In the winter of 2000 — pre-Sept. 11, pre-social-media boom, pre-gay-suicide outbreak — Kansas City’s Coterie Theatre, one of the nation’s leading companies for young audiences, staged the world premiere of a play that has since proven remarkably prescient. In The Wrestling Season, a work commissioned by the Coterie, playwright and author Laurie Brooks explored a number of issues relating to teen identity — principally, how does the rumor mill that seems to run standard in virtually every high school affect the way that young people identify themselves?

Now Jeff Church, Coterie’s producing artistic director, has decided to bring back the work, prompted “because I thought the climate in junior high was getting pretty rough, from what I could tell,” as he said during a recent interview with Camp at a Brookside coffeehouse. Also at the interview was Sam Cordes, who plays Luke, one of the play’s high school wrestlers.

Though officially premiered by the Coterie in 2000, The Wrestling Season’s genesis goes back to the late ’90s, when it was workshopped at the Kennedy Center in Washington and at New York University.

“Initially the ideas for the play grew out of my work exploring teen issues with the Nassau County Commission on Human Rights in New York,” playwright Brooks says about the work.

Produced with not much more than a wrestling mat for a set, it is a stark play, preferring to make its points via spot-on emotional realism. Cordes calls it “very simple and realistic.”

Plotlines revolve around those whose reputations are in danger of being defined by their peers: Wrestling star Matt’s friendship with teammate Luke becomes the target of gay innuendo; another character struggles with the “easy girl” label; and yet another suffers from a low-self-esteem, “yes-girl” status. In a February 2000 review of the work for The Pitch, writer Ron Simonian wrote that playwright Brooks “does well in creating a world in which young people speak and act realistically. This play never felt preachy or written by a different generation.”

Church says that in Brooks’ works, “she likes teens to get into a mess and show how you cope with different pressures, and that’s really interesting.”

Adding to the realism of the show, Church says, “Most plays end up with the resolve, they come to a closure. What’s unique about this play is that everything is left up in the air, unresolved at the end of the play. And then there is no curtain call — it just rolls into a forum.”

This “talk-back” forum is led by the cast’s one adult, the wrestling referee.

“Laurie has the ref read statements that you agree or disagree with and you have to stand in support or sit in protest,” Church says. “I remember when we did it 10 years ago, I was addicted to the forum. Every single day I would go into the light booth and watch the forum with the stage manager, and kids were, like, jumping on stairs … to make their points.”

So, what specifically has happened in the intervening years to interest the theater in reprising the work? When asked this, the openly gay Church talks about how “the culture has shifted, and what used to be 10 years ago for advanced high school students would be now … appropriate for middle school kids as well as high school kids.”

“It’s not a coming-out play, it’s not a play about being gay even,” Church said. “It’s a play about rumors. … So we’re now bringing it back because we want middle-school kids to come see it.”

This echoes a view held by many public school teachers: that by their advanced teen years, most youths are set in their opinions and attitudes, so to have any hope of affecting behaviors, intervention must occur at an earlier stage of development. (The Coterie is offering resources for educators to prepare their students for the production at coterie.edublogs.org/the-wrestling-season.)

Adding to the mix since The Wrestling Season’s first Coterie run is the advent of social media, something Brooks has addressed with a revised edition.

“We’ve actually been working with the playwright and we’re adding something into the play that is, I think, a pretty interesting social media connection,” Church says. “[T>here’s going to be something that happens on Facebook that becomes a crisis for the character.”

Other recent events that have thrown the work into a higher relief include the recent spate of gay-bullying-related suicides. “The publicizing of LGBT suicides has raised awareness of the damage bullying can do, but now we need to take steps to stop it,” Brooks says.

For Sam Cordes, who was almost literally born into the Kansas City theater scene (his mother was pregnant with him and his twin sister while she was appearing with his father, Scott Cordes, in a 1987 Coterie production of The Jungle Book), this is the third Laurie Brooks play in which he has appeared, all of them staged at the Coterie.

At 15, he appeared in the lead role of Everyday Heroes, her “show about telling lies … and getting into trouble.” And this past spring he appeared as Ben Franklin’s apprentice in the play of the same name, “which was,” he says “instead of an after-school special … kind of Laurie’s take on history, and instead of making it a history lesson, there’s this really cool, crazy, you know, tech-heavy show about Ben Franklin and his made-up apprentice.” Cordes most recently appeared in the two-man play Red at the Unicorn Theatre.

And though Cordes says, “My character never comes out and says ‘I’m gay’ … because that’s not what the play is about — it’s about rumors and what that does to people,” Church maintains The Wrestling Season’s relevance to the LGBT community.

“One of the things that I think really speaks to the gay population would be this idea of ‘what was your story right before you came out?’ You know, it’s that pre-coming-out crucible that kids go through.”

He says that during the play’s 2000 premiere, “It was immediately claimed by the gay community. … I had a lot, a lot, a lot of colleagues come see the show and really appreciate it, the work that was getting done.”

And it seems that now, the work may be relevant to more people than ever.

“The Wrestling Season” plays at the Coterie Theatre in Crown Center from Jan. 24 through Feb. 19. For tickets and more information, call the theater at 816-474- 6552, or visit its website, coterietheatre.org.
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