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‘Down & Derby’ Director Talks Roller Derby, Community, and Teamwork

The New Colony theatre company member Thrisa Hodits previews her new play, opening this week at the Red Tape Theatre.

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Blood Bath and Beyond. Launch the gallery to see more characters »
Get ready for some blades of glory. The New Colony theatre company is rolling out a new show this week—Down & Derby, from the playwright Aaron Weissman and the director Thrisa Hodits. The play delves into competitive roller derby, a women’s sport celebrated for its aggressiveness and the salacious derby girl names. For those who didn’t see Drew Barrymore’s 2009 movie Whip It, Down & Derby promises a lively introduction to the subculture. Hodits even cast a couple Chicago derby girls—Lucy “Blood Bath and Beyond” and Jaclyn “Kilowatt Keough” are among the cast (launch the gallery to see some of the characters). Hodits sits down to talk with Chicago about the play, the cast, and the dirty derby world.

Down & Derby runs at the Red Tape Theatre through December 8.

What’s the premise of the show?
The play is set in Larkin City, a fictional small town in Ohio, and a group of 11 girls start this roller derby team after their town is struck by a pretty devastating tornado. Roller derby [functions as] a supportive family, so it’s really what saves these women and eventually brings this town back to life.

It’s a new play, in a very non-traditional format. What was inspiration?
In the beginning, [Weissman and I] were drawn to the violence and badass women. The sport lends itself to theatricality, everyone has their own name, there’s music, lights, and an announcer. But when we started interviewing derby girls, we found derby was actually about this community of women. So we shifted [the play] into a story about creating a new family. Roller derby is this circular sport, and when we came up with this tornado idea, it really came together into the circular pattern of rebirth.

The whole cast gets on skates, the training must have been pretty tough.
It was intense. We actually started training in March. There’s a company called Derby Lite that was started in Oak Park, and they have 10-week sessions where they train girls for roller derby. The woman who runs it—"Queen Bee” is her name—was all about it. Some of our girls took to it immediately. Others had a harder time.

The physical space, then, actually has to be able to accommodate a roller derby bout. What’s the setup?
We’re at Red Tape Theatre, which happens to be the second floor of a church, and the space itself is a gym. We start the show at a home bout, and so that’s the world you walk into. You’re greeted by the referees and the announcer, and you get a beer and find a place in the stands, and the girls are warming up and stretching. You walk onto this derby track that’s taped out in a gym. It feels right, you know? And the gym isn’t in the greatest shape. It looks like a building that has survived, which is really cool.

What do you hope the audience gets out of it?
This isn’t just a play. We need the audience for this. One of our goals is to bring in roller derby fans to see that this is theater, and another is I want theater people to sign up to be a roller derby girl.

When you go to a roller derby bout, you see all kinds of people there. Families, hipster couples on dates, derby fans, people all in leather. It’s amazing how diverse the fan base is, and we wanted to bring that to the play.

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