Grappling with the Issues

'The Wrestling Season' takes a look at life through the eyes of teen-agers.

Borderlands Theatre is serious about wrestling with issues affecting teens. The company is going to the mat with its upcoming short-run production, Laurie Brooks' The Wrestling Season.

Wrestling is the guiding metaphor in this play about the damaging effects of the teen rumor mill, particularly as kids are coming to terms with their sexual identities. Two guys on a high-school wrestling team insinuate that their rivals, best buddies Matt and Luke, are gay lovers. They're not, but gossip about their presumed homosexuality sends Luke into reclusive self-doubt and Matt into the arms of the girl reputed to be the loosest in the school, in an attempt to prove his masculinity.

As characters frequently say to each other, "You think you know me, but you don't." The question is, does each character know himself or herself?

"This is a really athletic show," says director Leigh-Ann Santillanes. "Out of 60 or 65 minutes, at least 15 minutes are straight-out wrestling."

It's legitimate Greco-Roman wrestling, not smackdown theatrics, but the grappling--between friends, between rivals, between lovers--offers clues to the characters and their relationships beyond what's found in the dialogue.

"We spent two or three weeks just dealing with the mechanics of wrestling," says Santillanes, who recruited a wrestling coach to help out. Although the script specifies certain moves at certain times, Santillanes says she never felt that playwright Brooks had her in the artistic equivalent of an illegal scissor hold.

"We had a lot of creative leeway," she says. "There are probably 75 ways to pin someone, so when the script says somebody gets pinned, we still have to find a way that's matched to the character types and body types of our actors."

Those actors, only one of whom had wrestled before, are Benjamin Fritz, Alida Wilson-Gunn, Rick Windon, Rachel Lev, Troy Hawkes, Stacy Bennon, Joya Salustro and Matt Bailey.

Santillanes, Borderlands' director of educational outreach, holds a master's degree in theater for young audiences from Arizona State University. She admits that she didn't really care for The Wrestling Season when she read it as part of her degree program.

"There were things about it I couldn't make right in my head, like how so many of the characters are based on stereotypes," she says. "With the four girls in this play, you get the down-to-earth hippie, the gossipy bitch, the innocent goody-two-shoes sidekick and the hooker with a heart of gold. Those are the four archetypes that women always get broken down into. So trying to make those characters real people has been my exercise in feminism for this play.

"The best way for me to deal with something I don't like is to get deeply into it, direct it or act it, so I can figure out what it's really about. Now that I've done that, I'm a pretty big fan of this play."

Santillanes doesn't limit herself to theater for young audiences; in September, for example, she starred in Borderlands' production of The Sins of Sor Juana. But outreach to kids is clearly her passion; she hopes eventually to build her own theater for youth.

"Theater for young audiences gets a bad reputation for being not as good as straight plays," she complains. "But there's value in all kinds of artistic expression, and for a good play like this that hits serious issues, it's especially important that people come see it."

Santillanes says her "preferred audience is everyone," and she'd like to see families and students age 12 and up attend The Wrestling Season. But that's also her goal for most of Borderlands' mainstream work--to get more young people into the theater. All of Borderlands' productions during this school year have student matinees attached, and the company offers study guides and in-class visits about the plays.

The Wrestling Season is the company's one show this year geared especially to teens. Besides its three public performances at Muse January 31-February 2, the show is receiving two weekday morning performances at the theater and is touring to four high schools and two middle schools. Santillanes says Borderlands will produce two such youth-oriented shows next season.

"What I want most of all," she says, "is for kids to get the idea that serious theater can be for them, and about them."

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