The actors in Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer-finalist play about a high-school girls soccer team are learning soccer moves that they'll have to replicate every performance, while also balancing dense overlapping dialogue and high-key emotions.
The floor is shaking inside a rehearsal room at ACT Theatre. A pulsating hook from New York rapper Princess Nokia blares from a speaker: “That girl is a tomboy, that girl is a tomboy.”
The song can’t quite compete with the sounds of nine pairs of sneakers stamping and squeaking as the cast of ACT’s upcoming play “The Wolves” crisscrosses the space in quick bursts of speed.
“Do we look like we know how to run?” asks Meme García, who plays #11 in Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer-finalist play about a high-school girls soccer team. All nine of the teenage girls are identified only by their jersey numbers in DeLappe’s breathlessly paced drama, set entirely on indoor soccer fields.
She’s asking Stephanie Ribeiro, a professional soccer player who trains with the Seattle Reign FC and who is one of the play’s soccer consultants. Running may not seem like something that needs much practice, but precision is necessary to convincingly portray accomplished athletes. It’s about “doing simple things really, really well,” director Sheila Daniels says.
Not all the soccer moves are so simple though, particularly when you consider they’ll need to be replicated on stage every night. Passes back and forth between two actors can be a little tricky. A perfectly placed header or a quick shot through another actor’s legs ups the difficulty level.
While Ribeiro quietly observes, Emma Bjornson (#2) asks for advice on performing a chip shot. The ball gets lofted a little too high, careening into the ceiling.
“There won’t be any beams in the theater,” someone encourages her.
“But there will be audience members,” Daniels says.
Ribeiro offers pointers on passing and receiving, telling the actors to use the insides of their feet. They run a passing sequence again.
“That was good,” Ribeiro says. “You definitely need to keep practicing though.”
The physical exertion is only part of the equation. DeLappe’s play is emotionally intense, too, dense with overlapping dialogue and narratively situated to maximize high-pressure moments. Every scene takes place during the warm-ups directly before a game.
“It’s what it feels like five minutes before curtain — every time,” García said. “That’s what every scene is. That feeling in your stomach, the heartbeat. You’re hyper-aware of what’s going on.”
DeLappe’s script has a bit of an overwhelming effect at first glance. Characters’ lines veer into one another. Thoughts are fragmented, supplemented by a shared language an outsider can’t immediately grasp. Multiple columns of text indicate characters speaking at the same time. But it’s not chaotic.
“It’s very similar to Shakespeare,” García said.
“It is. I agree,” Daniels said. “The text is difficult. It’s really hard to memorize, I’m sure.”
But the language is naturalistic in its teenage cadence. These nine girls aren’t here to serve some larger narrative purpose or make a statement about youth. They’re just humans.
“I can be problematic, I can be angry, I can experience the full range of human feelings and thoughts, [but] that’s not what the show is about,” García said. “The team is filled with so many different kinds of girls. It’s not just one girl.”
Earlier that day, the cast had done its first full run-through, and now they were sifting through the high-key emotions.
“The ‘I hate you, I hate you, I hate you’ line. I hate it,” says Cheyenne Barton (#7). “It feels petulant and like I’m throwing a tantrum, which I guess I am.”
There are “hot spots” in the play where the focus of the group shifts to one person, but that’s not the whole play, Daniels said.
“[We’re] pulling out the moments where someone has a response to something that’s not super obvious,” she said. “A ‘hot spot’ is obvious. But some private moment that everyone happens to overhear — those are sort of more gentle things.”
Finding a balance
So what’s harder? Getting comfortable with the ball or your character’s feelings?
“At a certain point, the physical exertion triggers the emotions,” García said. “We’re so tired by the end, that it’s so easy to just tip us into that emotional extremity.”
But that doesn’t mean you can forget about the ball. And that requires choreography that doesn’t look like choreography.
“Usually, movement is timed to the text,” Daniels said. “This is very intentionally: ‘I’m able to pass the ball and have a totally normal conversation.’ The movement has to be totally natural and have nothing to do with the conversation.”
In trying to figure that out together — and all the physical exhaustion that’s come with it — the cast has become a kind of team in its own right, Daniels says.
“We cheer each other on a lot,” García said. “We’re all really hard on ourselves. As young women, we’re trained to be super critical, so [we] have to alleviate that for our teammates: ‘Don’t be hard on yourself. You’re doing incredible. You’re amazing.’ Really lifting each other up, because if not, we’d just go home and like, it eats us alive.”
“The Wolves,” by Sarah DeLappe. April 20-May 13; ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $15-$60, 206-292-7676, acttheatre.org