Grappling With Tough Issues 

Two local theater organizations join forces to stage a unique and challenging teen drama

Two local theater organizations join forces to stage a unique and challenging teen drama

With the possible exception of vocal, wild-eyed devotees of the World Wrestling Federation, people usually don’t consider wrestling a sexy sport. This is especially true in high school, where, in most cases, football, basketball and baseball players have far more cachet than grapplers do. But pride defines the young wrestler as much as it does his higher-profile fellow student-athletes. And, like any group endeavor, high school wrestling has a culture—an interior life of its own—where its players deal with ambition, competition and status.

At first glance, youth wrestling might not seem a fertile arena for dramatic expression. But that’s exactly what it becomes in Laurie Brooks’ play, The Wrestling Season, which will be mounted next month in a joint collaboration between Mockingbird Theatre and Nashville Children’s Theatre. The production runs April 13-May 1 in NCT’s Cooney Theatre, where a regulation-size wrestling mat becomes the stage for nine actors, with audiences seated on either side in bleachers.

Suffice to say that The Wrestling Season offers little in the way of athletic achievement. Instead, the sporting environment functions as a jumping-off point for a multilevel exploration of typical teen concerns—peer pressure, gossip and self-esteem—played out in a series of sensitive yet confrontational dialogues among 17-year-olds. But it’s the show’s provocative approach to relevant issues involving bullying, rumor-mongering and adolescent sexuality that provides its sharpest hook.

The play made its world premiere at the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City in 2000, after first receiving exposure in 1998 at a forum for works-in-progress at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The drama had been in germination since 1995.

“I’ve always written unapologetically for young audiences,” says Brooks, a playwright-in-residence at New York University’s Program in Educational Theatre. Several of her works have already been successfully presented at NCT, including, most recently, A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas and Franklin’s Apprentice. “The Wrestling Season grew out of scenes I had written for a human rights conference for young people. I got the experience of spending time with teens who shared frankly with me. People say this play feels authentic, but that’s no surprise since it was originally based on a true story I’d heard from a wrestler. I was then invited to a wrestling match, and the script evolved out of that. Now it’s being done all over the country—in high schools, community theaters and universities.”

The Wrestling Season’s distinctive setting is just one aspect of its unique theatrical approach. Dialogue among groups of two, three and four actors is often moderated (or, better yet, “facilitated”) by another actor who serves as referee, complete with whistle and appropriate hand signals (“out-of-bounds,” “stalemate,” “reversal,” etc.). Furthermore, players not involved in the central action congregate off the mat, serving as a chorus to underscore the dramatic action. (The play’s signature refrain is, “You think you know me, but you don’t.”)

Not surprisingly, it’s the sexuality issues that have grabbed audiences nationwide. And Nashvillians get the chance for direct response to the play’s messages, since every production concludes with an open forum, where the actors remain in costume and character and field questions about their actions, motivations and emotions.

“I was determined that no one would see this as a gay coming-out play,” Brooks states emphatically, adding that her work carefully eludes labeling the characters in regard to any sexual orientation. “I’ve been criticized for the script not being explicit—in other words, that someone should come out. But sexuality is not that simple, and I wanted to make a statement about that. I just don’t think it’s so cut-and-dried.”

Brooks also emphasizes how important it is that audiences know in advance that her material is strong. “The response has been overwhelming,” she says. “People have been waiting for this. They identify strongly with the young characters. The whole point of the forum design is to talk about the issues in a safe environment—to raise questions and to give some space to think about them, rather than bring kids into the theater and say, 'We’re gonna teach you something.’ The worst thing you can do is try to 'teach’ kids: They are way smarter than we give them credit for. Instead, I want to raise a dialogue.”

“All theater involves risk,” says NCT managing director Allison Dillon. “We do what we do because we’re serving young people, and we think this is an important play to do. We’ve been champing at the bit to do it since 2000. This is something we believe in. Kids in Nashville and all across the country struggle with the same issues in high school. The Wrestling Season is an experience that will bring them into the theater and get them talking.”

In fact, this play is so important to NCT that its presentation is actually outside the company’s normal season. Performance times are also out of the ordinary—NCT will offer late-afternoon and evening engagements in order to make the production more accessible to high school and college students as well as adults.

Meanwhile, NCT producing director Scot Copeland has geared up for the public reaction. “We suspect there will be some local quarters that may have a problem with this play, especially since it’s different than what we usually do,” he says. “We’re going someplace that might surprise you, but it’s actually a direction that children’s theater should go. Obviously, the play deals with some tough issues—so it will call attention to itself. But those issues are dealt with in an extraordinarily responsible way, and they are also dealt with in a manner in which teens will feel the need to address them. It’s possible that somebody might think that this is something theater shouldn’t do.”

The Wrestling Season is being produced in partnership with the Oasis Center, Nashville’s highly respected, 35-year-old nonprofit teen crisis center, which offers the area’s most comprehensive adolescent programs, including peer counseling, safety and emergency shelter, assistance to runaways, and various youth leadership development opportunities.

“When I read the play, it seemed less about sexual identity and more about peer pressure and harassment,” says Hal Cato, Oasis Center executive director. “I think it’ll be a powerful tool to get people talking about the issues of bullying and teasing. Those are huge problems, affecting some 30 percent of high school students. If it’s not stopped, it can affect a child’s ability to achieve, their self-esteem, and it can lead to more extreme and devastating behaviors.” Cato cites the horrors of Columbine as an example.

According to Dillon, NCT is working with Oasis Center to develop a discussion guide for the play. “We’re strongly recommending the play for teenagers—whether they come alone or bring their parents,” she says.

“The forum dynamics are very different when the teens are there alone vs. when they attend with their parents,” says Brooks. “Parents get very emotional about it.”

The production is made possible in part through a Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee grant from the H. Franklin Brooks Philanthropic Fund and the Craig Spain Fund for the Performing Arts. “There’s a buzz among the adult community,” Dillon says. “The Brooks Fund has supported Mockingbird Theatre in the past. Through the Community Foundation, they have provided critical assistance for this project. We’re also working with the Oasis Center’s Youth Council. People are helping us get the word out.” The show is also offered as a part of Mockingbird’s regular season and is expected to draw large audiences.

René Copeland is The Wrestling Season’s prime Mockingbird connection. Copeland, longtime associate artistic director at the company (who will soon take the same position at Tennessee Repertory Theatre), directs a cast that includes familiar local faces and a few newcomers, including David Berry, Brandon Boyd, Anitra Brumagen, Rob Brunson, Misty Lewis, Robert Marigza, Keiana Richard and Jessica Whitney. In anticipation of the demands of the wrestling overplot and the show’s critical issues-oriented subject matter, the cast has been prepping since this past October, when it finished its first read-through. The actors have also received some tutelage from local high school wrestling coaches.

“People are tired of going to the theater and walking out exactly the same as they walked in,” Laurie Brooks says. “They want to be challenged. They want to think and be entertained. But more than anything, they want to be affected. They want to have something to talk about when they walk out the door...no matter what age. And I think it’s true that this play resonates with anybody who’s ever been a teenager.”

NCT’s Copeland concurs. “This is one of the most important plays of the last 10 years. Not only because of the issues it addresses, but because of the audience we’re speaking to. It’s fascinating to see the thrilling discussion that comes out of the forum. The Wrestling Season is an equal-opportunity question-raiser.”

For more information on the play and performances, phone Mockingbird Theatre at (615) 474-0852 or (615) 242-6704.

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