I've been so excited for The Wolves since I first saw it listed in the Krannert catalogue, so it was no surpise I included it in my list of five ways to heart your local arts scene this month. Despite her busy pre-opening schedule, director Nisi Sturgis was kind enough to share her time and give us a closer glimpse at this compelling portrayal of the complex fierceness of girl power. 

 

Smile Politely: What first drew you to the work?

Nisi Sturgis: I love this script. My favorite thing about it, and also the thing I felt the most challenged by, is that Sarah often has two, three, four conversations happening at the same time. It’s cacophony on stage sometimes, and at first I worried about the audience not catching every single word. But I think that’s the point. It isn’t about catching every word, it’s about sharing in the vibrant, precarious, mysterious, moment-to-moment lives of nine high school girls. The story is clear and exciting, and the miracle of the play is that while I’m sometimes unsettled by it, I’m never confused. The cacophony actually helps tell the story, and it’s part of what makes Sarah’s writing so familiar, real and unassumingly thrilling.

Also, seeing soccer on stage is really, really cool.

SP: What have you wanted to do differently, or put your own spin on, as you prepared to direct this production?

Sturgis: When approaching this, I didn’t really think of putting my own spin on anything, or deliberately trying to do something differently. I am devoted to the vision and intent of the playwright, the text and gentle direction they provide on the page, and we’ve all worked to find creative, exciting ways to be true to that. But the playwright doesn’t solve every creative problem for you, and where there isn’t a rule, there’s artistic freedom. We’ve had a lot of fun exploring that.

We’ve created some events on stage before the show starts, as the audience is coming in, which I think are really exciting. We have some mysterious moments of hyper-reality in the show that I’ve never seen or heard of in another production of this play. I don’t want to give too much away by describing them, but the title of the play is a decent clue. Also the audience is set up in an alley configuration in which one half of the audience is facing the other with the play happening in between them. I think that’s particular to our show, and has also led to some interesting, unique scenic choices.

Mostly, I trusted this cast, this production team, and the writing of the play. I knew that as long as we were open to each other and our creative impulses, and as long as we kept saying yes more than we said no, it couldn’t help but be unique. I guess the “spin” is that it is for this moment, for this audience, for this community, for this night.             

SP: What have been some of the happy accidents?

Sturgis: This production is all about happy accidents. The actors have such freedom in this show that every time we do it, it’s different.  The story doesn’t change, but the experience of telling it is unique every single time. One night there will be all these spontaneous… I don’t know, happenings that make me burst out laughing or break my heart, or thrill or bewilder me. The next night, some of those moments will be gone, only to be replaced by other surprises that delight or devastate me in a whole new way.

SP: What has the process or the work itself taught you as a director?

Sturgis: I don’t think my job as the director has been to rehearse and perfect every moment, or even to get everything “right.” Every play requires different approaches from its actors, designers and director. In The Wolves, I think my job – certainly my joy – has been to create an environment in which these actors and artists can thrive and play, trust in the work, in themselves and each other.

Along those lines, one thing this process has taught me is the power of risk. Actual risk. Because in risk, there is freedom. There are those “happenings” I talked about, that the actors bring to a performance. I could ask them to nail that down and do that same thing every night, because the way they looked or moved or spoke was so good and I don’t want to lose it the next time we do the show. But I don’t ask that. They don’t nail it down, and we do sometimes lose it the next time.

The thing I’ve learned, at least for this process, is that it doesn’t matter. Whatever we lose is replaced by something equally brilliant, equally true. What’s consistent are the characters, the story, the text, and most importantly, their spontaneous spirits. With those things intact, nobody worries about getting things right because they know they can’t get anything wrong. That’s something that I, as director, could never generate or manufacture, and it makes this play so beautifully vital and electrifying.

SP: What are you most excited for the audience to experience?

Sturgis: Oh boy – there are so many. Of course I can’t say the things that I’m most most excited for people to experience, because it would give too much away.

SP: The play takes on some big issues about young women experiencing their own power individually and as a group; yet doesn't attempt to provide easy solutions. What's your take on playwright Sarah DeLappe's message for young women?

Sturgis: You’re right, she doesn’t try to provide easy solutions – or any solutions, necessarily. I think her play leaves enough room for everyone’s experience, and one person’s take-away is just as valid as another’s. To me the play isn’t just about power. To me says, “It’s okay. It’s okay to be strong. It’s okay to win. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to be funny. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be smart. It’s okay to fail. It’s okay to be sexy. It’s okay to be a mess. It’s okay to be a human being on this cacophonous, violent, beautiful planet.”

Throughout history, outside forces have set expectations and limits on how women should look, behave, present themselves, how much money they should make, what things they should like and how much they should like them, how hard they should try, when they should give up. This play isn’t exactly a rallying cry for social change. It speaks to the individual, showing them that they are not alone in facing the onslaught of those external expectations, the unfairness, the minor and major injustices, the insult of daily life. It takes those things that we so often endure silently, and says them out loud with directness and even humor, which makes them less frightening, and less lonely.

And this isn’t just for women. The ability to identify with what these nine girls go through transcends gender, race, and age. The Wolves speaks to everybody. I think this play can inspire self-acceptance and deep empathy, which is empowering, and that personal empowerment, one audience at a time, has the potential to change the world.

The Wolves
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave
Urbana
February 13th through 23rd
Get showtimes and ticket information here

Top image: Painting of girls playing soccer on a grass field, with ball in foreground and legs and sneakers in motion. Image from Krannert Center for the Performing Arts Facebook event page