“What if we were, like, always moving?” Joe Waechter muses. “Like, you stand still, but it’s not standing still.”
He’s talking about skating, not life—though he quickly clarifies, “I don’t know how to skate”—and how he might put the action on stage in his new play. A former Minnesota transplant now living in California, Waechter spent a few days in May at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis to workshop the first full draft of his untitled “hockey play.”
“I was here for four years,” he explains, referring to his years as first a Jerome Fellow, then a McKnight Fellow. He just wrapped up his three-year Core Writer term, culminating in this workshop. “I wanted to write a play that was inspired by Minnesota or took place in Minnesota, and I was like, ‘Well, what’s Minnesotan?’ And, obviously, hockey.”
The play that began as a rough idea is on the road to a full production thanks to a commission from Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Madeleine Oldham, the theater’s resident dramaturg, flew to Minneapolis to join the workshop and provide dramaturgical support. Both she and Waechter sat down to chat with me after the first full reading of the play, which was directed by visiting director Margot Bordelon and featured a stellar cast: Stephen Yoakam, Tyler Michaels, Katherine Fried, Sam Bardwell, Torsten Johnson, Wes Mouri, and Bear Brummel.
The play is inspired by a popular blog that Waechter heard about while living in Minneapolis that followed the life of a closeted gay high school hockey player living in a Twin Cities suburb (played in the workshop by Tyler Michaels). The blog was taken down in 2010 and the story takes an unexpected twist in the aftermath—a curious reader can find the full story online if they don’t mind spoilers.
The Hockey Connection
The obvious question arises immediately. Why is a Bay Area theater interested in a play about small town Minnesota hockey?
The connection, it turns out, is Oldham herself. Alongside her extensive career working on new plays, she is a hockey player and referee.
“When Joe called, he was like, ‘I hear I’m supposed to talk to you about hockey.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, you are!’” she remembers, laughing. At first, she served as a consultant for Waechter as he began developing ideas for the play, answering whatever hockey-related questions came up for him. “I’m really interested in what it’s like to be a woman on a hockey team,” he says. “That was a great window into some of the gender and sexuality issues that I’m interested in in the play.”
The final connecting piece is Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director, Tony Taccone, who Oldham describes as “a huge sports nut.” She found the right moment to discuss a possible commission, and Taccone was quick to get on board. “Timing is everything,” Oldham laughs.
Waechter gives Taccone credit for granting a commission to a writer he had never met before. “It was really moving,” he says, “and I feel very fortunate to have been awarded this commission. He was taking a risk by extending it and having a lot of faith in Madeleine’s foresight and dreams of what this project could entail.”
Part of that project involves staging hockey players in skates, which leads to Waechter’s question about constant movement. “It’ll be so cool staging people who can’t stop,” he says. “I imagine you have to shift your weight or the intention of your skates to stop, but you’re still going to glide a little bit.”
One of the big unanswered questions at this early stage in the play’s development is where this skating/staging might take place. “I kind of want to see this happen in a traditional theater, because the spectacle of that is awesome,” he considers, “But then there’s a version of it that takes place where you section off a part of a hockey rink and use hockey players.” He and Oldham have clearly been brainstorming production ideas throughout this process, bringing up roller skates, outdoor rinks, and even a stage fitted with synthetic ice.
Before we get to the full performance, skates or no skates, the play has a number of rounds of development to go through. The commission was awarded a year and a half ago, with Waechter really diving into the project last summer at the Rep’s Ground Floor program, which provided him two weeks of dedicated writing time and a chance to work more closely with Oldham.
“But then,” he remembers, “the election happened, and the play started to shift focus a little bit. There were some things about the election that clarified what I wanted to say in the play about masculinity.”
“You skipped over the panicking part,” Oldham teases, and Waechter agrees that, yes, there was a moment of panic at first.
“I had put a lot of pressure on myself, and Madeleine took it off,” he explains. “She was like ‘I’m not worried.’ I was like, ‘Well, I am!’”
It’s about the Language
After feeling stuck for a while with about forty pages that weren’t quite working, Waechter had a breakthrough around March. “It was a cloudy day in Los Angeles,” he recalls, “and this is so corny, but I closed my eyes, and I was just like, ‘Let yourself be vulnerable, and what happens, happens.’” The result was the play’s first full scene, where the high school protagonist, Mikey, and his best friend have a secretive sexual encounter. “I was scared of it,” he says. “It’s a very scary scene. I’ve seen similar scenes that allude to things like this before, but not a scene where it actually happens onstage. And I didn’t think I was actually going to keep it in the play until I told myself I was going to go with it.”
