Kate Attwell Blends Women’s Athletics and Colonization in Her New Play, ‘Testmatch’

Crew in rehearsal for 'Testmatch.' Photo by Beryl Baker

When I spoke with Testmatch playwright Kate Attwell on her second day of rehearsal at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco, she was in a fight with jet lag. “I haven’t had breakfast yet, but I’ve had at least three cups of coffee,” Attwell shared. “I’ve literally been up since four thinking ‘When am I allowed to really be in the world?’”

The answer, as far as I’m concerned, is right now. Attwell, who identifies as “technically Irish,” spent most of her childhood in South Africa, Texas and England. After getting an MFA in Dramaturgy from Yale, Attwell moved to London, splitting her time between there and New York. So, the jet lag is understandable. As she acclimated to the West Coast, Attwell and I talked about sports, theatre, and why she’s making space for marginalized voices in her work.

Playwright Kate Attwell. Courtesy of A.C.T.

Danielle Mohlman: There’s something really powerful about using sports as a conduit onstage, especially for female-identifying playwrights. Can you talk to me about your relationship to cricket and why you chose this sport as you navigate themes of race, colonialism and gender?

Kate Attwell: I was watching some women’s cricket on television a couple years ago and it wasn’t a sport that I’d thought of in a long time. I hadn’t really thought about cricket since I was a kid. And I was watching a T20 [Twenty20] version of the sport, which is like a faster version of the sport. It’s super commercial and much more exciting than the traditional way that it’s played. And it just felt exciting to me to see women having that level of visibility in the sport and the way that it really is a calculated game. It’s also a dangerous game. The ball is intensely hard and comes at you really fast. The batswomen are wearing these war gear uniforms. We see that kind of attire in ice hockey or men playing American football. But that war gear on female bodies just felt really exciting to me. And now, this sport is essentially being played by what is, and was, this colonizing nation—and all of the nations that it historically colonized.

Because it’s huge in India.

It’s huge in India. Yeah yeah yeah. It’s an amazing sport there. The excitement around it is something that’s really wonderful to witness.

One thing that I noticed in the production credits is that A.C.T. has hired Radhika Rao as a cultural consultant—and I think that’s incredible to see, in the same way that I’m relieved to see an intimacy consultant involved with a play that has a lot of sexual content. Can you talk about the decision to bring her on board?

Yeah. Radhika is fantastic. She’s been with us since we did a workshop back at the beginning of the year. It’s been crucial to me in all the phases of development to have someone who’s holding that space in a completely authentic way. This is a very important story to be telling because I’m wanting to harshly interrogate—and critique—the colonial impulse, which plays out in so many different ways. It’s not just about India. It’s about that force of white supremacy and the way that it existed historically. It’s about looking at the historical narrative in order to look at where we are today. And having Radhika in the room has been crucial for the actors as well.

Cast and crew in rehearsal for 'Testmatch.'
Cast and crew in rehearsal for ‘Testmatch.’ Photo by Beryl Baker

Because oftentimes—you know, you’re talking about an intimacy consultant. That’s a very similar kind of thing, where historically we can over depend on actors having to bring their own understandings, their own dramaturgy, their own culture. And that we only rely on that. And that’s great if they want to share that. And I think the reason I love theatre is because I love working with actors. And letting them bring themselves to the role and letting them have an impact on it. That’s crucial. But also having somebody who’s not embodying it—to be able to authenticate and hold that space for them—feels super crucial too. It’s a necessity of the work.

You said you split your time between London and New York. What’s one thing American theatre can learn from England?

This may be a boring answer, but ticket prices. In London, I can always figure out how to see a show for £15. And that feels very manageable in a way that $50 or $70 is just ludicrous. And I think that allows theatre to be a living, breathing part of society and culture in a very different way. And that allows for experimentation and different ways to take risks.

Coming back to Testmatch: Do you have a favorite moment from rehearsal so far? Or something you’re looking forward to in the coming weeks?

Yeah, yesterday was my first day.

Director Pam MacKinnon and cast member Avanthika Srinivasan in rehearsal for 'Testmatch.'
Director Pam MacKinnon and cast member Avanthika Srinivasan in rehearsal for ‘Testmatch.’ Photo by Beryl Baker

And you’re still adjusting to the time zone.

Yeah, I’m just like “Where am I? Who am I? Who wrote this play?” But I’m really looking forward to everyone being able to get on their feet. I’m so impressed with Pam MacKinnon. She’s amazing so far. I love watching her. I feel completely comfortable as a writer.

There’s a trust there.

Yeah, exactly! And this is a very stylistic play. It’s a little bit Greek, it’s a little bit farce, it’s a little bit realism, it’s a little bit metatheatrical. It’s all of these different things. And now, being able to actually build those other things that the play is doing, is really exciting.

CORRECTION: October 31, 2019
A previous version of the article misstated that Kate Attwell holds a MFA in playwriting. She holds a MFA in dramaturgy.

Testmatch runs October 24 to December 8 at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 415.749.2228.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American TheatreThe Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.