Inspiration, Resilience, and Rising Up: A Reflection of Laura Shellhardt’s, ‘The Handbook’
By Haley Aichholzer ’22
This past Saturday, Nov. 2, I had the privilege of attending Carthage’s 11th annual New Play Initiative, which welcomed the production of “The Handbook.” The world premiere of the show took place Friday, Nov. 1 in the Wartburg Theatre, and will continue its performances through November 9. “The Handbook” was written by Laura Schellhardt and directed by Professor Neil Kristian Scharnick.
As I entered the theatre, I was instantly captivated by my surroundings. On the stage, a video was being projected on a screen depicting football players and cheerleaders from the NFL Flames team. The video provided the audience with a glimpse into what they were about to see, while also leaving them with a sense of ambiguity. When the play began with a cheerleading dance, the talent and hard work of the actresses were immediately apparent. The actors and actresses debuted their characters in a way that reeled the audience in and kept them eager for more. The character of Laney, inspired by former New Orleans Saints cheerleader Bailey Davis, and played by Ella Spoelstra ’21, introduced herself by telling a bit of her story as a former Flames cheerleader. Her journey brought a different element to the play and created tension in the scenes. The audience quickly became aware that this was not a lighthearted story, but instead, one rooted with underlying pain and mistreatment. The unique personality of each character was highlighted in detail and allowed there to be an intimate connection between the audience and the characters as if we were part of the performance.
The basis of the production was the handbook given to the Flames NFL cheerleaders that listed the specific rules and guidelines they had to follow. Unfortunately, many of these guidelines were both unjust and harmful to the cheerleaders, especially in the ways they were implemented. One section of the handbook listed that harassment by fans was an inevitable part of being a cheerleader, and the proper way to handle such situations, was through “being nice.” The director of the Flames cheerleaders repeatedly insisted the women, “be nice” despite the harassment they would be facing at the hands of fans.
The constant mistreatment of the cheerleaders by their director and other members of the staff prevailed throughout the play. The Flames cheerleaders were forced to participate in dehumanizing and objectifying weigh-ins and body shaming activities. The women were forced to follow standards that the football players were not, regarding social media and other forms of communication. They were given extremely low wages, and in a scene between one of the cheerleaders and the Flames mascot, the character realized how unfair her pay truly was. The cheerleaders paid for their uniforms, make-up, and hair, while also having to attend outside events for free, simply because it was listed in the handbook. The Flames cheerleaders began to realize the discrimination they were facing and one by one, started to stand up for themselves and each other.
Throughout the play, each cheerleader went through moments of growth and development. They learned the importance of true sisterhood and what it meant to be part of a family. “The Handbook” tells a painful but beautiful story of courage and sacrifice. The cheerleaders and their journeys represent a larger reality; every time a woman stands up and unapologetically speaks her truth, she shows other women it is safe to do the same. “The Handbook” shines a bright light on the resilience and power of women, encouraging young girls and women everywhere to use their voices to change the world.
Additional performances of “The Handbook” will be held at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7-9 in the Wartburg Theatre.
Seniors (55+) $10
To purchase tickets, please visit www.carthage.edu/tickets 24/7 or call the Fine Arts Box Office 262-551-6661 Tuesday to Friday, noon to 5 p.m.
*Carthage students, faculty, and staff receive complimentary ticket(s) for this event. Please visit www.carthage.edu/fine-arts/box-office for ticket information and policies, or contact the Fine Arts Box Office with any additional questions. All complimentary ticket reservations must be redeemed in-person with a Carthage photo I.D. at the Box Office. Email or phone reservations will not be accepted.