Sunday, March 11, 2012

Playing the game

Of course when I went to see a football game on Saturday I couldn't just sit there and enjoy the match. For half the time, when not "yes"-ing and "ohh"-ing and "what was THAT?"-ing I was musing on the differences and similarities between spectator sports and theatre, and whether it would be possible to create something that is both (if WWE, previously known as WWF, hasn't done that already) and what it might teach both sides.

The thing I love about football is the engagement with what's going on, the noise, the atmosphere, and the chanting. People care about their teams, and are passionate about what's happening on the pitch. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was probably much more like this. It's partly the competitive element. You're rooting for a team. You're also allowed to interact and make a noise so you can get much more fired up. It's a natural human instinct to express yourself when you're feeling involved in what's going on around you. That's an interesting question for theatre, in fact. I've heard that you can make yourself feel happier by smiling more so that might well work in reverse too. If you act as though you're not involved in something (apart from being allowed to laugh, I suppose) do you naturally then feel less involved?

The competitive element could easily be recreated. To still be a sport, it would need to be a genuinely open outcome: you couldn't know till the end who wins (and in fact this is where WWE plonks itself firmly on the side of being entertainment, as outcomes are pre-arranged). Quite a challenge for a company, but then Cartoon de Salvo, for example, manage to improvise so it's perfectly possible. It would probably be a bad idea to bring in real life loyalties, particularly because you might want to subvert them by the end, so better probably to put some thought into how you can recreate that and whip up the supporters during the play - always making sure it's with their consent. You could issue team clothing (perhaps avoiding deliberate football references like scarves and making it something more unlikely like pompoms or flowers), teach the audience chants, sit them in different areas. Even better you could ask them to choose a side. Ideally the theatre would be in the round so that it doesn't end up feeling like panto but is a space which is common to both activities.

You'd have to decide which sport. How fit would your players need to be? And how good would you aim for? It would be easy to think the acting comes first but watching skill at work is an important part of the enjoyment of sport too. How would it fit into a smaller space - or could you use clever camera angles and screens to zoom in on the action in a larger one? We use theatres for snooker, so it's all doable.

One problem would be keeping the enthusiasm going while still managing to impart the story, and how to manage the elements which are performance and pre-rehearsed in a way which keeps the game a real game. Football perhaps isn't the best model for this part; you could do it but the possibilities would be more limited. Using something like tennis for inspiration could be more helpful - everyone knows you have to be silent when play starts and the umpire tells you to be quiet if you're cheering and shouting for too long. There are conventions in the world of sport just as in theatre about when it's ok to respond and how to behave. Audiences can learn what your conventions are as long as you give clear cues. Another quite different useful model I was thinking of was the I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue game Mornington Crescent (SPOILER: the game consists of naming tube stations. You win by saying "Mornington Crescent". The performance element of the game consists of pretending that there are very complicated rules governing play. In some episodes, the players have even been asked to explain what they are doing as they do it, and they always allude to the move they're making. In fact there are no rules, and anyone can say Mornington Crescent at any point)

Mornington Crescent may not be competitive enough to count as a game, but it's not really of a different nature; it just takes the conventions and also the unwritten rules and the elements of performance in a game or sport to an extreme. The things that happen when footballers score a goal; giving back the ball to the other side if your team has had injury time: things which don't advantage a player or a team but are an important part of events. In a theatre piece you could build in elaborate rules of sportsmanship, of celebration, breaks between play, and plenty of the mini-dramas between the players which happen in sport, just heightened: the player who is always feigning injury, the friends across teams; those who desperately need to win and those who are giving up. There is plenty of room for story and imagination.

So finally, why? What would be the point? For me this afternoon it was clear: I think the two types of event would bring a lot to each other. As I've already said, sport engages a crowd in a way which theatre often doesn't. Even in participatory theatre I often feel a company are only pretending to ask me to be involved, and the storyline flows on. There is something real about nobody knowing who's going to win. Sport is hugely profitable, popular, and many sporting events are attended by vast numbers of the population with millions more watching on TV. There is also often (though not always) an equality too which theatre lacks: in football the players are from all backgrounds and countries: they may earn a lot but I think it's fair to say that anyone has a fairly equal chance if they've got talent. And what theatre could contribute to this is the challenge: using this passion and vigour to question what's going on in the world. Why do we support one team or country or ideology over another? Are we making informed choices or allowing random twists of fate to put us on sides? What can happen if we become too blindly loyal? How do we feel when we are winners or losers? Not too heavy or preachy a way - that'd ruin the fun of the game. But hoping that people go home reflecting.

Maybe it's been done already. It'd probably never catch on, on a vast scale. But it's going down on my list of projects I'd like to try some day. Theatre as sport, and sport as theatre. A new audience perhaps, a new way of working. Let me know what you think.


