Phoebe Graham talks to Ellen McDougall, Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre about her work on The Wolves, a play rightfully candid in its presentation of female athleticism.

Just because football didn’t quite make it home this year, it doesn’t mean it can’t take a trip overseas. Sarah DeLappe’s award-winning and Pulitzer-nominated play, The Wolves, is on the brink of its European Premiere, under the thorough and intelligent direction of the Gate’s Artistic Director, Ellen McDougall. I spoke to McDougall during rehearsals to see how the cast were warming up for the opening game.

The Wolves is made of six scenes, and the form of the play takes place when an all-girl high school soccer team are warming up for the match that they’re about to play every Saturday morning… and then when the whistle blows, the game’s going to start and that’s the end of the scene. What we see is the team stretching and doing drills in preparation.”

We don’t watch the matches themselves, but we experience the exponentially increasing power and tension of anticipation: “the way Sarah DeLappe describes it is like preparing to go into battle to go onto the field. The sport is the frame and the context but the things that drives the play are its characters and the dynamics of the story. We’re looking at who these characters are in this highly pressured environment.”

The play’s character-driven realism, in which “as far as possible you want your work as director to be invisible,” combined with a physically demanding performance requires some rigorous training, and McDougall has innovatively broken the ostensible barriers between sports and the stage through the rehearsal process of The Wolves: “the cast have been training with West Ham every week: learning the footwork and the stretches and the specificity of those stretches for playing football… 80% of the play is effectively choreographed, so at times the process feels closer to rehearsing a musical. There’s so much technical work to do.”

But the heart of this play isn’t necessarily the football: it’s the girls facing the prospect of growing up: “it’s a really forensic look at the experience of being a teenage girl; it’s about social pressures that they’re put under, it’s about their relationships with each other, it’s about the experience of not quite knowing who you are, of working out who you are in what can sometimes be quite a brutal environment, but also the kind of support that they offer one another as well.”

It’s almost allegorically centered on the confrontation of the unknown that lingers on the other side of a college scholarship: “I think that idea of stepping over the threshold into adulthood is sort of parallel to stepping out of the safe warm up space and onto the pitch; the brutality of the outside world meets the extremity of playing in a match. The idea of what it’s going to be like for these girls is something that sits underneath every scene; there’s a couple of moments when that safe environment is punctured.” But it would be a spoiler for us to push the ball any further.

The Wolves seems like a necessary play to expose to UK-based audiences, especially in light of an embedded cultural neglect of women’s football (it was the first time that England were in the World Cup semi-finals in 28 years, they said? Just give the England women’s performance in the 2015 World Cup a quick google: they’re smashing it harder). Still, there exists a social assumption that girls just aren’t that into football. DeLappe and McDougall are keen to turn this stereotype on its head: “seeing the girls as these incredible athletes who are strong and powerful and imposing and aggressive is a very deliberate thing about not looking at them as we might in more stereotypical contexts, you know sitting in their bedroom and talking about make up”

And yet, The Wolves remains rightfully candid in its presentation of female athleticism; McDougall celebrates the play’s “quietly feminist” nature: “it doesn’t feel like it’s forcing political standpoints on you; it’s not pushing a specific agenda, it’s just asking us to look. For most of the play, it’s just teenage girls on the pitch. It’s their space and their world that we’re looking at; we’re asked to meet them there.”

Bursting with authenticity, fierceness and honesty, The Wolves is bound to make you work up a sweat on the edge of your seat. So join the pack, and start stretching.

Read our review of The Wolves.

The Wolves is playing at Theatre Royal Stratford East from Wednesday 24 October until Saturday 17 November. For more information and tickets, follow the link