Directing THE WOLVES: Nell Bang-Jensen helms a talented team at PTC

This Spring was set to be a busy time for director Nell Bang-Jensen. Newly named as the artistic director for Theatre Horizon, she was about to direct Sarah DeLappe’s heralded new work, THE WOLVES, for Philadelphia Theatre Company and almost-concurrently premiere BOY PROJECT, her public performance piece featuring a group of Philadelphia boys aged 12-15, at FringeArts. Things changed. In March, Philadelphia Theatre Company’s much-anticipated production of THE WOLVES was indefinitely postponed just days before it was to begin rehearsals.

Thankfully, the production has been reconfigured as a virtual performance, with the same talented all-female-identifying cast and the same devastating drama. Streaming now through December 20, the pay-what-you-can presentation showcases the superbly realistic script about an indoor U-17 soccer team. We talked to Nell about the work.

Hannah Gaffney, Michelle Tsai, and Tori Lewis in THE WOLVES. Photo by Anthony Werhun.

Phindie: What attracted you to this play?

Nell Bang-Jensen: So many elements! Sarah DeLappe talks about blending “the prosaic and the profound” in a way that deeply appeals to me. This piece achieves that mix in a way that is more true to life than any other script I’ve read. There is such a delicate blend of conversations of little substance (in this case, about tampons and social studies homework and what car the characters’ parents drive) and the profound (genocide, immigration, eating disorders, mortality). The ways in which these young women’s conversations unfold feels genuine in a way that is incredibly difficult to capture in the theater. I also love that the piece takes the emotions of teenagers seriously in a way that our larger society does not and that ultimately, I believe it is about the building of community. On a more concrete level, I love that it provides opportunities to 10 female-identified actors (a huge rarity in our industry), many of whom are young and just starting their professional careers.

Phindie: What themes or ideas did you talk about in rehearsal??

Nell Bang-Jensen: The most important part of this rehearsal process was crafting a deep sense of character. Most of our conversations were about particular, individual lines and what was motivating them. Sarah DeLappe is so careful to just have the characters’ referred to by their numbers, and not names, to prioritize their role on a team, but because of this, it was even more important to make specific, individual choices to differentiate them from each other.

Phindie: What did you want to avoid?

Nell Bang-Jensen: I think there can be the temptation, whenever an actor is playing someone younger than themselves, to lean into the comedy and cuteness of the text, and I always wanted us to go for restraint and subtlety. I think one of the most universal elements of being young is taking yourself very seriously, and it was important to me that we were never judging, and always fully inhabiting these characters.

Phindie: Did you play soccer or team sports? What did you draw from those experiences or others?

Nell Bang-Jensen: I didn’t play soccer, but I played other team sports, though at a certain point I became the character mentioned in the script who stopped playing sports “to do the school play”.

Phindie: What did you draw from those experiences for the production?

Nell Bang-Jensen

Nell Bang-Jensen: I think these experiences gave me an understanding of the stakes of the high school athletic world(especially in these characters’ case, how it is tied up with their college prospects) and also the many different dynamics of a group. One of my favorite throughlines of the piece is seeing how #46, “the new girl”, is integrated, expelled, and readmitted to the rest of the team at various points. I think the nuances of your teammates and how you relate to them are subtle and recognizable.

Phindie: What opportunities did the virtual production provide?

Nell Bang-Jensen: We all learned so much! I know more about the inner workings of certain software programs than I ever thought I would (or really would want to!), and it definitely was an exercise in releasing control in moments where technology just wasn’t cooperating. I do think the virtual production allowed us to delve even more deeply into character work than we may have otherwise, and also to explore movement, alongside our fantastic soccer coach Matthew Roach, over Zoom. I was pleasantly surprised by how effective movement on Zoom can be; I think the past eight months of self-isolation have trained us all that Zoom is full of talking heads, and seeing people run, sweat, and stretch on that platform was so welcome and exciting.

Phindie: This would be a great companion piece to your Boy Project. What parallels do you see??

Nell Bang-Jensen: I think working on both these pieces made me completely fall in love with teenagers. They are a largely understood and stereotyped demographic, but they are at such a fascinating precipice in their lives–the conversations they’re having are going to shape who they are for years to come.

Phindie: Thanks Nell!

THE WOLVES streams at?philadelphiatheatrecompany.org/the-wolves?November 27-December 20, 2020. Tickets are pay-what-you-can and you really should see it.

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