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A new play explores the complicated relationship between two adolescent fencers
It's tempting to compare Gracie Gardner's world-premiere play Athena at JACK to Sarah DeLappe's The Wolves, which recently finished a critically acclaimed run at Lincoln Center Theater. Both are highly physical one acts featuring teenage female athletes bonding, bantering, and battling while practicing their respective sports. And both combat pervasive sexist stereotypes about adolescent girls being vapid, stupid, or totally interchangeable.
That last judgment especially stings, and also makes the case for why, despite superficial similarities, Athena actually isn't anything like The Wolves. Moreover, Gardner came up with the idea for the fencing drama years before the soccer players of The Wolves roared into town.
"I was a competitive fencer in high school -- I fenced for the Junior Olympics twice," Gardner says. "What struck me is that I had all these friends in high school who did all these team sports, like soccer. But with fencing you don't have teammates; you just have these women you practice with and have to trust. It's a really unique environment, practicing in windowless, dark spaces with these people you see for a limited amount of time each day. It's an interesting relationship to put onstage, one that I hadn't seen before."
Fencing is what brings city sophisticate Athena and suburban nerd Mary Wallace together -- they never would have met otherwise. As they train for an upcoming tournament that will impact the trajectory of their lives, they must navigate their constantly shifting relationship as comrades, confidantes, and competitors. Their intense exchanges -- all while fencing with real foils! -- are funny, fierce, and brutally authentic.
Athena is the second mainstage production from The Hearth, a NYC-based theatre company dedicated to telling women's stories. Director Emma Miller and actress Julia Greer, who stars as the titular character, founded the troupe in 2016 after graduating from Kenyon College because they were frustrated by the lack of gender parity in the industry.
"We care very deeply about supporting new work and changing the landscape for emerging women and nonbinary artists," says Miller. "The only way to tackle that was to actually start a company."
Gardner also attended Kenyon, so they knew her socially. The minute the playwright mentioned the idea for Athena, Miller and Greer knew they wanted it. After hounding her for months to sit down and finally write the script, they officially commissioned it last fall.
"One of the things that excited me about the play was the parallel between the isolation of being a growing adolescent, and being really driven to get better at a sport but not having a team to do it with," says Miller. "Also, I think the opportunity for young women to be actually athletic onstage is really thrilling."
"Most of the shows we see about young women growing up are in the context of men, or their parents, or some larger kind of construct," adds Greer, who trained at elite Manhattan fencing studios in preparation for the role. "So much of being that age has more to do with figuring out the world than it does with the other people in your life."
Unlike many new plays, which go through multiple workshops before premiering, Athena is hitting the stage cold. "There haven't even been any readings!" Gardner says. "So this is going to be the first time it's up in front of anybody, which is really exciting because it's such a physical piece of theatre."
While that might rattle other dramatists, the last play Gardner wrote "in a cold sweat" was Pussy Sludge, which won last year's Relentless Award (the same prestigious prize DeLappe's The Wolves snagged in 2015). An absurdist tragicomedy about a woman leaking oil from her vagina, Pussy Sludge was written in response to the 2016 presidential election. While Athena's origins are more personal than political, it's unapologetically feminist. These are formidable young women. Even when their inexperience leads to cringe-worthy choices, you must take them seriously.
And that's a major improvement over teenage girls being treated as punch lines. "It makes me sad when teen girls are an object of derision, or just the words 'teenage girls' are used as an insult," says Gardner. "I think what's important is disentangling this idea that teenage girls' lives are sort of competitive in an arbitrary way, or that the lives of teenage girls are not as important as other people's. Theatre can be a tool to combat that."
Top image: Abby Awe and Julia Greer in Athena. Photos by Mike Edmonds.