FOOTBALL: why these chicks are the future of the gameby Trish Harnetiaux
It’s a cruel moment when you realize you’ll never be a professional baseball player. You’ll never play in the World Cup; never hear yourself discussed on SportsCenter. It’s even worse for girls—it’s only in the past few decades that the option has even been available to them to play sports on a professional level, to get paid for it.
From an early age, Tina Satter had her heart set on ballet. But, alas, no. In what seems like a crystal clear memory, she recalls when she was 14 and her ballet teacher took her to Chinese food and told her she would never be a ballerina. Satter remembers how she looked at her and said, “‘Look, your feet are just not there. You’re never going to have it. You could work your ass off and maybe make it to the corps of a ballet company—but even that would be a stretch.’”
Satter, Artistic Director of the hot, experimental theater company Half Straddle, also grew up reading Sports Illustrated. She likens the importance of field hockey in the small town in New Hampshire where she’s from to what high school football is in Texas. Her mom had been a first class player and her dad was an all-out sports fan. Bidding adieu to dance, her new focus was clear.
HIGH SCHOOL. Freshman year: cut from the JV team. Devastated. Sophomore year: makes JV. Junior year: Varsity. Senior year: Captain. Awesome. Should she play in college? Absolutely. Keeping the dream alive, Satter enters Bowdoin, which has a new, young, enthusiastic coach that, as Satter puts it—“changed the tenor of Bowdoin Field Hockey immediately.” They were on their way to becoming contenders. Satter played all four years of college, started every game, and again, by the end, helmed the team as captain. One of her greatest moments ever: winning the Championship game her senior year, in overtime, her sister on the team playing as a freshman, her parents in the stands, a cake in the car, and the realization that this would be her last game ever because even though she was damn good, she knew that she wasn’t “going to go on and play in the Olympics or anything.”
In the past three years Half Straddle has had three wild, funny, and unexpected, successful full-length shows in New York. They have explored everything from nurses to werewolves to the complexities of family. From Girl Detectives to Sliding whores. And now? They’re coming to the Bushwick Starr. They have created a piece about an all girl football team titled: In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL. Satter’s taken the heart and soul of growing up a field hockey stud and is finding a way to make theater out of it. The similarities of the worlds of sports and theater are striking. Working as a team, the live element, expecting things to happen that are unexpected—the show is the game; the game the show. There’s a sense of competition, but Satter says that it’s not about competing with other theater makers; it’s about striving for everyone to feel like they have won the show, that they nailed it. She’s the first to admit that to her, creating theater “is the closest thing in my life that feels like it does to play sports.”
The decision to create FOOTBALL instead of, say, FIELD HOCKEY, was the subject’s wider potential audience base, but the shift in subject also allowed Satter to use the vocabulary of team sports while exploring one she had never played. At the beginning, she knew nothing about football. She reached out to friends that had either played the game or were huge fans, and mined them for insight. She read Friday Night Lights; then became admittedly obsessed with the series. In an early workshop of FOOTBALL, Satter freely admits she may have lifted a few lines from the show. (Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.)
One college friend wrote her a five-page missive about how much football meant to him. In it, he spoke of growing up in a football family and about his time as a player. He illustrates the seriousness of a big win by quoting Holden Caulfield’s take on feeling fan pressure when he says it was like “you were supposed to commit suicide or something if Old Pencey didn’t win.” Satter was moved by the level of dedication and depth in the responses she received back. Each testimonial seemed to “enlighten for me the beauty of it. The artistry of it, the super high level of incredible detail that is happening. The strategy.” And then, of course, how cool are the uniforms and the hot cheerleaders? Who can forget the mood just before a fall football game? And who doesn’t like a little rivalry?
Half Straddle tends to walk the line of parody and satire, and Satter has found that sometimes that is the biggest challenge. “I don’t want people to think it’s a parody of Friday Night Lights,” she explains. Yes, they tackle gender issues—but this isn’t a parody of “girls-playing-dudes” just as Nurses of New England wasn’t just a send up of nurses. That’s one of the things that makes Half Straddle so interesting—they don’t hesitate to tease out humor while finding a way to celebrate what is often an underlying earnestness about whatever the subject at hand happens to be. These are human relationships after all, and they’ve got a lot of heart.
And yes, she is working with actors that have never played football. Thankfully, she’s created the position of the “Dramaturginator” filled by the football loving genius of William Burke. He’s working with the actors to create a series of “plays” and to educate them on the nuances and intangibles of the game. Alongside Satter, it’s his role to make sure they understand that this is a battle, that this is about shared experience on the field, and that whether they’re running “Sparkle,” “Sparrow,” or “Freak Beak,” they need to draw on both the “play” itself and the steady stream of adrenaline underneath.
Satter has a Pro-Bowl look in her eyes as she says, “I want the audience to feel the excitement and emotion of the football sequences we create, and also track with the strange, alternately halting, emotional, and ecstatic arc we create in the show overall as we have this close-up look at these girls being playful, and vulnerable, and tough, and best friends, and attracted to each other in a spectrum of ways defined by their being on this team together.”
She goes on to explain that in true Half Straddle style, FOOTBALL is “not a traditional narrative arc and it’s not just a sports play—it’s so much about trying to capture and stage a feeling—that feeling of when you’ve worked together with other people to do something—and then it is over and you are sitting on a bus and you are tired and bruised and dirty and your lungs ache, and you are singing some terrible song at the top of your lungs with all your best friends but it feels like the most amazing, perfect moment ever and you want to stop time.”
In the Pony Palace/FOOTBALL, written and directed by Tina Satter, presented by the Bushwick Starr + Half Straddle, plays Thursdays – Saturdays, Feb 10 – 26, 8 p.m. @ the Bushwick Starr, 207 Starr Street between Wyckoff and Irving (L Train to Jefferson St.). Tickets: $15 at thebushwickstarr.org.