Playwright Gabrielle Sinclair went rooting through the pages of Vassar College’s archives in preparation to write her new female-cast play, The Resolute, about the formation of a women’s baseball team on the campus of the esteemed institution. Set in the 1860s, the coming-of-age play about sisterhood, role models, team-building and identity will get a developmental production in September by Wyoming Theater Festival.
“The play focuses on five students and an astronomy teacher, and how through baseball they find each other and their own identities,” playwright Sinclair told me, via email. “There’s a heavy dose of re-imagining and mythologizing here, but I rooted it in Vassar’s amazing history, specifically what I could gather about the school’s first class of students and their first year.”
The North Carolina-based playwright will be in residence in Sheridan, WY, starting Aug. 21, when rehearsals begin for three off-book workshop productions of new works (including my new play, Hollywood, Nebraska, and Mark Saltzman’s new musical Another Roll of the Dice), plus a gaggle of staged readings of other plays, along with classes, workshops and special events.
The Resolute will play six performances at the black box Mars Theatre in the WYO Theatre in downtown Sheridan Sept. 7-15. Get ticket information here.
Colleen Britt directs the production. The cast includes Laurel Anderson, Malin Barr, Katya Collazo, Erin Kranz, Claire Allegra Taylor and Kelly Teaford. Ashley Adelman is dramaturg and assistant directs. Robyn Monkarsh stage manages. Abigail Manoucheri assists the assistant director. The production team includes costume designer Dee Sullivan; production manager Jerry Dougherty; tech director/designer Christina Barrigan. DannyLee Hodnett is artistic director of Wyoming Theater Festival.
Here’s how Wyoming Theater Festival characterizes The Resolute: “In the aftermath of the Civil War, when a respectable young lady didn’t dare exercise her mind, let alone her body, a group of female students swung for the fences to claim America’s pastime for their own. Can a seemingly simple game illuminate their true selves and empower them to forge an unbreakable team? Inspired by real events of the earliest women ball players, The Resolute is a coming of age story about sisterhood, the transformative power of play, and who we choose to be when no one is watching.”
Sinclair explained, “There are quite a few documents showing the time of Vassar’s first school year. One is a letter from 1866, written by a student named Annie, to her brother. She wrote, ‘They have a floral society, boat clubs, and base-ball clubs. I belong to one of the latter, and enjoy it hugely I can assure you.’ She goes on to write, ‘We think after we have practiced a little, we will let the Atlantic Club play a match with us.’ The passage ends with, ‘But we have not decided yet.’ The play explores how this letter could have come to be, and what might have happened next.”
Emerging playwright and devised theater artist Gabrielle Sinclair answered a slew of my questions about the creation of The Resolute in the days leading up to first rehearsal in Wyoming.
Take me to the first moment of the creation of The Resolute. How did the idea come about? What inspired it?
Gabrielle Sinclair: “First moment” is a good phrase because this whole play’s about first moments. It’s all about beginnings. This one started with a Facebook post. My friend Ashley Adelman is a dramaturg and produces plays in New York City, and is I think a little bit psychic. She put out the call for a baseball play featuring mostly women, for her company, Infinite Variety Productions. I called dibs. I ran with her call to action all the way back to where I could see was a sort of origin story of American women playing baseball — in 1865, four months after a four-year civil war, when a group of young ladies in upstate New York, away from society, discovered baseball for themselves. She and Wyoming Theater Festival artistic director DannyLee Hodnett brought me to Wyoming for a week to write the exploratory first 40 or so pages.
Share a little about the characters, plot and world of your play.
Gabrielle Sinclair: [It’s set at] Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, in the fall and spring semesters after the Civil War. Elizabeth sets our story in motion. She’s the daughter of abolitionists, Methodist, grew up moving from town to town with her parents. She’s determined, and she knows nothing about baseball, but knows an opportunity when she sees it. Her goal is to find her purpose, to make her parents proud. She wants to be extraordinary. She also wants to make friends.
In my story, as it came about, the first team are all in their late teens, and include a Southern belle, a Northern widow [and others]. A teammate, Grace, was inspired by a real young woman who attended Vassar 30 years later, and passed as white. I asked myself the question: If a young woman of her courage and commitment to her education had been a student at this time, would she have taken this chance? And the answer I found was, without hesitation, yes. The sixth character in the play is their astronomy professor, inspired by the real astronomy teacher who taught at Vassar. It’s her first year away from home, too.
Can you share the meaning of the title?
Gabrielle Sinclair: I like the title The Resolute because, historically, it’s the name of one of Vassar’s early teams. But it’s also an adjective describing both an individual and a group. The play, I hope, challenges the audience to consider who the main protagonist really is. How our perception of what a “protagonist” is is shaped by who we root for, who sets the story in motion and keeps it moving, who has the most to lose. And how the team itself can be the hero.