In a short span of days, culminating in an informal reading, Waechter had succeeded in writing a full draft and following the story through to its surprising and thought-provoking ending. Being able to work with actors at this early stage provided an opportunity for some important discoveries about the text.
“I discovered a lot about specifically heterosexual men who are having to be so present in a body and are pressured to be strong and masculine, which connotes like not being emotional or vulnerable. When do they get to say what they mean, instead of being very elliptical or circumventive to the thing that they’re feeling? I’ve really been listening to and learning a lot about that.”
Another discovery that came across clearly in the reading was the many uses of language in the piece. Because the play itself is inspired by a blog, there are portions of the play that take place online, with actors reading online comments as they are written, complete with screen names and computer speak. “That’s been a fun thing to discover,” he says, “the language of commenting and in forums online is very specific. When you get to hear it out loud, I mean, we laugh because we’re like ‘I have read or I have done that.’ So it’s both familiar and unfamiliar.”
Oldham acknowledges language as a central theme in the play. “You have so many different languages going on. You have the language of Online World, and even naming characters in Online World, and then you have the language of high school hockey kids, you have the language of adults, you have the language of hockey.”
Waechter sees the multitude of languages as a direct result of his own experience. “One of the survival tools that I acquired growing up gay in conservative Appalachia was code-switching and learning to be intuitive about different environments and being able to decide where the power was and then how to communicate with people in the most effective and—in some situations—the safest way. I think a lot of people go through different versions of that, and that’s certainly true for these kids in rural Minnesota.”
The language of hockey itself has required a lot of consultation with Oldham. She explains, “The terminology of the world of hockey is so specific, so how do you strike the right balance of authenticity with being comprehensible to an audience that doesn’t live in that world?”
Waechter agrees. “One of my goals was that I don’t want to do a disservice to hockey. I want to be accessible to a person who knows nothing, because this play is both about and not about hockey. It takes place in the world of hockey, and the tenets of hockey illuminate the themes of the play. But I also want it to be exciting and appealing and to inspire thrill for people who are hockey fans.”
The Final Puzzle Piece
One thing both artists agree on is that there seems to be a lack of hockey-related stories on stages and in popular culture in comparison to other sports like baseball and football. The play itself references Friday Night Lights as a way to understand the importance of high school hockey in small town Minnesota. The sport lends itself well to the drama and spectacle of theater—Waechter is excited about the “decadence” of putting a hockey team in full attire onstage. “It truly is a family,” he adds, “and the dynamics of a family really do carry over. There are cliques inside families, and there are allegiances and alliances.”
Oldham adds, “It is the same, that you can’t choose your teammates in the same way that you can’t choose your family. There is that baseline ‘You are my tribe.’ It’s fun to put that in a theatrical context. I mean, the family drama, obviously, is sort of the core of American theater.”
The final piece of the puzzle for this workshop was New York-based director Margot Bordelon, who was new to the project. Waechter had worked with her at PlayPenn a few years ago on his play PROFILES–which was part of the Playwrights’ Center’s Ruth Easton Series in 2013—and then again at the Araca Group in New York. Oldham met her through the Rep’s Ground Floor, and “my antenna perked up,” she says. “I thought, ’This is a very smart person that I would like to work with.’”
Coincidentally, Bordelon has recently worked on a number of sports-related projects, including Dan Aibel’s play T. at the American Theater Company in Chicago, which is set in the world of competitive figure skating.
“Part of the reason that she is the right person for this,” Oldham says, “is that she has not once compared the world of figure skating to the world of hockey, which people always want to do.”
The dates of the world premiere production in Berkeley are still to be announced. We’d also love to see a Minnesota production before too long. The Playwrights' Center can keep interested theaters in the loop about the play's progress; drop me a line at [email protected] or (612) 332-7481.
Minnesota theater and hockey fans have an opportunity to see a production in a few months to help satisfy our craving for sports on stage. The Children’s Theatre Company’s production of The Abominables, a hockey musical by Steve Cosson and Michael Friedman that will be produced in association with The Civilians, opens in September. The play is based on interviews with Minnesota hockey players, coaches, and fans, and is recommended for audiences age 8 and up. (You can find more details about The Abominables here and here.)
So what’s happening between now and the premiere? “More writing,” says Waechter. Oldham agrees, and looks forward to another workshop, this time “delving into a physical vocabulary of some sort.”
Here’s hoping that includes some great hockey hair.