At Fresno State, these ‘Wolves’ find girl power on and off the field
Kathleen McKinley, who as a Fresno State theater professor is on a never-ending quest to find superlative new plays to direct, first read in 2016 about Sarah DeLappe’s acclaimed play “The Wolves” in a New York Times review. She knew at that moment she had to get her hands on it.
“I was excited to read that a young woman writer was receiving acclaim for a play focused on the interactions of nine, believably complex, contemporary young women — not set at a slumber party or shopping mall, but on a soccer field,” she says.
The play would go on to be a 2017 finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Pictured at top: The cast of ‘The Wolves.’ Photo: Fresno State
When McKinley talks about “The Wolves,” it’s with a crisp and motivational energy to her voice. She reminds me, yes, of a coach giving a pep talk before the big game. I caught up with her to ask about the play, which opens Friday, Sept. 28, at Fresno State’s Woods Theatre.
Q: And just who are the Wolves?
A: The Wolves is the name of a girls indoor soccer club team. Each scene is a warm-up, just before the starting whistle, set in a corner of an AstroTurf field in an indoor sports arena somewhere in suburban America. The coach is absent, so conversation among the girls is uninhibited by adult supervision. Topics pinball from genocide to feminine hygiene to college scholarship prospects to zits to snake handling.
Q: You are an expert on a lot of things, but I take it that soccer is not one of them. Was this a learning experience for you?
A: I am not a soccer coach in real life, but I play one at rehearsal. Based upon my limited experience as a soccer mom (I spent many more years as a drama, dance, and music mom) and viewing video after video of high school soccer teams in action, I discovered the interactions of the teen players to be not so different from the conversations I overhear in our green room (a place where actors gather when not onstage).
Theater is also a team sport! I was so lucky to have Summer Session, who plays a role in the show, as our expert soccer trainer. First rehearsals were focused on practicing specific soccer stretches and drills as Summer trained us in the physical vocabulary of soccer. We even received a few pointers from members of the Fresno State Women’s Soccer Team. I staged the show using my newly learned soccer vocabulary to underscore the dramatic action of the dialogue.
Are you a member of The Munro Review? Win a pair of tickets to ‘The Wolves’
Q: Are any of your actors soccer players? For those who aren’t, how did you help make them feel confident in their roles?
A: All the actors are Theatre Arts majors, and their soccer experience varies from serious high school team play to none. All are physically responsive performers. Some had dance experience. As a director, my goal was for each actor to develop the specific soccer “style” of her character’s unique personality. Some members of the team are more aggressive, some more tentative, some highly focused, some are a bit goofy, and one is dark-horse. In this show, ensemble acting chops are as important as soccer skill.
Q: In his review, Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote that “this production uses overlapping dialogue the way Robert Altman did in his films, to create a heady buzz of personalities in collision.” As director, what was your strategy regarding that?
A: Directing this play was a bit like conducting an orchestra—moments of dissonance, then harmony, with lines of melody popping forward and then being drowned out by a cacophony of exuberant teen laughter or jeering or teasing. At times, I stilled the cast, and shut my eyes to listen, then restarted the movement. The dialogue resembles real conversation among nine teen girls who are exploding with personal reactions, judgements, jokes, attacks, and loyalties. Layering the dialogue with the soccer moves was a fabulous challenge for me as a director, and demands gorgeous ensemble sensitivity and concentration from the cast.
Q: Adolescence can be a crazy time for both boys and girls. Your own daughter isn’t that far removed from those teen years. Did this play bring back memories?
A: Absolutely! It is funny how teens become so engrossed in their own interactions, that a parent chauffeur or food server seems to fade into the background. I recall being wildly entertained, shocked, and sometimes troubled by the teen talk that occurred in my car or at my kitchen counter. I think the audience of “The Wolves” will have a similar fly-on-the-wall vantage to the secret world of teen girls.
Q: How uncommon is it for a play to present such a realistic depiction of teenage girls?
A: Partly due to the youth of the writer, who was less than a decade older than these characters when she wrote “The Wolves,” this play captures the voice of complex, contemporary teenage girls when there are no parents, no coaches, and no guys around. Each character is written with a unique personality. Each is at an age when personalities and attitudes evolve, but they are drawn to each other by years of playing as a team. The relationships the girls have with each other have deep, powerful forces in their lives.
Q: Some people might be hesitant to attend a play about a soccer team because they aren’t sports fans. What would you tell them?
A: Soccer is a wonderful and unique motif that exposes the relationships and passions of these teens. The characters are in uniforms on an empty corner of a field. They are gearing up to win on the field, but even more focused on each other as they crack each other up, test loyalties, lash out, shock each other, and support each other. Soccer is the setting, but drama or band or most team activities, could easily be substituted.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: The team member of “The Wolves” are just as funny, snarky, innocent, confused, profane, and intelligent as any group of suburban high school juniors. They are pulling together, and at the same time, being drawn apart. They are becoming increasingly aware that the world is bigger than the team!