Leaders of the Pack: A Conversation with The Wolves Playwright Sarah DeLappe and Director Vanessa Stalling

Left: Playwright Sarah DeLappe and Right: Director Vanessa Stalling

If there’s a theatrical equivalent to scoring a championship-winning goal, 26 year-old playwright Sarah DeLappe has certainly done it with her soccer-themed play, The Wolves—written as a graduate student at Brooklyn College. DeLappe earned a spot among the 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalists for the New York premiere of her debut play, which received two encore presentations due to popular demand. Shortly before rehearsals began for the Chicago debut, DeLappe joined director Vanessa Stalling— an acclaimed Chicago director and alumna of the Goodman’s Michael Maggio Directing Fellowship— to discuss the play.

Michael Mellini: Sarah, what inspired you to write The Wolves?

Sarah DeLappe: In 2014, I was at the New Museum for an exhibit of contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa. It was an incredible show, but I kept thinking about the distance between the people taking in the art—you know, New Yorkers on their iPhones drinking cold brew in the middle of summer—and the artists, who made these political works in response to the current or historical situations of their countries. On the subway back to my apartment, I started writing the first scene of a play where these simultaneous conversations are happening about the Khmer Rouge and the efficacy of tampons on a soccer field. That I figured out quickly that these characters were on a soccer field came from a question: What could be further away from those humanitarian disasters than a bunch of American suburbanites on an indoor soccer field warming up for a game? I started thinking of the characters as if they were in a war movie, but instead of young men in the trenches preparing for battle, they were young women on AstroTurf preparing for a soccer game.

MM: The play uniquely combines rapid fire dialogue with the physical demands of soccer. Sarah, can you speak a bit about how you envisioned the performances as you wrote—and Vanessa, how you go about bringing that to life on stage?

SD: I wanted it to be a very physical play, and for the majority of the play to be this synchronized warm-up routine. There was something appealing about showing these girls as strong athletes, not sexualized objects, moving through something with military precision and unity. They’re almost like one organism, yet their dialogue is so scatter shot. I found that notion really exciting.

Vanessa Stalling: The physical opportunities really excited me when I read this script because I love complicated staging possibilities. As a director, you really need to balance where the audience’s focus should be. At the same time, there’s the exciting juxtaposition Sarah pointed out, which is that women aren’t often allowed to look strong, be aggressive or take up space. But these women are preparing for a game that asks them to do just that and use their voices. So as the audience watches the players warm up, it’s like being a fly on a wall for their conversations and seeing how they socialize as young women in the midst of forming their own identities.

MM: These characters are in high school, which can be a time of soul searching and self-discovery for anyone. Does your work pull from your own formative years— and with the advent of social media in the last decade or so, do you feel the current teenage experience may be different from your own?

SD: When I was writing the play, I spent a lot of time at my day job tutoring teenage girls, helping them with the SATs, homework and essays, so I felt very close to the current experience of female adolescence. The play is autobiographical though it doesn’t map out my actual experiences—I never played high school soccer—but the characters are an amalgamation of all of the teenage girls I’ve known, loved, hated and admired.

VS: This script is so strong because each of these women has such depth, and you can see the different facets of yourself growing up in each of them. I love the quote Sarah includes at the beginning of the script: “We’re always the same age inside.”

SD: Yes! At the beginning of the play, each character is kind of isolated and operating in their own bubble, even though they’re a team. It takes something big for them to come together. Rather than each saying, “I’m going to be the best that I can be and get into college,” they start to think, “Oh, who is that person across from me?” The distance between the women shortens as they shape their own identities. We get to see them at this really great point where their adult identities are beginning to form. They’re at this tipping point as to who they’re going to become in life, which is why it’s such an interesting age range to explore.

MM: Plays with all-female casts are still fairly rare in theater, and nine of the 10 of actors are making their debut in a Goodman season production, which is quite exciting. Are there similarities between an athletic team and a theatrical ensemble?

VS: Being an ensemble on stage and being on a soccer team aren’t very different. They’re communities you form in order to carry each other through to an end goal. We’re going to hold a workshop with a soccer consultant so the cast will learn the exercises and everything that would be required of a team. You’re definitely working at a different level with this play because of the physical challenges, so everyone is going to be rooting for each other. Chicago is filled with amazing, talented women, so it’s super exiting that this production is providing the opportunity for so many young women to move into the next phase of their careers.

MM: Sarah, in addition to the Goodman production, this play will be staged throughout the country later this year. As a writer, how does it feel once your work begins to be examined and shaped by a whole new group of artists?

SD: I’m so excited about the production at the Goodman. I feel continually astonished and astounded that any of this has happened at all. It’s totally out of my hands now, and that is so thrilling, shocking and really an honor. A lot of colleges are going to be producing it now, too—and even some brave high schools, which is a playwright’s dream come true.

MM: In recent months, stories of sexual assault and the treatment of women, in both professional and personal environments, have dominated the news. Do you see this play being in dialogue with so much of this discourse?

SD: The antidote, or answer, to all of these discussions is to see women as fully complex, multidimensional human beings who deserve respect and attention. In that way I hope the play is involved in the current conversation about sexual harassment of young women. I hope that every audience member will feel that even teenage girls deserve their own stories, and that it’s a worthwhile experience to watch these characters unfold and discover their identities.

VS: The play addresses many of the pressures facing young women, including the pressures put on them to be sexy and to please men. There’s something interesting about those expectations clashing against the notion of these women playing this sport for themselves. It’s nice to be able to see women, complicated women, in a space for 90 minutes examining their goals and empowering themselves. They’re up against so many things that weaken women, whether it’s self-driven hatred of one another or pressures from men and what they’re “supposed to be.” These sub-storylines are woven in so beautifully that the players’ stories don’t necessarily become all about that, but inherently the compounding effect challenges the team as a whole, as they try to win. It’s a great time to see nine amazing female characters on stage. When they come together as a team for their cheer, “We are the Wolves,” it’s a powerful moment. You can’t walk away without feeling an element of hope.