The Toronto premiere of The Wolves, directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, is a gamechanger

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster; photo: Pierre Gautreau

What’s preoccupying our teenage girls? Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer-Prize-nominated 2016 play The Wolves, which opens The Howland Company and Crow’s Theatre season, suggests that we remain woefully unaware of (or oblivious to) the range of answers to this question. “Yes, these teens talk about school, and sex, and growing up, and pimples….,” agrees Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, who directs this Toronto premiere. “But in the same breath, they talk about genocide and war and justice. This is the range of topics that teenage girls are thinking about, and we absolutely CANNOT dismiss them.”

By design, The Wolves makes it impossible to dismiss the voices and worries of teen girls. Instead, the play provokes listening and paying attention as acts of compelling urgency. The plot centres on a high-school girls soccer team, The Wolves, comprised of 16 – to 17- year olds who have, for the most part, played together since childhood. In each of the play’s six scenes, the nine girls talk to each other through their afternoon pre-game warm ups at an indoor soccer facility. The girls are not named. They are instead identified by their jersey numbers, which sharpens the focus on their words, preoccupations, relationships and personalities.

The sole male character is the coach, who never appears on stage. His absenteeism transfers responsibility to the captain to lead the warm-ups through a stretching routine. His absence elides the need to consider females in relation to the men around them. As such, the play can concentrate on female interactions, exploring what girls talk about when men are not around. A number of stories unfold in intricate, overlapping conversations that replicate rapidfire teenspeak. Through this verbal maze, we discern the girls as individuals with unique perspectives and emotions, each navigating her place on the team and in the world.

Ms Lancaster admits that the Howland Company members were “all drawn to this script the first time we read it – the writing is so unique, and the characters are so wonderful.” Initially, the rights to this “fantastic play” were unavailable due to the NYC run of the show, but the company’s lead producer Ruth Goodwin fought hard for two years to secure them. Afterwards, the company had to yet more time to prove that they were “up to the task of producing this beast”. “All the moving parts” finally came together: “the rights, some funding and our partnership with the wonderful team at Crow’s Theatre, culminating in our current production.” Goodwin is not only producing the play- she is also performing in it as #11, as is fellow Howland member (and Marketing Manager) Hallie Seline, who plays #8.

The cast of The Wolves; photo by Dahlia Katz

Throughout this process, Ms Lancaster has keenly appreciated the ensemble nature of the show. The Wolves is about a team, and as much as there might be “quibbles and quarrels, the team is fundamentally about winning together, supporting each other, taking care of each other even when that requires a bit of tough love,” she observes, before adding, “I could probably say the same thing about the Howland Company, actually.” The characters of the play are women, and are performed in this cast by diverse women and non-binary actors. In addition to Goodwin and Seline, the cast includes Rachel Cairns (#25), Aisha Evelyna (#7), Annelise Hawrylak (#2), Ula Jurecka (#46), Brittany Kay (#14), Heath V. Salazar (#13), and Amaka Umeh (#00). “It’s a substantial cast size – 10 people!” Ms Lancaster marvels: “It was such a gift to rehearse together, as it is truly a rarity to share a rehearsal room with that number of women and non-binary colleagues.”

She also appreciates how “freakishly well” these actors suit their characters, and asserts her admiration of them as the “most hard working and dedicated group of performers you’ll find anywhere”. “This show demands so much of its performers – they have to be physically fit, good at soccer, and so agile with their bodies and minds as they race through a script that moves at a very fast pace. It has been a tremendous challenge for all of us,” she explains. “They have met it and exceeded it. I dare anyone to come to the show and not fall in love with each and every one of them.”

The cast of The Wolves; photo by Dahlia Katz

This candid appreciation also extends to the creatives who bring the production aspects to life. Ms Lancaster makes a point to “shout out” the team who worked on The Wolves, particularly designers Deanna H. Choi (composition and sound), Jareth Li (set and lights) and Sarah Doucet (costumes and movement coach). “It is a very special and rare thing to have a team that collectively cares so much about a project,” she maintains. “I knew from day one that we were all on the same page and all entirely dedicated to our tasks. I am so grateful for them, and I really think we’ve made something pretty special.”

Our conversation closes with Ms Lancaster’s simple invitation to see the show, relayed with her customary warmth: “Come check it out!” And we should. Since The Wolves debuted in 2016 at New York City’s Duke on 42nd Street, it has become a phenomenon. At the time of writing, there are at least 3 other productions running concurrently or about to open in North America and England. (It is worth noting that this is DeLappe’s first play!) The play’s popularity is rooted in its novel forum for portraying the wonder, fear, might, and promise of female adolescence, which are being brought to vibrant and hilarious life in this production. Ms Lancaster notes that the writing is “very (sometimes alarmingly) true to life,” and she is confident that “young women in the audience will recognize themselves in it”. (It should be noted that The Wolves is a story about teens, so it contains some mature content, and one character does launch frequent F-bombs . . . though these realistic elements should not deter teens from experiencing the show.)

Ms Lancaster’s hope for the play extends beyond teens – to adults who have not been around teenage girls of late. “I think we all, myself included, have been in many ways trained to dismiss the young female voice – with all its ‘likes’ and ‘ums’.”  The Wolves neatly sidesteps “the mean/ popular/ slutty/ nerdy girl tropes present in pop culture” that “we are filled to the brim with”. This makes for a powerful teaching moment: “I hope people come to the show and allow these amazing characters to retrain their ears to hear and respect young women’s voices.” Ms Lancaster’s assured and sympathetic vision of this frank, funny play seeks impact beyond the immediate thrill of performance. The ultimate goal she hopes to score is training us to really hear what our girls have to say.

L – R: Ula Jurecka, Heath V. Salazar, Rachel Cairns, Annelise Hawrylak, Hallie Seline, Amaka Umeh (Front) Ruth Goodwin, Aisha Evelyna in The Wolves; photo by Dahlia Katz

News You Can Use

What: The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, presented by The Howland Company and Crow’s Theatre; Directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster
Featuring: Rachel Cairns, Aisha Evelyna, Ruth Goodwin, Annelise Hawrylak, Ula Jurecka, Brittany Kay, Heath V. Salazar, Hallie Seline, Robyn Steven, Amaka Umeh
Who: Audiences 12 years of age and older
When: October 9 – 27, 2018
Where: Crow’s Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Ave., Toronto
Info and Tickets: crowstheatre.com and howlandcompanytheatre.com  

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine

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