Sports on Stage

Growing up, I tried sports. They were not my thing. I did find, however, that theatre was my thing. Since discovering this, I’ve been on a path that has led me to now: finishing my final semester of my undergraduate degree in theatre (94 days till graduation as of the original date of this post). I have found, however, that many of my favorite scripts involve stories that center around sports. Specifically, one of my all time favorite plays is The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe. I first read the play in Spring of 2017 and it became one of my dream shows. I want to be in it. I want to design for it. I want to direct it. I want to get my hands on this script as many times as possible. So, when I saw that Normandale Community College was performing the show at KCACTF Festival 52 in Region 5 this year, it became my top priority show to see. I was also intrigued to see the show Colossal by Andrew Hinderaker, which was being performed by the same school. At first glance I thought, “Okay, a football version of The Wolves, this should be cool.” But oh man, I was dead wrong, and glad to be wrong. When I sat down in the theater to experience the play for the first time, I pulled out my notebook to help me remember details so I could write about the show later. Sixty-five minutes and six pages of notes later, I left Colossal extremely moved. It was about the same with The Wolves: I left the theater in tears with so many thoughts and notes that I am still processing days after seeing the performance. But what made these shows so good? Well, dear reader, I am glad you asked. 

Before diving into the details of Normandale’s productions, let me give you a quick summary of the two plays. Colossal follows a man who was once a record breaking college football player who suffered from a career ending injury. Mike is now in a wheelchair and is in physical therapy. Throughout the show, a younger, pre-injury version of himself talks to Mike and takes the audience back in time to see him at the peak of his athletic ability. Through this nonlinear storytelling, we are able to see his love for his teammate, Marcus, grow, while his relationship with his father becomes more broken. Mike’s relationship with his father, Damon, was disrupted by Mike’s desire to play football. Damon, who owns a dance company, was furious that his son would choose to play a sport that could potentially destroy his body.   What I found most interesting about this show was that while there was the romantic subplot between Mike and Marcus, the true love story came from Mike finally reconciling with his father. In an age where LGBT+ representation is becoming more prevalent in contemporary scripts, I appreciated that it flowed seamlessly through the plot. It was not forced in the writing and the on stage intimacy and beautifully handled (hats off to the directing team). Overall, the story between Mike and Damon is the relationship you are rooting for to be healed throughout the course of the play. The ending of the show was the most satisfying ending I have seen on stage in a long time and put in me a spot where I could have immediately sat down to watch it all again.   

The Wolves follows a girl’s high school soccer team as they warm up for each of their games throughout their competitive indoors season. The girls are only distinguished by the numbers on their jerseys, and many of the conversations that they have overlap each other. This makes the audience focus in to try and pick up every detail that is being said. DeLappe’s script is written in such a way that the truly important, plot driving moments are punctuated by the fact that they are not being overlapped by other conversations. There are a wide range of conversations that happen amongst the very diverse group of girls, from ghost stories to why the “R” word is not okay to the rumor that #7 had an abortion. We see teammates who were best friends deal with a major rift, a captain who is doing her best to be an authority figure for her peers even though she is uncomfortable, sheltered girls, and a player who deals with a major anxiety disorder. Throughout the course of the show, the team is dealt a devastating blow and because of this, learn that the biggest battles are won as a team. Ten minutes into the play, I wrote down the note, “Man, I don’t miss high school.” However, by the end of the piece my mind was right back in the mindset of being 16. I remembered the wonderful highs, the horrible lows, and all the levels in between that came with being a teenager trying to figure out life. The Wolves is written in such a way to remind those in the audience who are long past high school just how dynamic and emotionally driven that period of life once was. It also is a great example of how teenagers deal with grief, how adults dealing with grief behave in front of teenagers, and what happens to the teenagers when they see the adults in distress. There are so many layers of psychology through this character-focused show and the gals of Normandale pulled it off wonderfully. 

Every performance an actor takes has its own physical demands, but shows involving sports have their own special challenges. The casts of The Wolves and Colossal took this challenge to the extreme. The girls’ soccer team was constantly doing warm-up stretches and ran drills that are used regularly in the actual sport. Each cast member held themselves in such a way that made it seem as if they truly had been playing soccer since they were little. They also had to have an extreme amount of mental focus to be able to carry on separate conversations happening simultaneously.  While The Wolves was very impressive physically, Colossal took it up about ten notches when it comes to physical dedication on stage. The twelve cast members who played football players were astounding. Twenty minutes before curtain, they were on stage doing warm ups that you would see at any pregame. Accompanied by a stellar drumline, the actors did passes to each other in the center aisle of the theater, push-ups, and contact choreography, aka, tackle exercises. Throughout the preshow, Damon was stretching and doing several different contemporary dance combinations, foreshadowing his character’s role in the show. What I found most astounding though was when present-day Mike was watching a video recording of his past self playing football. The actors would run the play and Mike would “pause” the recording, and then press “rewind” on his remote AND THE ACTORS REWOUND ALL OF THEIR ACTIONS. Not to mention the half-time show, which was a contemporary dance piece accompanied once again by the drumline that communicated the battle of traditional masculinity and the bonds/struggles between a father and his son. The amount of strength, grace and control that was displayed throughout Colossal was the single most impressive physical performance I have seen on stage in my whole life. 

I strongly believe that the best thing that comes from doing shows about sports is the empathy building that comes with it. Theatre as an artform is intended to create empathy, but there is a special kind that comes from stepping into the world of sports. It’s stereotypical that theatre people are not sports people. They didn’t play “sportsball” because they were in rehearsals. People who grew up playing competitive sports spent all of their time doing their respective games. Taking on shows like Colossal or The Wolves gives people who didn’t grow up playing organized sports a chance to gain a new perspective on what others find joy in. Likewise, I strongly believe that a person who loves sports but isn’t super keen on theatre could watch one of these two plays and walk out with a slightly higher appreciation of the arts. As theatrical artists, it is our job to build connections through the work we create. Sometimes, those connections are meant to make the audience grow, but more often than not, those connections are intended to shape you into a better storyteller, artist, and overall human being. 

I was deeply moved by the work put on by the casts and crews of Normandale’s productions at KCACTF. They were bold, innovative, physically and emotionally impressive, well-done, and handled with grace by everyone involved. There’s usually at least one show a year that will re-fan the flame for my love of theatre and I am blessed to have gotten two for the price of one so early on in 2020. Bravo, Normandale. I wish your school nothing but the best in your future productions. Thank you for sharing your gifts at Festival 52 this year. 

 

Go see theatre, y’all. It makes you a better person. 

 

Until Next Time, 

Abby

 

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