“On Taking Time, Listening & Why We Stretch” In Conversation with Director Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster on THE WOLVES by Sarah DeLappe
Interview by Megan Robinson.
Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, director of The Wolves, onstage now at Crow’s Theatre with The Howland Company, speaks of her process with calm and steady confidence. When it comes to directing, her approach is to give the process lots of time and to listen carefully to all collaborators. Though still a relatively new director, Courtney gives the impression in her thoughtful discussion of already having years of experience under her belt.
This is the Toronto premiere of The Wolves, a show that follows a competitive U-17 girls soccer team throughout six different games. It’s a physically demanding show, that at times required that the cast practice their soccer drills and ball handling in parks and soccer domes rather than the rehearsal hall. When it comes to unraveling the creative process, Courtney has only good things to say about her collaborators, “We have a wonderful cast and a real sense of camaraderie, and I take joy and pride in having played a part in creating that.”
We spoke with Courtney about taking one’s time with the work, and the power of theatre (and specifically The Wolves) in finding relief from the outside world.
Some days you just need a good story to escape into, right?
MR: In the marketing for this show I get the impression of teamwork and I see photos of these strong young female characters, but what is the main theme that you are personally interested in exploring as a director?
CCL: I’ve been thinking a lot about why we stretch. At the beginning of the show, they’re in a stretch circle, warming up before the game. In the show, we meet them every Saturday over six different games, and over the course of those six weeks, a lot of different things happen to these girls. They are at their most certain and confident at the beginning; they know who they are, they know what’s going to happen, they know they are the best team, and they’re all stretching together. And of course, by the end of the show, lots of different things have happened.
So, that we stretch to become flexible is what I’ve been thinking about. It’s a subtle sort of arc but hopefully by the end of the play we understand that they are learning to become yielding without losing. They are dealing with change in a way that empowers them and allows them to keep moving forward. And I just think that’s a lesson that we would all benefit from.
MR: I’m curious about telling these stories about groups of women specifically, because I feel like this year in theatre I’ve seen a lot more of that, not to say it’s a trend-
CCL: It’s definitely in the collective consciousness. I see it most predominantly with Shakespeare and how the various Shakespeare producers tend to produce the same plays at the same time.
MR: Are we reaching for some sort of solution or?
CCL: I just think it’s really exciting.
With our cast, the feeling in our room for me has been exceptional because when I graduated theatre school some time ago my experience was always of being one of the only young women in a show. Because there’s only one role for an ingenue, for example. It was so rare to be in a room with a lot of other women and non-binary actors of a similar age. And then adding to that, I always used to joke about just disappearing when I turned thirty-five, because it just seemed like at that time, not that long ago, there would just be no options for me. So it’s very exciting and gratifying to see that shift happening, because it does feel like, ‘Oh wow, I might have work in the future.’
And despite the depressing news cycle we’ve been in recently, it is exciting and reassuring to know that collectively we’re all recognizing that there’s been a real dearth of female stories and we’re doing our best to remedy that.
And in The Wolves you’re seeing young women talk about all kinds of things, in their outside lives they’re all kinds of different people, but the one thing is they’re really good at soccer. So we’re showing them in their position of strength and in their safe place.
I feel like that’s a shift too. We’re depicting different groups of women – they’re not mean, catty, high school stereotypes.
They are there to do one thing and that’s play soccer really well and we get a glimpse of their lives through this lens.
MR: Does this feel like a big deal, like a turning point in your directing career?
CCL: Oh huge. It really exemplifies what The Howland Company is for, which is to give opportunities to our members that they wouldn’t otherwise get. Ruth Goodwin is the lead producer on this project and right from day one she was like, ‘Well you’re directing this’. And at various points I said things like, ‘Well, am I really qualified to direct this?’. But she’s been so encouraging. We have to stretch ourselves and we have to learn. I went into the company very specifically wanting to find opportunities to direct more. Everyone went in with slightly different goals.
It’s hard to get those directing opportunities when you don’t have a lot of experience because people need to see your work to hire you. So yes, it’s absolutely a big deal and a wonderful learning experience for me.
MR: What made you want to direct? Where does that spark come from?
CCL: In university I had to learn to tone down my desire to act for everyone else, and also when I entered the professional acting world. But that desire to kind of control everything never really went away.
