The Plays, The Game: Making Theater and Sports Work

All the world's a stage. Or a playground. Or a stage?
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Fact: No basketball coach has been on Broadway since Bob Huggins appeared in a 1998 revival of "Carousel"

Photo from The Play About The Coach courtesy of Paden Fallis.

Sports movies have long held our attention, and intermittently earned our affection, but sports theater… well, what is it? Raja Bell, to hilariously obvious effect, was a drama kid in college. Theater was one of Kyrie Irving's credits during the lockout semester he spent at Duke. But for the most part, sports theater barely earns "is actually a thing" status.

Sure, big money has already flown in recent years on the Great White Way for shows such as Take Me Out (which is less about baseball than you’d think), a 2011 revival of That Championship Season (which was still mostly about sad white men), Lombardi (co-produced by the NFL, not terribly enthusiastically received, can’t imagine it was very good) and the upcoming Magic/Bird (really can’t imagine it will be very good). But there's another, more human-scale brand of sports-y drama happening at an off-Broadway scale, and one which is more dedicated to using the experience of sports–and the experience of being a fan–to create challenging, engaging theater.

That's my hope, at least, since I'm one of the people doing it. I wrote (with Scott Henkle) the play Our Greatest Year, which follows a young couple’s difficult first year of marriage through the lens of the disappointing ends to the Cavs, Indians and Browns seasons in 2007; it ran at the Brick Theater in New York in June 2011, and will return "home" to Cleveland for a limited run at Dobama Theatre, in association with John Carroll University, March 22-24. Paden Fallis wrote and performed his show The Play About The Coach, which is about a college basketball coach and the last three minutes of one hell of a game, at The Tank Theater and The PIT in NYC, as well as touring stops in Philadelphia and Texas.

So, what do sports and theater have in common, you ask—you were wondering right? And how could anyone make good theater out of intentional fouls, Delonte West or a blown offensive foul call? Paden and I tried to figure that out.

Paden: What we do in The Play About The Coach is take all the dynamics of a real March Madness game and add the backstory of a coach whose personal life is in the toilet, who can't trust his assistant coach, who is chasing the opposing coach's success and who is in a constant back-and-forth with his players while doing everything he can to get one more win to attain his American Dream.

We also had Mike Jarvis Jr., son of the old St. John's coach and former Duke assistant, come into rehearsals and make sure we were authentic and accurate at every turn.

Robert: And we had Marty Schottenheimer come in and... no, no we didn't. Our Greatest Year was a long-time in-joke with me and my eventual co-writer on this project, Scott Henkle. In 2007, the Cavs made the NBA Finals for the first time in history—and got decisively swept by the Spurs. The Indians were one win away from reaching a World Series they would have won (against the Rockies) and lost three straight to the Red Sox. And the Browns went 10-6 in the best season since their expansion return—and somehow missed the playoffs. We were bitching about how horrible a year it was when I stopped, though and then said, "But, you know what? It might just go down as our greatest year."

I always saw it as a non-fiction memoir-type thing, but then we had the chance to propose a project for The Comic Book Theater Festival at The Brick Theater in Brooklyn last year and we decided it would be a trip to see what it would look like as a play and comic. So, we framed it all in a human story, but one with a lot of Cleveland sports teams having bad things happen to them in it.

Which, to a certain extent, is what you have to do to translate this to a theatrical setting, right? So, how do you think actual sports drama—the stuff that happens on the court, field, and so on—compares to a theatrical understanding of drama, in terms of what we script together and do for an audience? Is it the same type of drama? Is drama just drama, no matter what the specific packaging?

Paden: To take an audience into a huddle on the sideline [and] let them be observers to the back-and-forth between player and coach, ref and coach, coach and coach—to me, this is the very height of drama. You might not like basketball but the continual motion, the close proximity to the action, the fact that every moment is so precious and the truth that so much money and so much exposure are going into both the college and pro game makes the dramatic potential off the chart. [So] I think it’s exactly the same kind of drama, especially when you take in the final minutes of a game—you are literally on the clock. There is nothing extraneous or arbitrary. Everything is condensed. And that’s what we get from good drama, good plays. Life, concentrated.

Robert: Okay, here’s going to be me devil’s advocating a bit. But there is a difference between the drama of sports and the drama of stage—or, maybe, more generally, of narrative—right? It’s a question of its audience’s stake in the outcome. Has there ever been a theater experience where half the people in attendance left unfulfilled and disappointed, and THAT made them want to come back and do it all over again?

So, sure, the drama of a narrative and the drama of a sporting event share some DNA—I mean, we use the word “drama” when talking about each. But our relationship with being a fan of either—the way we consume them—goes beyond the fact that a heck of a lot more people like sports than theater. I'd argue we experience theatrical drama—regardless of how much theater we’ve seen—as an isolated, one-off experience, whereas sports drama is all about context. It’s about (for most people) years and years of feeling a particular way about a bunch of people, symbols and rituals. It’s as much about what’s come before our watching that event, as it is the event itself. Or maybe we just need a SportsCenter for the theater to count down the top ten live moments of any one day.