  1. If something is improvised, then there can really be no competition in the sense of one person beating another. Mornington Crescent (as part of the ANTIDOTE to panel games) is not about who wins, but about the whole panel creating a satisfyingly funny and coherent narrative as they play the game. The nearest that ISIHAC comes to actual competition is Pick Up Song, which is notable because each player is acting alone.
    Your idea of a play in the round seems decidedly artificial to me. I don't care about Bognor Regis Town Football Club because you give me a pom pom to wear, I care about them because of the history I have with that community, because of the memories I have of going with my dad to watch the games, because of the friends I have who support that team. It is a deep and meaningful part of me, not something that I can switch on and off as I walk into or out of a theatre. You have only attended football games as a spectator, not as a fan and so I don't expect you to necessarily get this, but you wont ever be able to transfer that feeling of connectedness and community to a theatre piece that I walk into ignorant and walk out of 2 hours later.

  2. Thinking about it, Mornington Crescent is very much like WWE. The outcome is not nearly so important as the skill and dexterity needed to create the story that gets me from one end of the match to the other.

  3. Oh damn, I lost my comment this time but I think it was just through distraction not the comment box playing up.

    Good points. However, I'm only saying improvisation because you couldn't have it scripted if it was genuinely competitive. You'd have to use improvisation to respond to the competitive play. You wouldn't improvise the competition; that would happen, then you'd improvise the character's response, I'd have thought. And I'm not sure competition and improvisation have to be mutually exclusive. Maybe in the end you would find things would tip over into one or the other but it'd be really interesting to see how close you could get.

    Re the second thing; of course you couldn't recreate those loyalties. I may not be a fan but everyone has their own personal connection to things and theatre doesn't replace those; but it can evoke them. I think in general you might have missed my point. I'm not making an argument about how theatre could recreate sport, I'm interested in whether you could ever do something that was in the middle. Of course it would never be the same as a football match, but what of it could you bring into the theatre? Maybe you just couldn't and it would be pointless, but otherwise, stop being combative and arguing with me, and join in! You love sport and you love theatre - isn't there anything interesting to you about how the two might come together?

  4. I think it could be done. Indeed, it has been done to a massively successful extent in (as you mentioned yourself) WWF wrestling. They have done exactly what you propose, they have combined the art of storytelling with the trappings of sport. And they have done it in such a way that there is fan loyalty to particular "Superstars" (their term for the wrestlers, not mine!) I think the key thing in that instance is the physicality of the event. Even though they are not competing, but rather collaborating, the physical nature of the event can make the audience forget that and begin to actively hope for one event over another.
    And not just hope. As a football fan, I tend to forget the reality of a situation and every Saturday, I start to believe that by shouting and cheering, I will influence the action going on in front of me. As you say, even with immersive theatre (which I have never enjoyed), there is no sense that I will influence the outcome. And part of that is the fact that I never lose my sense of rationality. The best way to make a human lose their rationality is to make them part of a crowd. Not an audience, a crowd. Part of sport is the loss of personal identity, whereas I find that theatre is an intensely personal experience. The rest of the audience dissapears, and the play is being performed solely for me. I have no idea how you would reverse that in a theatre or even a theatre like setting and still tell the stories that would interest people who enjoy the theatre rather than enjoy WWE.
    The nearest that theatre comes to sport is when you participate in it. In my limited, am-dram experience, it is by being in the play and being part of the cast that you lose your own personal identity and you have the sense of camaraderie that I now feel when I watch football.
    Another issue is the idea that all of us who are sports fans believe, in some part of ourselves that it could have been us up there, playing instead of watching. We all have had a kickabout in the park during which we saw ourselves playing at Wembley, or Hampden Park. Tennis fans have all at least hit a ball against a garage wall and been on Centre Court at Wimbledon. As a result, we can project ourselves onto the players on the pitch and that psychic link is somehow important. Even the fans of WWE have all had playfights with their friends.

  5. So, that is a lot of negative(ish) comments, so lets see if we can somehow list them as being things we work towards rather than insurmountable problems:

    1) I believe the proposed work would need to be intensely physical.
    2) You would need to somehow transform an audience into a crowd. That would mean some serious thought about the physical location of the piece. Obviously a proscenium arch would be no use at all. I don't think any traditional theatre space would work due to our already existing cultural assumptions about them.
    3) You need to have some sense of loyalty to an outcome. Perhaps that could be established by having two seperate crowds. Each of whom follows the build up to the event from the perspective of one of the teams. This might well involve some promenadey theatrey kind of deal where two "plays" are performed simultaneously, before the actual contest is performed in a venue. Or the sports event could be the culmination of a series of simultaneous plays performed over a week, or weekly for a month. You pick a team, you watch them prepare, you see the relationships in the team. You start to care about them. And the, after you have watched them prepare, you watch them compete against another team that you have heard about second hand but not seen. At the same time, the characters in the preceding plays who are not in the team will join the audience in watching the match, giving the cues and suggestions that you talked about for the audience. During the match, you would need to have things happen that are important to the story that we have been watching up to that point.
    3) You would need to make me believe that I can influence what is going to happen in front of me.
    4) You would need to let me see the effect of what has happened in the match afterwards.

    Stream of thought over!

  6. See that's the kind of thing - brilliant! Knew you could do it when you weren't set on being argumentative... ;-)