Cheerleaders are expected to be in sync, whether jumping, tumbling, dancing and, uh, cheering. But what about twitching, stuttering and displaying sudden outbursts? Certainly these aren’t the preferred go-to moves of sporty, All-American girls.
Yet that’s exactly what happened to 18 high school cheerleaders in a small New York town at the turn of this century. An investigation into the mysteriously afflicted teens was covered by The New York Times in 2012 and is now the topic of “The Firebirds Take the Field” by Lynn Rosen.
Commissioned by Ensemble Studio Theater through support from an Alfred P. Sloane Foundation Grant, the play focuses on the overwhelming pressures impacting pubescent females. This month’s world premiere will be staged at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble (RTE), Chicagoland’s only Equity theater dedicated to producing original works by and about women.
“I was surprised when researching the real stories of the teens from LeRoy, New York, to learn that their final diagnosis of Conversion disorder was just a new name for female hysteria,” says RTE’s Artistic Director Tara Mallen. “Women, in particular, who are diagnosed with mental issues are immediately dismissed both from the medical profession and by society as their conditions are not seen as being ‘real’. Yet history and myth are filled with stories of girls exhibiting bizarre symptoms around the time of puberty — and doctors have pondered the connection between our mental and physical health for centuries.”
From the 16th Century setting of “The Crucible” to 20th Century Beatlemania, images of hysterical young women during repressed times immediately come to mind. Not surprisingly, today’s social pressures are even more magnified for those in the high school spotlight.
“The play takes place in a dying industrial town stunted by years of decay, where going to ‘the game’ and rooting for victory still mean something and winning gives the town worth and hope,” explains director Jessica Fisch. “Pretty, athletic, smiling, golden girls are responsible for rallying the spirits of their community, but to be 17 and believe your value is inextricably tied to your looks, youth, and exuberance is a recipe for destruction.
“Off the field, the girls are grappling with challenges and instability without the maturity or vocabulary to handle them. The girls bury their concerns and ignore their own grief, trauma, sadness, and hardship, but the weight of their repression proves too much, and their bodies begin to rebel. By ignoring those emotions they deny themselves the process of healing,” Fisch continues. “It turns out, the human body will find a way to grieve.”
Meighan Gerachis, Rebecca Spence, Tara Mallen, Jessica Ervin, Margaret Kusterman, Josh Odor, Aurora Real de Asua, and Hannah Toriumi perform in “The Firebirds Take the Field” from April 15 through May 27 at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5779 N. Ridge Ave. in Chicago. Post-show discussions are provided with the weekend matinees. For tickets ($15-$38) and more information, visit www.RivendellTheatre.org.
(Photo information, left to right: Aurora Real de Asua, Jessica Ervin, Hannah Toriumi-Frageman; Photo credit: by Nathanael Filbert.)