you feel this element has influenced the story you all as a collective are trying to tell?

TB: This production to me feels so deeply feminine. I’ve never had such a collaborative or productive team in my entire experience as an actor. Having an all female cast and creative team has been one of the biggest gifts the Goodman could’ve given us. It has created such a trust and understanding and deep empathy between all members of the team. The room always had a buzz about it. There was this huge net of support that felt like what people must mean by sisterhood (I have two brothers). I’ve never been an athlete, so being coached and directed by other females felt crucial for me to be able to physically understand how to do the job.

SP: We got to have astroturf in the field day one in the rehearsal room which was crucial. We got to go to Chicago Fire’s pitch and practice with Loyola’s women’s soccer coach, Katie Berkopec. She’s come to the show like four times with notes and she’s going to bring some of her girls in a couple weeks too, which makes me very nervous. They’re actually good at this.

It’s been an insane amount of support for our bodies as well as making sure how do these shoes feel, the costume designers making sure we feel comfortable and can get the job done. We have Athletico coming once a week for just little 15 minute PT [physical therapy] appointments of, “Okay. How are you feeling? Do you want me to rub out your calves?” Like yes please, thank you!

KI: ​I think the team is a reflection of the needs of the play. It was a deep joy to go to work every day and be in rehearsal with 15 women. When we make theatre, it’s important to think not only about the stories we want to tell but who we want to give opportunities to. I think about this as a dramaturg and as a playwright. The Wolves is a piece that says, “I want to give opportunities to a lot of incredible women.” I hope and believe that it is part of a sea change.

TB: Feminine energy is the life blood to this piece, and being able to embrace that as a team emboldened all of us to challenge each other and rise to the demands of this script.

SP: There’s not a lot we can hide behind on that set. No one can help us from the wings. It’s very bare bone, we’re out there. We’re vulnerable and I don’t worry about it because I get to be with these women who take this work and a story very serious and very personal and we just get to have an insane amount of fun together.

Someone asked us at a talkback a couple days ago that like the girls are about to leave high school, and how they’re going deal with that, and he wondered if Vanessa had prepared us at all for not being in this production anymore. And on one hand, I was like I mean we’re actors. We do this all the time. We can manage it. And on the other hand I was like no she hasn’t prepared us at all.

MS: In one word or small phrase, what idea do you hope audiences walk away with from seeing The Wolves?

KI: ​Empowerment! And hope for the future.

TB: Your body and your voice NEED to take up space and be heard.

SP: I think the one that really resonates with me is what being part of a team means…At a time where politics and people have so much fear and distrust, and divisiveness in the political climate, these are American girls. These are painfully American girls…There are so many differences, and differences that we wouldn’t want to smooth over, differences that we wouldn’t want to try to change just to be on this team, but we’re still on it at the end of the day…”

 

There’s a lot in our political climate right now that is set to divide us, very targeted efforts to keep us apart, things that appeal to our bias, that we keep playing into and refuse to see other people as part of our team. And there are some very tolerable entities that know exactly what they’re doing in terms of that kind of manipulation. And so, that’s what I want people to take away of what it means when you say, “I’m part of this group.” What it means when you say, “I’m a part of this team.”  

There’s no better way to describe the feelings of elation and exuberance from talking to these women about their experiences with this production. Their collaboration. along with the other cast and production members, is a testament to this idea that Price touches on of what it is like to be a team. I couldn’t help but be touched by this sentiment when watching the show from the very beginning. What a remarkable thing to witness the evolution of such a strong, perfectly imperfect, caring group of young women. Power, friendship, and finding our voices are timeless ideas, but could not not have a more timely presence in our world now which The Wolves implores us to remember. Age may make us wiser, but it’s imperative to discover and more importantly, use our voices when we are young.

Due to popular demand, The Wolves has been extended at the Goodman till March 18. With the fervor of its team and the female solidarity it exemplifies, you definitely won’t want to miss it.

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