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Actress as an Athlete: The empowerment of female physicality in theatre


Ariana Mahallati and Abby Leigh Huffstetler in "How to Defend Yourself" at Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays, 2019. Photo by Crystal Ludwick.


By Annie Whaley

duPont Manual High School, Class of 2021


After a young college woman is brutally raped, her sorority sister, Brandi, creates a self-defense class where four other women band together to learn how to fight back.


This provocative play from the mind of Lily Padilla tackles topics such as how women cope in a world where they feel they are a body that can be attacked anytime. “How To Defend Yourself” in the 43rd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays uses movement and physicality to highlight the sheer power of young women, especially when faced with the threat of sexual assault and rape.


“A lot of plays are people sitting down talking. Adding fights and other movements gives us

another tool in the toolbox to tell stories,” said Jessica Reese, the dramaturg on “How to

Defend Yourself” and self-proclaimed “sounding board” for the playwright.


More recently, audiences have craved strong female characters. But the term strong female character can be a trap.

Valuing the actress as an athlete opens new doors of how women are portrayed in theater.

Historically, many women have been portrayed as dainty and fragile — the traditional damsel in distress archetype.


More recently, audiences have craved strong female characters. But the term strong female

character can be a trap. We see traditionally masculine characteristics as strong and perceive

traditionally girly things as weak. “How to Defend Yourself” highlights the power in femininity and gender expression.


“Brandi is the most physically capable person in that room,” said Anna Crivelli, the actress who played Brandi. “She’s the most physically dangerous and opposing. To play that and adopt that psychology was super empowering.”


Those who worked on the play valued the accuracy of not only the self-defense moves, but also the ways of talking about the concept of sexual assault and rape. The actors participated in a multilevel workshop that was about 90 minutes with some martial arts instructors which, according to Crevelli, created the “physical vocabulary” for the rest of the fights and allowed the actors to better understand each other’s bodies and strength levels.


The actors themselves had a lot of say in the choreography because it was actor-driven from the beginning

The actors themselves had a lot of say in the choreography because it was actor-driven from

the beginning, according to Crivelli. It allowed the actors to incorporate their certain skills into the piece.


“We have that beautiful jump sequence, that was super-dreamy for me to do because that is

something that I feel completely qualified to teach or to act like I know about because I do. It starts with a little bit of laughter but by the time the music is cranked up, people are vibing with us. We have gotten applause after that, which nearly made me cry,” Crivelli said.


The “jump” sequence is the first time that all of the actors are truly connected and focused,

moving in unison on stage. It’s one of the most powerful moments in the show.


Toward the beginning of the play, there is a call-and-response boxing sequence between Brandi and the other girls in the class. At first, the girls nonchalantly punch the air. But by the end, all of the women are striking the air with purpose and power. They are channeling their rage and desperation into the moves. The lighting casts a red glow on the screen and the speakers blare


“Jump” by Rihanna. Seeing the physical capability and ferocity of women being celebrated on stage empowers the entire audience in an awe-inspiring moment.

Female fights aren’t widely portrayed as empowering. Instead, they are used as a form of

comedy and are often catty.


That is not the case in “How to Defend Yourself,” and the climax of the play — a fight between two of the women Diana (Gabriela Ortega) and Kara (Abby Leigh Huffstetler). Huffstetler is fight certified and recognized as an actor combatant. Both Huffstetler and Ortega worked closely with the fight director, Drew Fracher, to make sure the fight was safe and visually theatrical for the audience, but also felt real and raw.


Throughout the play, the sheer rage the women felt was electric. Seeing the characters as

strong role models who also were emotionally connected to their outrage, helplessness and

vulnerability, represented well-rounded female characters we need to see more of in theater.

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