Debut 26-year-old playwrights aren’t often nominated for a Pulitzer, but that’s exactly what happened to Brooklyn native Sarah DeLappe in 2017. Her first play, The Wolves—an intense drama about a teenage women’s soccer team full of secrets—“sent shockwaves through the New York theater scene” when it debuted off-Broadway two years ago. NPR compared it to a war movie, the New Yorker detailed her method-playwright routine of writing in a sports bra, and the Pulitzer committee commended DeLappe for illuminating “the way young selves are formed when innate character clashes with external challenges.”
Now, the Goodman Theatre has mounted an all-female, all-Chicago version of The Wolves, just extended through March 18, that preserves DeLappe’s dialogue (about everything from the Khmer Rouge to sexual abuse and anxiety disorders) while adding a brilliant production trick of its own—putting the audience on stage and building a soccer field in the middle of the house.
We caught up with the play’s director, Vanessa Stalling, who grew up in Peoria, Illinois before moving to Chicago after graduate school.
Did you intentionally cast all Chicago-based actors or did that just happen naturally?
If you have the talent locally, why not celebrate it? After talking with the casting director, Erica Sartini-Combs, we realized Chicago has a plethora of talented women in the age group for this play. A lot of them are making their Goodman debut.
Where did the cast do their soccer training? How did that experience change the group dynamic?
We trained at the CIBC Fire Pitch [on the Northwest Side], a large indoor facility that’s fairly similar to the location of the play. It was pretty exciting! Being in an ensemble is a lot like being on a sports team. Going through all that strenuous exercise brought us even closer together, not just as a team that played soccer together, but as a team that’s going to tell a story together.
Another interesting thing about being at the pitch… we were the only females there. It was even difficult to find the right shoes for the cast, because soccer cleats are more often than not only in male sizes. You have to translate the sizes from male to female!
Did you have any personal experience with soccer before this show?
I did, but I went to a pretty poor high school in Peoria. It was a struggle just to get jerseys for the girls, let alone like a coach that was soccer-oriented. I think the track coach coach was in charge of it. And that's also part of this play…. Who has access to these indoor soccer leagues? It costs a lot of money to have these opportunities, to compete to at the level these women are competing at.
Why does this play make such a powerful impact on audiences and critics?
We make certain assumptions about this particular age group, and The Wolves really breaks those assumptions. We’ve seen so many stories about groups of young men, whether they're heading off to war or stuck somewhere like Lord of the Flies. But we don't have as many stories about this age group of women. We don't often get to be flies on the wall, we don’t often have access to young women’s voices when there aren’t any adults around. So once audiences have the opportunity to listen to them… they’re shocked at what they hear.
How does your take on The Wolves differ from the original runs in New York? Did you collaborate with Sarah DeLappe at all?
Sarah and I had a conversation over the phone during the very initial stages, and it was great to hear what's important to her and why she wrote it. That was really helpful going into the rehearsal process, but beyond that, we didn't talk much.
I didn't have a chance to see the New York production, but our show is the first time it’s been done in an arena setting with nets. That netting allows us to authentically play soccer, because otherwise you can't really strike a soccer ball with force. You’d be worried about hitting audience members.
Do you feel an extra layer of pressure when you're adapting a Pulitzer-nominated play?
Yes! But that goes away really quickly when you're just doing the work. I look at being a director as problem-solving. When you're working with a play that is really, really good, then you're working in response to that play. You're like, okay, this play is proposing these challenges. And as a director, I collaborate with an amazing group of women to figure out how we want to unpack those challenges. When you're in the process of solving the riddle of a play, there isn't really much room for fear or stress.
How is The Wolves particularly relevant for Chicago audiences?
The story is about how you can be united as a team, just like people can be united as a city. The play asks, “What does it take to bring people together? What does it take for someone to feel like they belong somewhere?” You can look at that in terms of a team, or in terms of a neighborhood, or a city, or even a country. There are a lot of things that keep us divided as a city—fear of others, fear of what people think about us. So in that sense, The Wolves is a great show for the city of Chicago to see.