Making a (Preteen) Murderer: The Developmental Process of “Horse Girls”

 PHOTO By SEAN WILLIAMS.

PHOTO By SEAN WILLIAMS.

This review contains “Horse Girls” spoilers and a trigger warning for physically violent content.

We’ve all met them. The “pretty-in-pink” girls, the “princesses,” the ones who become popular as the concept of exclusion solidifies in their young brains. Identical in personality and interests, they braid each other’s hair, raid the toy boxes for rhinestones and horse figurines. Not to generalize—but yes, we know them. We might have even been them.

“Horse Girls”, Jenny Rachel Weiner’s 50-minute, hilariously dark ditty about drama, death and Ann Romney, focuses on six such girls and the trials and tribulations of their entitled lives.

Through a mix of enticement and intimidation, affluent twelve-year-old equestrian Ashleigh (Georgia Cohen ‘18) comfortably commands her primly uniformed posse, the Lady Jean Ladies riding club (Juno Adams ‘20, Claire Bronchick ‘20, Charlotte Davis ‘21, Lila Gould ‘21, Samantha Raskin ‘21). All the girls have one thing in common, the one thing that matters: they would literally die for their horses.

As the Ladies’ weekly meeting begins, we’re left bewildered by the group’s near-cultish nature. (Levelheaded, liberal outsider Trish (Mariel Sanchez ‘18), the visiting cousin of a member, provides an appropriate reality check.) But before long, a shattering rumor arrives, and things go from mildly odd to mildly disturbing: Ashleigh’s parents have made plans to sell their stables and have their horses slaughtered.

As one might expect from a middle-school satire, everything derails.

The girls go into hysterics. Secrets come out, power structures collapse. And as everything Ashleigh has worked for falls apart quicker than she can process or prevent, she deals with some irreversible wounds of her own. The subsequent bloodbath results in two characters left alive.

Director Allison Kelly (MFA ‘18), who has Los Angeles-based roots in devised theatre, approached the production with an intent to create a collaborative atmosphere.

“I was very open to directing with the cast rather than simply directing them,” Kelly said. “A lot of information that was brought to light came from the cast and their relationship with the script.”

After only a couple of read-throughs, Kelly spurred the actors out of their books and onto the stage, allowing the initial “table work” (the process of developing character based on text in the play) to happen in real time.

“When you’re devising, you have to learn how to relieve yourself of pressure and follow your instincts and impulses,” Kelly explains. “[The actors] found a lot of stuff on their feet that I don’t think they would have found if they were at the table.”

“It was great to watch,” adds assistant director Spencer Knoll (‘19, of SLC independent theatre production and stage management fame). “Every actress had a moment where she got it, it clicked, and seeing them make the connections for themselves was really wonderful.”

But the play does much more than parody classic clique stories with its high-stakes hilarity. Horse Girls may not present an entirely realistic scenario, but it still confronts the fact that people who hurt others exist. Where does it come from? And how can it be stopped?

“As dark and intense and outrageous as it seems, the root of the story isn’t about horses at all,” Kelly says.  “It’s about relationships between people—specifically between preteen girls and how cruel they can be.”

Performing this play requires a cast of actors young enough to remember the crushing isolation of middle and high school (the fear of being saddled with the responsibility of growing up, of trying to find themselves) but old enough to reflect on those times with added knowledge, experience, and maturity.

“In another way, [the play] also spreads a message of empathy,” Kelly says. “The memory of being bullied in some way is present in a lot of colleges. [So] we talked a lot about our personal histories and relationships to bullying.”

But it turns out that both Kelly and lead Cohen agree on one point: no one deserves that empathy more than Ashleigh herself—the bully.“ [She is] the most terrified person in the play,” Kelly admits. “The cruelty is a by-product of how troubled she is.”

“There were reasons behind her meanness,” Cohen explains. “It wasn’t that she was...totally evil. It came from insecurity and not knowing where she stands in her school or in society, or what she’s going to be when she’s older. I mean, horses—how permanent of a profession is that, really?”

“She didn’t walk into the meeting that day going, ‘I’m going to kill these people and become a murderer.’ All of it came from a place of fear, which led to escalation, and it just got out of her hands.”

Ridiculed in her youth because of her weight, Ashleigh gathered most of her friends after donning her popularity mask, Cohen says. Her parents, who never appear in the play, ignore her.

Perhaps it wasn’t that Ashleigh was misunderstood, but that she simply didn’t receive what she needed in her formative years. It doesn’t excuse any of her actions, but it makes for a more compelling stage presence on Cohen’s behalf—who agrees that the “meatiest roles” belong to villains anyway.

“She doesn’t know how to [form real relationships],” Cohen says. “She’s not able to have a relationship that’s not based on power, and I think that comes from her feeling that...if you strip her of everything, her bare-bone self isn’t enough. It seems that the only reason she even has this horse club is because of the...things she’s physically able to give to people, rather than them just wanting to be with her.”

There’s a mix of feeling threatened by the open and honest personalities of the other girls, and wanting to keep them around by any means possible. Which is why the loss of her family’s stables ignites such a repressed, primal fear within her.

“It’s a desperate sense of not wanting to be alone, and wanting people to love her,” she says. “And clearly” —she laughs—“that goes way south.”

Peck Trachsel ‘20

Sarah Lawrence College’s production of Horse Girls ran October 5-7 in Open Space.

 

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