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Common Ground

Student-athletes and student actors team up for theatre production

What do athletics and acting have in common? More than you'd think, as several ONU students recently discovered.

On Feb. 22, the Department of Theatre Arts premiered its new play, The Wolves, which follows a high school girls’ indoor soccer team and the relationships they build with each other. But there’s actually a bigger story to this production than what was portrayed on stage.

At first glance, the soccer field and the theatre stage seem like two totally different arenas, and they are. How do you help an actor identify as a soccer player, especially if they’ve never played soccer before? This was the question Joan Robbins, assistant professor of theatre arts and the director of The Wolves, had to think outside the box to solve.

That solution came in the form of the ONU women’s soccer team and their coach, Mark Batman.

I knew from the start that the actors were going to need to develop at least some basic soccer skills,” Robbins says. “So the step to contacting coach Batman about getting some help from his players was pretty much a natural one. He was helpful and enthusiastic about this collaboration from the start, and he’s been a huge help in making it happen.

So Batman and Robbins pitched the idea – soccer players training actors – to the team. For sophomore team member and engineering major Haley Moses, it seemed like a surprising but interesting opportunity.

“At first, I think I was a little taken off guard, just because theatre is so outside my comfort zone. I’ve never done anything like that before,” she says. “But then once they explained it, I thought it would be cool to get to know what actors do and what goes into their rehearsals as opposed to our practices.”

Musical theatre sophomore Meghan Hutchins works through a drill during a soccer training session.What took place next was a unique mixing of cultures. Twice a week, two to three soccer players ran training sessions to instruct the cast in basic ball-handling skills. Both the players and the cast members had to venture outside their comfort zones, each group unfamiliar with the talents of the other, but these fellow Polar Bears were about to connect in a totally unexpected way.

To effectively prepare for a performance, an actor must be able to mentally insert him- or herself into that character and understand that character’s fears, emotions and experiences. That’s why, for the second half of each training session, both the players and the cast members took some time to just talk. They asked questions, they delved deeper, they grew to understand each other’s worlds.

“We talked a lot about the culture of being on a team and in a cast,” says cast member and junior musical theatre major Meghan Hutchins. “It’s different, but it’s also really similar: just this sense of bonding and being there for each other, having each other’s backs. Soccer and theatre are really similar in that way – way more than I would’ve thought going into this.”

As the two groups became more acquainted, they found that, while their areas of expertise were very different, the skills and characteristics they needed to be successful were not. Dedication, teamwork, passion. These are qualities that all of them possess.

Freshmen soccer players Syd Leshnak and Samantha Lyon share what it's like to be a soccer player with students actors.“You have more in common with people than you really think, even if it’s not black and white,” says Moses. “So many of the same characteristics are brought over from everything in life. It doesn’t matter what your hobbies are.”

Not surprisingly, this connection was part of Robbins and Batman’s intention all along. Athletics and theatre are two areas that rarely intersect or intermingle. They attract different people, require different talents and draw different audiences, but this experience broke down those barriers. 

“When Joan first approached us about this collaboration, I felt it was a great opportunity for our students to get involved with something other than their normal routine and outreach,” Batman says. “I felt they could have a lot more common ground with these actresses than they probably thought, and they do.”

Even though they weren't on stage, the members of the women’s soccer team each played their own role in The Wolves. The team was even there opening night to support their new theatre friends. As for the cast members, they couldn’t be happier with the outcome of this one-of-a-kind experience.

This experience has shown me just how refreshing collaboration can be,” says Hutchins. “We do all these different shows, but this one is so different. It has required us to reach out to a completely different group than we normally would, and it’s produced some really amazing things.

It goes to show that, no matter the differences, there’s always a way to connect. There’s always common ground. You just have to search for it.