When Sports and Theatre Mix

by Lauren Smart

in American Theatre magazine

Post image for When Sports and Theatre Mix

Photo from the Broadway production of Magic/Bird.

Earlier this year, I found myself in an argument with my Dad. He was coming to visit me at Syracuse University and had purchased two seats to the basketball game. The catch? They weren’t next to one another.

“Why would I want to sit by myself at a basketball game?” I asked him. He responded that I sat by myself at plays all the time—what was the difference?

Sports fans and theatregoers aren’t usually the same people. Growing up, my parents had an arrangement: My mother could buy season tickets to the Dallas Summer Musicals and my father could buy season tickets to the Texas Rangers. Dad would usually blame his “bad back” for roaming the lobby of the Music Hall for the second act and Mom spent more time refilling her nachos than watching the game.

It wasn’t until my late teens that I began to feel pressure to join one camp or the other. You couldn’t attend basketball practice and drama club. You had to choose.

Eric Simonson appears to be set on changing that. The playwright behind 2010’s Lombardi and this year’s Magic/Bird wants sports fans to be comfortable in the theatre.

The athletic and dramatic spheres have more in common than at first glance. Both thrive on spectacle and conflict—the more that is at stake, the better. They produce celebrities, particularly local celebrities. They tour the country.

When interviewed by Beth Herstein for Talkin’ Broadway, one of the things Simonson admits has allowed his sports plays to work is “everyone knows what has happened already.” Hollywood has been capitalizing on this familiarity for decades, but theatre seems slow to take full advantage of the subject matter.

The New Yorker recently published an article asking Why Can’t Broadway Make A Good Sports Play?, in which Reeves Wiedeman pointed out that one of the problems is staging the sports themselves. Not only is it impossible to put a football game on stage, it seems, after all, unnecessary: If you wanted to watch a football game, you’d be better served at a stadium or sports bar than a playhouse. Yet the human stories in the athletic arena hold as much artistic fodder for playwrights as for screenwriters, TV scribes and sports columnists. And, let’s face it, it’s hard to have a play about basketball without some hoops in it.

Magic/Bird solves this problem by projecting clips of important games during the athlete’s careers and borrowing some of basketball’s theatrics, i.e., announcing the cast and having them rip off pairs of tear-away pants.

In the ’80s, Bob and Ann Acosta wrote a one-man show paying tribute to a baseball legend, The Babe. Like Magic/Bird, it used photos and clips of actual baseball games to evoke the sport, earning it a comparison from the New York Times to a television documentary.

Paul Hornung (Dan Rowlands), Dave Robinson (Stephfond Brunson) and Jim Taylor (Matt Nilsen) prepare for game day in a Central New York production of Lombardi by Not Another Theater Company. Photo by Amelia Beamish.

Simonson’s Lombardi took a different tactic: ducking the on-field action altogether by profiling one of football’s legends on the sidelines. Who was Vince Lombardi at home? In the locker room? Simonson attempted to make each scene feel like a play in a game, each decisively moving toward a victory.

In the same interview with Talkin’ Broadway, Simonson has said these plays were important to him because, “they make theatre more democratic” and less like “taking a class at a graduate school.” They can convert sports fans into theatregoers and vice versa.

I once interviewed a puppeteer who believed that all humans can do is imitate what they see in the world around them. Both plays and sports are man-made imitations of conflict, drama and competition performed in sacred spaces throughout the world. Perhaps the problem then is that when sports are put on stage, they risk becoming an imitation of an imitation, and a poor one at that.

But where theatre follows through on conflict with thoughtfulness and catharsis, sports follow through with action and strategy. In many ways, theatre is a place where competition is leveled, where humanity is equalized; while sports seek to heighten competition and displays of superiority.

Perhaps that’s why when I had to pick between basketball and drama club, I chose the latter every time. For me, it’s much easier to sit by myself at a play than at a game and not feel alone. In the theatre, I’m not surrounded by rivalries or belligerent hecklers (at least, not usually!)—but by a shared celebration of humanity.

Lauren Smart is an American Theatre magazine intern. She runs GreenRoomReviews.com in Central New York and has her own blog, LaurenESmart.com. An aspiring theatre critic, she is graduating this spring from Syracuse University’s Goldring Arts Journalism Program.