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The American Play that's hitting the back of the net in London
We spoke to Sarah DeLappe ahead of the European Premiere of her award winning debut play, The Wolves
October 24 to November 17, 2018
Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, London E15 1BN
Thank you so much for talking to The American magazine, Sarah. First of all, can you tell us where you're from in the States?
I live in Brooklyn but I grew up in Reno, Nevada aka "The Biggest Little City".
Your play, The Wolves, is soon to make its European premiere at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London. The play has quite an interesting concept in that it's focused around nine American high school girls warming up to play soccer. What inspired you to write this play?
I began writing the play after seeing an art exhibit in 2014. The New Museum did a survey of contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa called Here and Elsewhere. The show was terrific and viscerally affecting. I remember feeling sharp cognitive dissonance, consuming work by Lebanese, Iranian, Syrian artists about their political reality and history - conflict, catastrophic loss, personal and national trauma, much of it shaped by American foreign policy - and listening to New Yorkers discuss which brunch place to hit while glued to their smartphones. Something about that chasm made me start typing the first scene of the play on the subway ride back to my apartment. I wrote two overlapping conversations, one about genocide and the other about tampons. I quickly realized (or I suppose decided) that these characters were teenage girls on an indoor soccer field, warming up for their game in a stretch circle.
Soccer is very much a growing sport in the States, especially with the North American World Cup set for 2026. Did this particular sport perhaps resonate more with the story you wanted to tell than other big sports in America?
Girls’ soccer is massively popular in the US. I feel like at this point soccer is almost a coming-of-age rite for a certain class of American youth, particularly those in the suburbs. I definitely played it... although I’m a solidly mediocre soccer player. Soccer’s also one of the most successful of women’s professional sports - I mean Team USA has dominated on the global stage for decades (and still gets paid a fraction of the far less successful men’s team). So much of this play really began in my parents’ living room in 1999, when I watched Brandi Chastain rip off her jersey after scoring the winning goal of the Women's World Cup in penalty kicks. That was a major moment in my so-called feminist awakening - to see a woman celebrate her excellence like that on live TV?! Using the physical vocabulary of men's athletes in a sports bra in front of millions of viewers worldwide?! I mean. Insanely empowering.
Was there a particular reason you chose to set the play in the warming up stage, rather than the actual game of soccer or in another school environment?
I guess I'm copying the Greeks who believed that action should happen offstage and be reported, debated, and heard (and felt) onstage. Also, not to be too precious about the metaphor, but in a way adolescence is one big warm-up for the rest of your life... Plus I always knew I wanted to stage the dance of team warm-ups, all of these strong female-identified bodies moving together in perfect synchronization, not for our pleasure a la The Rockettes but out of necessity for themselves. Stretching is vital. It's how they protect themselves from injury. And why watch a bunch of actors play soccer when you could tune into an actual soccer game? Besides which, how would we hear them talk, of which there is very little of import during actual gameplay?
Quite notably, the characters are identified by the numbers on their shirts. Did you consciously want to avoid giving names to the characters, and what effect does this have on the play?
The play opened up when I understood it as a war movie. Or rather that I could use the tropes of a war movie, or war story, as a photo negative for the structure of my play. So instead of a troop of young men preparing for battle, we have a team of young women preparing for indoor soccer games. Each member of the team must play their part. So there’s the captain, the rebel, the new girl, the innocent... I’m using the language of archetypes even though each character is incredibly specific, but you get the point. I wanted us to meet these girls as soccer players. As members of a team. We don’t see them as daughters, or girlfriends, or students, or accessories to any other character’s journey — we meet them on their own terms, on their own turf, as individual components of one larger organism. That’s why they have team numbers instead of actual names. The same idea underpins the tightly synchronized choreography - they move as one perfect unit. Of course that isn't naturalistic, but this play isn't naturalistic. I call it hypernaturalism with a ten degree tilt into a more theatrical world.
Is there anything of a microcosm of America in the characters you developed as part of this play?
I’d say a microcosm of a slender privileged slice of the United States! These characters exist in a bubble. They play INDOOR soccer in the dead of winter, in short sleeves, inside an insulated Air Dome, somewhere in the suburbs. They’re desperately trying to understand themselves and the world around them, but they can only see so far.
One of the big developments in the UK in recent years has been the growing popularity of Women's Soccer. Given you wrote this play several years ago, do you feel it's even more prescient being performed in London given the growing popularity of Women's Soccer?
That’s fantastic! I guess my answer is... I hope so? Also Bend It Like Beckham was a touchstone for me in my own adolescence. So. That’s vaguely related to your question but I had to squeeze it in somewhere.
Finally, what's the best thing about being Sarah DeLappe?
The capital L.
The Wolves makes its European Premiere at the Theatre Royal Stratford East on October 24, and runs through to November 17. Find tickets and more details about this new production at http://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-shows/the-wolves.