It’s nearly September — are you ready for some football?
That’s the unlikely combo in an Olney Theatre Center rehearsal room as director Will Davis drills “Colossal,” a new play hinging on a catastrophic football injury. The strapping all-male cast of 12 wears football pants and tank tops or zip-front hoodies; shoulder pads and helmets are strewn around the floor.
The room fills with the driving percussion of a drumline, and a half dozen actors begin to move with sharp athleticism. The team dance shifts and evolves, and the choreography — including a pas de deux between a college athlete and his dancer father — tests endurance and sends bodies flying with the rough recklessness of a football game.
“Everyone okay?” Davis asks when it’s done, and after a few legs and elbows have collided. “No black eyes?”
“Colossal” arrives at the Olney with a double whammy of topicality. The high-intensity plot about a paralyzing hit coincides with rising concerns about football’s crippling violence; a proposed $765 million settlement for retired players who sued the NFL for inadequately protecting players from concussions is scheduled for a judicial fairness review in November. New rules forbidding helmet-to-helmet hits have been in place since last season.
“I’m a huge football fan,” says playwright Andrew Hinderaker, who grew up watching games with his dad in Wisconsin. “I’m also really troubled by what’s happening with it.”
The gay protagonist in “Colossal” also reflects barrier-breaking news this season as St. Louis Rams rookie defensive end Michael Sam becomes the NFL’s first openly gay player.
Not that Hinderaker was forecasting these headlines when he began his drama three years ago. Hinderaker’s familiarity with spinal injuries comes in part from his friendship and collaboration with actor Michael Patrick Thornton, who has performed in a wheelchair since suffering a spinal stroke in 2003. Thornton, who has had a recurring role as a doctor on ABC’s “Private Practice,” plays the injured player as “Colossal” gets the first of its four National New Play Network “rolling premiere” productions at Olney.
“I wouldn’t have been able to write the play without Mike,” Hinderaker says.
Hinderaker originally explored dance and disability in a previous script that slowly metamorphosed into the current play. When “Colossal” had a workshop production at the Kennedy Center in 2012, Hinderaker and Davis — both Chicago-based graduate students at the University of Texas in Austin at the time — were introduced to Synetic Theatre, D.C.’s movement-based troupe known for hits with “silent” Shakespeare stagings. Davis, a longtime dancer himself, is collaborating on some of the stylized action scenes with Synetic’s Ben Cunis.
For the complex halftime dances, Olney artistic director Jason Loewith recruited choreographer Christopher D’Amboise. The cast and creative teams will be largely different as the play is restaged this season at Minneapolis’s Mixed Blood Theatre, Dallas Theater Center and the Southern Rep in New Orleans.
“This is probably the tightest space you can do it in,” Hinderaker says of the Olney’s 150-seat Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, where the audience will sit on two sides of the stage. Football lockers will be part of the set, and a scoreboard will count down the play’s four quarters and halftime.
“You can get it wrong,” Davis grins of timing the performance to a game clock. “So you better get it right.”
Hinderaker and Thornton know their way around small spaces: Thornton co-founded Chicago’s 50-seat Gift Theater in 2001, where earlier this month he played Iago in “Othello.” According to Hinderaker, “Colossal” is a cross between Chicago’s emotionally authentic storefront theater scene and the playful, experimental vibe he enjoyed in Austin. It’s also a blend of his connections to Thornton (the understated actor) and Davis (the director obsessed with stage physicality).
As Hinderaker first studied drama at Stanford, he worked with Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda. But Gotanda recommended that Hinderaker take a break from theater: “I don’t see YOU in your writing,” Gotanda told the young would-be dramatist.
“That ended up being the most extraordinary thing he could have said to me,” Hinderaker says. “But also terrifying, and not what you want to hear.”
He took a step back, went to Chicago and eventually returned to playwriting. It was Thornton who jolted Hinderaker’s career in 2010 by producing the writer’s “Suicide, Incorporated” at the Gift; the drama was subsequently staged by the Roundabout Theatre Company in Manhattan and No Rules Theatre in Washington.
“This is a hugely exciting new play, and I’d say that Thornton is doing the best work of his career,” theater critic Chris Jones wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “It is a stunning piece of acting and it is not to be missed.”
Davis came into the picture when Hinderaker migrated to Austin for grad school. They saw theater the same way: “We are co-authoring an experience,” Hinderaker says. “I’m less interested in pieces that can be done anywhere by any group of people. That feels less live to me.”
The Olney version of “Colossal” will certainly be shaped by the Chicagoans who are beginning it. Davis, who is transgender, brings an intensified lens to a story that deals with ideas of masculinity and a budding romance between two college players.
“When I get up every day, I am very aware that I put my gender on,” says Davis, a Bay Area native who went to college at Chicago’s DePaul University and recently relocated to New York. “There is no place for their relationship. So I am interested in turning up the volume on a certain kind of male swagger and homophobia and showing just what the cost is for them to be together.”
Even more central is the fallout from Thornton’s mysterious spinal strokes. That spotlight is a bit of an anomaly for Thornton, who prefers to let a character’s physical condition exist as a basic but unexplained fact, as it is on “Private Practice.”
If a role isn’t “disabled-identified,” Thornton says, then as viewer, “you’re forced to make a decision just to give it up.” His Chicago gigs this season will include Richard III at Evanston’s Next Theatre and the Will Eno solo drama “Title and Deed” at Lookingglass Theatre next spring, plus indie film work.
Asking a disabled person “What happened?” is like asking a stranger, “Tell me about the worst day of your life,” Thornton says, so he often makes up answers. But as he lay abed on a ventilator struggling to recover, he realized he wanted to keep acting. And small as it is, the Gift often uses Equity contracts because “They picked up over $1 million in bills without a question,” Thornton says.
Thornton wryly adds that that’s when his father, a cop, said, “Hey, this acting thing isn’t so bad.”
“What is a feat of strength?” Davis says more than once about the play’s theme, suggesting that it’s both physical and emotional. Hinderaker’s upcoming projects include a commission for the Roundabout and Chicago’s Goodman Theater about a magician, structured like a magic show — “Impossible,” he says, comparing it to the unlikely football/dance challenges of “Colossal.”
“If someone says ‘That is impossible,’ we should get after it,” Davis says. “What could be better than that?”
By Andrew Hinderaker. Sept. 3-28 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. Tickets $38.50-$58.50. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.