A story of a team can quickly become the story of an individual. It’s a challenge women face now to not let the narrative slip into the Strong Woman or the Martyr, and for everyone else to become supplement support for this one woman’s great quest. That’s something that keeps me up at night. Women are most of the population of the planet. The process of making change calls on us to work like a baseball team, riding the way of the team while keeping our individual strengths, flaws, and histories that make us human.
All the girls are between 17 and 19 years old. They come from all over the country. And they’re all alone for the first time. Elizabeth’s identity is rooted in being “the daughter of.” She’s the daughter of abolitionists, and it has crafted her personality and need for purpose. She finds that purpose through bringing together whoever she can, to start this team.
What inspired the formation of the ball team? I would guess this was a “radical” idea — just as the high education of women was deemed radical by some, at the time?
Gabrielle Sinclair: Such a radical idea. Medicine isn’t what it is today. So it was a scary concept — a woman exercising not only her body but her mind. It was such an extraordinary time, the end of slavery, the end of war that had dominated their adolescence. It was a radical time when anything could happen.
I don’t really know much about the history of baseball. Did you, going into this? Was it a passion for you?
Gabrielle Sinclair: I knew almost nothing, and jumped head first down the baseball-in-America rabbit hole. It’s delightful and awe-inspiring. I definitely recommend jumping in sometime! So many great stories. Baseball played a huge part in my childhood, too. Playing catch with my dad, playing with my brother on teams at the U.S. Air Force base in England. Daydreaming about one day pretending to be a boy and trying out for the Braves.
Baseball, with men, was still a young game during the time of your play. Were you surprised to learn that women were curious about taking a swing at it, as players, as early as the 19th century?
Gabrielle Sinclair: I never knew about Vassar’s baseball history until beginning to search for a subject for this play. People think of “A League of Their Own” first, so it’s a little shocking to know that women had been playing on the regular for 80 years before that. Baseball in America has an amazing history — there are books on the rules going back to 1850. The time of The Resolute was also the time when the rules of baseball were really getting locked in — how the ball should be made and its size and weight, score keeping, seasons, lingo. This was right about the time before star players became a thing. At this point, it was all about the team.
How important are “teachers” and “role models” in the play? That is, does an older generation help inspire the younger, or hold it back?
Gabrielle Sinclair: Teachers, specifically their astronomy teacher, Professor Mitchell, play a huge role in their development of their sense of the world and their place in it. There’s a dual element of inspiring and holding back in this play. I don’t think there are villains, but there is a sort of “greater good.”
Can you share a little about your research on the Vassar campus in Poughkeepsie?
Gabrielle Sinclair: I was able to visit Vassar College last fall  and see the mammoth Main Building where they lived and studied, got to walk along the athletic circle where the baseball team played, and visited the dorm rooms. I met with the lead historian there, who was a wealth of inspiration, and I was able to read and hold a sort of memoir about that first year, written by a student who remembered (it also mentioned the baseball team). I also was able to visit the Observatory, where Maria Mitchell lived, worked, and taught, and saw the amazing clock she used with her telescope. And I spent time at Vassar’s amazing library, reading her lecture notes and the notebooks the 1865 astronomy students kept their observations in.
Was there a point where you had to step away from the real story and begin to fictionalize it or does it hew very closely to facts?
Gabrielle Sinclair: There is so much fascinating information about baseball, the Civil War, the first students at Vassar College, and Maria Mitchell, that it was honestly tempting to just put up a nice history lesson. There’s a real need to honor the past and to get it definitively right. I reached a point about four months into this project, where it was clear I needed to set down the research, and begin to tell a story. And story comes from character. I had to let the characters live, and stop holding on so tight for fear they’d fail. I had to let them fail so they could discover who they were going to be — and that was really hard. But that’s always hard when you love your characters. In the process the story emerged like a myth, like a sort of ancient myth. I think it’s full of history, but it’s also its own story outside of time.
How is The Resolute different from or similar to your other works?
Gabrielle Sinclair: Before writing The Resolute, I had spent a year in long-distance collaboration with my company Lonesome George in Linz, Austria, to create a sort of re-imagining of Aeschlyus’ The Danaids trilogy (which we called The Bride Project). I’m an improviser and deviser at heart, and that process was a back-and-forth, initially between me sending them dialogue, my director Sina Heiss translating it into Austro-German, and sending back video. I do not speak German. So the whole thing was an experiment in miscommunication and deeper understanding. Unpacking action, motivation, and consequence. The Danaids were the 50 sisters who fled from marriage to their violent cousins, sought refuge in their ancestral home, and ultimately murdered the cousins on their wedding night. They’re the only women in the lowest part of hell.
