On the 22nd floor of the John Hancock Center, I strap on my black K2 in-line skates as Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” plays in the background. The cast of the New Colony’s new roller-derby play, Down & Derby, filters into Lookingglass Theatre Company’s rehearsal room for Sunday-afternoon skating practice. I’ve joined the actors for an hour of wheel time. When I ask Morgan “Hot Dish” McNaught how she’s dealing with the role’s physical demands, she says simply, “Lots of baths.”
Down & Derby follows a young derby team in a small Midwestern town that’s recovering from a devastating tornado a year and a half earlier. After seeing his first roller-derby match, playwright Aaron Weissman, 27, was immediately taken with the idea of staging the sport. In May 2011, he brought his idea to his friend Thrisa Hodits, 28, a New Colony company member who likewise was intrigued by derby’s theatrical potential.
“There’s something really exciting about the mixture of the spectacle, the elements they’ve kept from the ’70s like the funny names and the punk-rock attitude, mixed with really intense athleticism,” Weissman says during a conversation at Lincoln Square’s DANK Haus.
“We wanted to create this atmosphere of going into a derby bout,” says Hodits, who directs. “Buy your beer, make your sign to cheer for these girls, go sit in the stands and be a part of this. Creating that environment is something that I think is very New Colony.”
Along with choreographer Katie Spelman, Weissman and Hodits began work on a play that originally emphasized the violence for a “Kill Bill on skates” type of story. Yet the more they researched, Weissman says, “the more we realized how that was so not true to the spirit of the sport and to the people who do it.”
“It became about this group of people who literally have each other’s backs. You are helping someone up when they fall down,” Hodits adds. “A roller-derby team is a family. It’s this support system.”
“The play is really about going in circles,” Weismann says with a laugh. “The tornado and the roller-derby rink and the cycle of rebirth, it all ties in together.”
To bring the action of a bout to the stage, Hodits and Spelman take inspiration from Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland’s military drama, which uses movement to tell parts of the story without dialogue. Red Tape Theatre’s church-gymnasium space—Down & Derby’s stage—is smaller than a roller-derby rink, so the action has to be more tightly contained, but the actors are getting acclimated by practicing in even smaller spaces.
For authenticity, the creative team interviewed multiple derby players and cast two of them: Lucy “Blood Bath and Beyond” Gossett, who skates for the Chicago Outfit, and Jaclyn “Kilotwatt” Keough, a former jammer for the Windy City Rollers.
The most difficult aspect of roller derby, Gossett says, is “just mental and physical resilience, especially for a new skater. You spend more time getting knocked to the floor than you do upright on your skates.”
For the cast members who are new to skating, that means a lot of time on the floor. But Hodits has nothing but praise for their efforts: “You think, Oh, gosh, 11 women together, that must be tense. But these women are perfect. They are a roller-derby team. They support each other. They help you up.” After taking a few spins with them, I can attest to that.
Down & Derby rolls out in previews Saturday 27.