Paden: I, like you, watched the Super Bowl and had absolutely no horse in the race. Living in New York, it’s great to see the Giants win, but I could also walk away with a Pats victory and not think much of it. [But] make it the Mavericks/Heat series, where my hometown Mavs were seemingly doing the impossible, and I was frothing at the mouth, fully ready to spill blood over the outcome. However, in the theater/drama/storytelling world we all—delightfully, as an audience—get to be on the same team. But does divisiveness lead us to a stronger, more passionate place? Is this passion preferable? And, when not rooting tooth and nail for one team—and carrying all the baggage you mentioned—aren't we in a better place to listen and connect?

Robert: But there are ways in which sports, as a live dramatic action, are actually superior to scripted live narrative because of the unpredictability of what exactly you’re going to see. From moment to moment, while it’s all framed in a familiar way, there is the chance the audience can see something amazing. Watching a play or movie, commercial audiences have come to enjoy what, on some level, is what is expected. That’s why screenplays tend to be so formulaic.

Paden: [But] I found that Michael Jordan in his prime made sports boring. I knew he’d hit the big shot. I knew he’d out-duel Ewing, Malone, Drexler, whoever. The “suspense” was gone. My “expectations” were met every time.

Robert: I'd argue that the very fact that he was able to meet your expectations of dominance was, in itself, exceptional. And, while unsatisfying to people like you and me who aren't Bulls fans, it isn't exactly boring in that way. Michael Jordan was Aristotelian drama, right? His era was defined by the near formal way in which MJ overcame his obstacles. He inspired, in the viewership/fans/commoners/us, the same pity and fear that Aristotle talks about good tragedy eliciting. We pity his opponents who think they might stand a shot this year. We fear that, one day, it might be our team that he grinds into the court with his boot—er, Air Jordans. And I can talk about this, as a Cavaliers fan.

What's more, it is a reminder of how limitingly human each of the rest of us is. But, this realization is one that can be shared among other also-limited humans, and we are able to purge ourselves of that in shouts and high-fives and nervous hand wringing. We get our catharsis.

Dynasties in sports are Aristotelian tragedy. But we haven't had a dynasty in a while. There's parity in the NFL. There's been a wide array of World Series champs. Same with the NBA and college. So, what would you say is the common thread between how we experience entertainment like a play and how we experience sports today?

Paden: Yes, there is this sense of seeing ourselves, our limitations, our faults next to his otherworldly greatness. Imagine if you were Karl Malone. But as to how we experience sports/theater today, I was thinking Raisin in the Sun [and the] 1980 US hockey team. Both offer hope, exhilaration, escape from the mundane, the chance to witness greatness, talented people creating beauty with the greatness of ease. And both sports and theater get us back in touch with what it means to feel, to rejoice, to love. [And] I think with theater you are still left with something. I think there is a residue in our work that stays longer.

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Very interesting article. I agree, there are some distinct differences between sports drama and narrative drama. But just like any well written/acted dramatic situation on stage or screen there seems to be a way to draw the audience into the back story. That was the beauty of "Our Greatest Year". It didn't matter if you were a Cleveland sports fan or not when you were watching that play unfold. You felt the gut wrenching emotions and deep disappointment anyway.

Interesting stuff. Thanks guys. Not many Manly-Men out there proudly talking about theatre & sports in the same breath. It seems, by your article, what defines "Sport Theatre" is essentially where the topic of a straight play is sports related (with the one exception of "Take Me Out", which was a musical). So "Sports Theatre" is a play, but peolple are either talking about sports or actually recreating part of a sporting event on stage; ala coaches in the huddle, etc. This is an interest idea; to define a new theatre genre and then to look at the "drama" which ensues from the two componants it's comprised of, Theatre & Sports, two fundamentally different live events, then to compare, contrast and study why these different events make us feel similar in some ways and different in others. Its an interesting excercize. But I think that leaving the newly coined field of "Sport Theatre" only to that definition; of a play (or Musical) that either discusses sports or reenacts part of a sporting event in the performance, limits the potential of what "Sport Theatre" can mean/ be and therefore how we can compare and contrast the similarities and differences from each live event; real sports and "real" theatre. There are theatre companies out there, Witness Relocation Program is a great example, which are creating shows that never discuss sports at any point during the show, yet you'd swear you're at a live sporting grudge match to the death of the Yankees vs Red Sox, MacEnroe vs Borg, LSU vs BAMA variety. The energy in the theate is electric. The audience screams and pounds beer, while the actors drip with sweat beet red in the face, psychotically working/dancing/screaming/playing their asses off on stage. You honestly have no idea what might happen next; you might get hit in the head with a shoe, cheer for a performer to influence the outcome of the show, two girls might start making out, or two guys... any, none or all from the cast... or audience. Between scenes, cast members stretch down in the isles and eat bananas to increase their chances of making it to the end of the performance without injury. More and more theatre companies like this are cropping up (Bluemouth Inc. is another great example) who fearlessly plunge in to a bizarre hybrid of live perforamace, unscripted endurance sporting event contest and staged physical manifestation of the human id. I'd love to hear you gentlemen incorporate some of these theatre companies and their shows in to your next article and therefore "Sport Theatre" definition.
Dodd Loomis

PS I saw "That Championship Season" and thought it was great. I also saw the Tony nominated "Lombardi" and was blown away. Standing ovation.