Soccer Drama “The Wolves” Will Open McCarter Theatre’s Season; “Live at the Library” and a “Director’s Cut” Kick Off the Production
“THE WOLVES”: McCarter Theatre Center will present “The Wolves.” Written by Sarah DeLappe, and directed by Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, above, the play will run September 17-October 16 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. (Photo by William Clark)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
McCarter will open its season with The Wolves. Written by Sarah DeLappe, the 2016 drama depicts a high school women’s soccer team. Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen directs the production, which starts performances September 17.
On August 30 the Princeton Public Library hosted a “Live at the Library” discussion about the production. McCarter’s Artistic Engagement Manager Paula Alekson moderated a conversation between Rasmussen and actor Katharine Powell.
A September 7 “Director’s Cut” offered a glimpse into the rehearsal process. As a perk of membership at McCarter, the audience was given an opportunity to watch Rasmussen direct the actors until they were dismissed for the day, after which McCarter’s BOLD Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson hosted a conversation with Rasmussen.
“Live at the Library”
Rasmussen received a Minnesota Theater Award for Exceptional Performative Direction for her 2019 production of The Wolves at the Jungle Theater. Alekson notes that Powell is there in a “dual role: as an actor, and a psychotherapist in private practice — a ‘Live at the Library’ first!”
Extolling the “all-female cast, in this really propulsive new play,” Rasmussen establishes the setting — an indoor soccer facility — where the team practices “through the winter … over the course of six scenes — six different Saturdays.”
Impressed by the distinctiveness of the characters, Rasmussen says, “The incredible sleight of hand that Sarah DeLappe does as a playwright is that first we only see numbers on them. You sort of feel — at least I did, at the beginning — ‘How am I ever going to tell them apart?’ Ninety minutes later, I know exactly who each of those girls is, and I care deeply about … where they’re headed.”
A distinctive aspect of the script is the extent to which dialogue overlaps. Rasmussen says, “A lot of times, the text is written in columns.” She likens it to a “musical score,” and adds that, although the piece is “precise and tricky at first,” it “sings in such a beautiful way.”
Powell agrees. She recalls that when she read the script, she thought, “’This is brilliant.’ I had not read a play like this in a very long time.” She adds, “This was a playwright who really was hearing voices, and putting them on the page in such a truthful way. I was really taken with it.”
Rasmussen adds, “While all of this orchestral language is going on, they are kicking soccer balls around, and running. It’s literally … pat your head, rub your tummy, listen for your cue — while somebody else is moving around and talking on stage!”
On casting the show, Rasmussen says, “We didn’t require specific soccer experience, although we were interested in people who had … athleticism.” One of the actors trained as a ballet dancer. “She’s doing great at soccer; we just sometimes have to get her to not do ‘ballet arms.’ Soccer arms are a little different,” the director adds.
Lighting Designer Jackie Fox has done a lot of dance lighting. “That was important to me, as I wanted the space lit in a way when you think about great dance lighting; there’s a lot of side light that catches bodies in interesting ways. This almost feels like it’s a dance piece … in that it’s so movement-centric.”
Rasmussen also praises the contributions of the other members of the all-female design team, which includes Costume Designer Raquel Adorno, Sound Designer Pornchanok Kanchanabanca, and Scenic Designer Junghyun Georgia Lee.
Soccer Consultant Heather Driscoll
To depict the world of soccer with a maximum of accuracy, the cast and creative team have spent time watching teams in the area, including that of Princeton University. Additionally, Heather Driscoll — Next Level Soccer Academy’s youth director and head coach — became a soccer consultant to the production.
At the library event, Rasmussen discusses Driscoll’s contributions. “It’s been fun to talk to Heather as a coach, not only about the technical skills, but about the culture of it all — the culture of what it’s like to motivate, encourage, and how people handle loss, and how people handle challenges.”
Asked whether she coached the actors on their movement, or advised the production on whether a segment looked authentic, Driscoll tells this writer, “A little bit of both. Early on we started with some different things to get the actresses comfortable with the ball.” Activities included passing, dribbling, and stretching.
She adds, “Once, when they were running through the scenes, I was able to sit in and watch; and talk through some things that … they could tweak to make it look a little more smooth, and just talk about things that were soccer-specific for them.”
“One actress in particular has a solo part with the ball,” Driscoll explains. “She would go through her lines … she had a little bit of a pattern that she was looking to do. So we played around with different things that she felt comfortable with, that looked a little bit more ‘soccer’ — it was supposed to make her stand out a little bit.”
The Wolves marks Driscoll’s first time being involved in a theatrical production. “I have no theater background at all, so it’s been such a neat experience,” Driscoll says. She enjoyed getting to know the cast and creative team, and seeing “how the performance is put on.” She adds, “It’s been interesting to be a part of that. Tying the two worlds together has been really interesting.”
As the audience takes their seats in the first few rows of the Berlind Theatre, they notice a brightly lit stage that is covered in green Astroturf; Lee’s set honors DeLappe’s opening stage direction that describes a “soccer field that feels like it goes on forever.” We are shown a model of Lee’s set — in which Fox can insert flashlights to work out the lighting — and a page of DeLappe’s script, with its columns of overlapping dialogue.
It is the first time the actors have moved from rehearsal rooms to the Berlind. As such, some areas of the stage have been marked with tape, to aid in the preparation of lighting cues. As the actors rehearse delivering their lines while kicking soccer balls back and forth, Rasmussen periodically stops them to adjust an entrance or other bit of blocking. Although she has previously directed the play, Rasmussen emphasizes that she did so in a different venue; she has had to make “different choices” for the McCarter production.
DeLappe has stated that she is interested in the “counterpoint” between the actors’ movements and their dialogue. At this point in the rehearsal process, what is particularly noticeable is the extent to which the energetic actors are making the most of this “counterpoint.” Dialogue often is punctuated by a well-placed kick or stop of a ball. Rasmussen likens the script to a musical score; the kicks add a percussive effect that accents the conversations.
The teammates are portrayed by Renea Brown, Annie Fox, Mikey Gray, Katie Griffith, Maria Habeeb, Owen Laheen, Isabel Pask, Jasmine Sharma, and Maggie Thompson. The swing is Isabel Rodriguez.
Rasmussen enthuses to Watson that the actors are “so motivated.” She adds that they typically spend “eight hours a day, six days a week” rehearsing, and describes theater as “monastic.”
Observing that soccer is “big in this community,” Rasmussen considers parallels between the game and theater. Having seen coaches build “from young people’s strengths,” Rasmussen is inspired by the ways in which they “empower a team.”
The discussion of the similarities between soccer and theater recalls a remark that Rasmussen made at the library event. Referring to the time that the cast spent watching real soccer players, she says, “This is why we do theater—why we tell stories: so that we can enter into these other worlds, and learn more.” She adds that the cast members’ performances honor the real-life athletes by creating an “incredible emotional journey.”
Directed by Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, “The Wolves” will play September 17-October 16 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. McCarter’s website notes that parental discretion is advised for strong language and themes; the play is recommended for ages 12 and up. All guests, regardless of age or vaccination status, will be required to wear masks while inside the theater. For tickets or additional information, visit McCarter.org.