And then just practically speaking I think a career in the Canadian theatre world is all the more fulfilling the more you diversify. There’s no real clear stairway to success in Canadian theatre and so if you have access to a lot of different income paths and a lot of different creative outlets, I think it’s just more satisfying. Directing is just another way to create opportunities for myself and get to be an artist.
MR: What do you like about directing? What does it feel like when it’s going really well?
CCL: I love collaboration. I love being the refiner in collaboration, the person who hears a bunch of ideas from a bunch of different people and is able to say ‘Okay, this part of this idea is great, and this part of this idea is great, and let’s try it all together like this’. I like to be the filter in a way. And I just love creating a room where everybody feels seen and heard and safe and thus, creative.
Which isn’t to say that theatre is always fun. When we were in tech week, and we’re in the theatre for 12 hours, there’s just a point where fun is not a possibility anymore.
MR: You said you get a lot of joy in helping them be creative, and finding their own joy. How do you do that? What does that look like?
CCL: A lot of listening. Making sure we take the time, when we can, everyday to go round, check in with everybody and make sure that there isn’t stuff that is slipping through the cracks. Making sure the actors feel that they can speak up. And for me that can be a challenge. Because the challenge as a director is that there is no time, right? It’s always a rush to get it done. So on this process I’ve been really trying to deliberately slow myself down and check in and listen.
MR: I’m interested in how big a part collaboration plays in your process.
CCL: It’s huge! I feel there is a shift from the tradition of the singular director or singular genius-auteur-director, though there is certainly a place for that, into more collaborative processes in the theatre. The “no man is an island” approach to making theatre is something I’m very interested in and tend to enjoy more.
MR: Outside of theatre, what do you find inspires you? What do you draw from? Maybe from what’s been going on in the news, to keep it specific.
CCL: I don’t know if I can go there. I hide from my own incredible sense of cynicism. I can’t tell you what an escape The Wolves has actually been, with so many things going on politically in the world, that I can spend the week in a room of remarkable women and non-binary creators, with all kinds of experiences and thoughts and voices. A theatre actually sometimes feels like such a relief and escape. I have a lot of pessimism about the future of humanity!! So going and playing in the dark and telling stories to each other just feels like the best and safest thing to do… But what inspires me are brave, change-makers and storytellers. And people who listen.
MR: Can you give me a name of anyone right now that comes to mind?
CCL: Alan Dilworth, the current acting artistic director at Soulpepper. I’ve just watched him over the course of a difficult year do an enormous amount of listening. Not just listening but really receiving. He’s not just show-acting with his listening, he’s really interested. And I find his quiet patience very remarkable and inspiring.
MR: Sounds like a good leader to draw from as you step into doing this more and more..
MR: Lastly, who is the best soccer player?
CCL: Oh, you are putting me in such a dangerous position. I don’t know if I can give you names. But I will say that there is a difference between being an excellent soccer player and being an excellent soccer actor. So, when people come and see the show I would say the people who are doing the best soccer acting may not be the best soccer players and vice versa.
MR: That’s a fair answer
CCL: Sometimes the challenge is more about restraining enthusiasm and strength in the show. You know, we’re in a theatre.
(All Photos Featured by Dahlia Katz)
The Howland Company and Crow’s Theatre Production
Written by Sarah DeLappe
Directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster
Starring: Rachel Cairns, Aisha Evelyna, Ruth Goodwin, Annelise Hawrylak, Ula Jurecka, Brittany Kay, Heath V. Salazar, Hallie Seline, Amaka Umeh, Robyn Stevan
Set & Lighting Design by Jareth Li
Sound Design & Composition by Deanna H. Choi
Costume Design & Movement Coaching by Sarah Doucet
Stage Manager – Sam Hale
Production Manager – Courtney Pyke
Assistant Director – Rebecca Gibian
Apprentice Stage Manager – Hannah MacMillan
Assistant Lighting Designer – Scarlett Larry
Assistant Sound Designer – Cosette Pin
Left quad. Right quad. Lunge. A girls indoor soccer team warms up. From the safety of their stretch circle, nine girls navigate and question the world around them with the determination of warriors. This provocative play, nominated for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, captures the profound beauty of adolescence and paints a portrait of nuanced young women navigating the game, their lives and a growing understanding of a complicated world.
345 Carlaw Ave.
On stage now until October 27th
Monday-Saturday at 8pm
Wednesdays at 1:30
Thursday at 1pm
Saturday at 2pm