Kirk Douglas kicks off Block Party with a play about love, empowerment and roller derby
By Christina Campodonico
How do you convey the scale and intensity of roller derby in a theater that has only 43 seats? That’s a question director and choreographer Rhonda Kohl had to answer when she first directed “For The Love Of (or, the roller derby play)” at Hollywood’s Theatre of NOTE last year.
That production, which tells the story of a female roller derby recruit’s budding romance with the sport (and maybe a teammate), gets a second life in downtown Culver City starting this Thursday as the opening play for Center Theatre Group’s third annual Block Party.
The festival of plays invites Westside audiences to see works by niche theater troupes from around L.A. and offers a larger, more prestigious venue for these productions — that is, the 317-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre. The extra space is something that Kohl appreciates, even if she does not plan to use all of it during the 11-day run of “For the Love Of.”
“We are curtaining off 50 feet of the back of the Kirk Douglas, and we actually brought 50 seats on the stage with us,”
she explains of a set-up that allows 50 audience members to sit onstage “to bring them down closer into the action and help us maintain that intimate feeling” of the original production’s black box space.
But don’t expect actors flying by on roller skates inches from your face. “For The Love Of” author Gina Femia specified that her fictional roller derby team, the Brooklyn Scallywags, would not be careening about the stage on wheels; rather she calls the play a “dansical,” and that word inspired Kohl’s efforts to bring East Coast roller derby to life without some of its most essential components.
“No one is actually on skates. That’s kind of the challenge … finding really beautiful ways to display the sport without actually putting them on skates,” she explains. “But I also think there’s a beauty in telling it using dance, and I think we found a really wonderful way to focus on the gritty nature of [roller derby] and the dance-like nature of it.”
Kohl says to expect a “hybrid” of styles during the show, including hints of jazz, ballet, modern, musical theater and even a soft-shoe tap number — all to kinetically express the characters’ emotional states and the athleticism of the sport they play.
“I compare watching a roller derby player get in the zone, like a runner getting in the runner zone,” she continues. “So it almost feels like … a rock ballet.”
Amid this rollicking ride, the protagonist — Joy, a former Olympic hopeful who joins the Brooklyn Scallywags — not only finds an athletic outlet for herself away from the Jersey ’burbs where she lives with her longtime girlfriend, but learns to define herself “outside of her career, outside of her romantic entanglement,” says Kohl.
“Through joining this all-female roller derby team and her struggling to find out who she is on the team, she also finds out who she is in her own life,” Kohl says. “Who she is kind of gets turned upside down as she is seeing all of these women of different cultures and backgrounds and walks of life kind of inspiring her in a variety of different ways. For me, it’s Joy learning how to define herself … standing on her own as to who she is and claiming that.”
Adding to underlying themes of female empowerment is not only the production’s all-female cast, but also its design team, which Kohl made a point of making entirely female too.
“It was the first for me and most of my designers to be on a team that was all women. It shouldn’t be so abnormal,” says Kohl. “It’s been a wonderful process to support and challenge each other and show the kind of great art that can be made [by women]. Your gifts and your talents and your artistic insight have nothing to do with your male or female … makeup. Who you are as an artist, who you are as a storyteller, isn’t contingent upon those things. So it was a wonderful opportunity to kind of step out and smash some of those biases firsthand.”
“For The Love Of (or, the roller derby play)” opens Thursday (March 7) and plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays through March 17 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Skylight Theatre Company’s “Rotterdam” follows from March 28 to April 7, and Antaeus Theatre Company’s “Native Son” runs from April 18 to April 28. Tickets are $25 to $72, or $75 for all three plays. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org.