Like The Resolute, The Bride Project is about a group of young women doing the impossible. That play is about individuals emerging from the groupmind. The Resolute is a sort of flipped exploration of the team emerging from the gathering of individuals. It’s also about doing something that is understood to be definitively masculine (with the Danaids, it’s violence, with The Resolute it’s playing baseball).
I learned from that Danaids experience, reimagining a mostly lost trilogy of plays into a new story. With The Resolute I approached it in a similar way. I found the pieces of story available, locked in like ancient myth. And I attempted to empathize, push, and make honest choices to explore the missing pieces.
What was the primary challenge of writing The Resolute?
Gabrielle Sinclair: Early in the process, when I would talk about the play with folks, I often got the feedback that it sounded like I was attempting to write five plays at once. The challenge was to find the singular intersection between these seemingly disparate elements. Which is, really, what a team is. Now I honestly only see one story, and it’s full to the brim. I can’t remember how this ever seemed scattered. That’s a good feeling!
What previous development has The Resolute had? What did you learn previously, and what are your goals in the workshop at Wyoming Theater Festival?
Gabrielle Sinclair: The Resolute got to have a developmental reading at last year’s Wyoming Theater Festival, and later drafts had readings in New York City through Infinite Variety Productions, and here in Greensboro, NC, where I live, through the Greensboro Playwrights’ Forum.
Has the Wyoming Theater Festival 2017 workshop inspired rewrites or a new draft in recent weeks?
Gabrielle Sinclair: Yes! I locked in the key action months ago, and have been unpacking that action ever since. It’s in the past month that so much clarity and connection emerged. Or was always there and I finally was able to recognize it.
Share a little bit about your working relationship with director Colleen Britt. How did she become attached to the project and how are you and she a fit?
Gabrielle Sinclair: Colleen and I attended the same MFA program — the Actors Studio Drama School — where she was a year ahead of me, so we have a shared theatrical language. After graduation, we also worked together twice weekly for nine months as part of a movement-centered devised play about the industry of death, a piece called Dust. Colleen manages to be a superb listener while also having a fierce heart and mind. She somehow is able to be 100 percent the director with a powerful vision that illuminates and supports my play. She’s the definitive team player. She’s the director in residence for Infinite Variety Productions and has worked with Ashley on several projects. Ashley Adelman has been dramaturg from day one of this project, and the play owes a huge debt to her ability to ask questions and challenge easy choices. I’m a better playwright from this process too.
What’s your connection or history with Wyoming Theater Festival?
Gabrielle Sinclair: Ashley and Colleen I think have been connected with the festival since its early beginnings. I first encountered the festival last summer, when I got to come to Wyoming for a week while I wrote the first pages of The Resolute (then called, brilliantly, The Baseball Play). I wrote about 40 pages, and the characters who came through then remain true to their initial beginnings. That exploratory draft had a reading in Sheridan at the end of the week as part of the festival’s Let’s Hear It! series.
Are there any production plans for The Resolute?
Gabrielle Sinclair: Yes! Infinite Variety Productions plans to produce the play in New York City after our Wyoming run.
Where did you grow up? Can you share a little bit about your first exposure(s) to theater? Was being a playwright something you knew you wanted at a young age?
Gabrielle Sinclair: I am Southern — my family is in South Carolina — and a lot of my childhood was spent in Buckinghamshire in England. I can’t remember not wanting to be a writer, but it was screenwriting, not theatre. I saw very little theatre growing up (I did see Starlight Express on the West End). I discovered theatre through being in our very theatrical marching band, in Lexington, South Carolina. So I discovered theatre in this immersive performative way.
Is play-making your full-time job? Is there a day job?
Gabrielle Sinclair: I live in Greensboro, NC. I’m growing a small theatre company here, called The Storyhound Theatrical Detective Agency. We create and investigate new theatre for local artists and audiences. Right now we are in residency at a place called City Arts in town to create four brand new pieces of theatre for the very young (newborn to three years). Along with this playwriting thing, I’m a freelance editor and mom to Jonah.
Is part of the mission of The Resolute to give voice and body to women who have disappeared, who are lost to history?
Gabrielle Sinclair: Well, it’s a coming-of-age story about extraordinary young women moved by something bigger than themselves. So the mission for the play is to tell their story clearly and allow the women to experience their stories fully. But I’ve also never seen a woman in a big dress play baseball on stage. Ya know? And that’s pretty neat. How often do we ever really get the chance to see something new?