Oct 28, 2007

Field of Dreams

I am unashamedly a lover of sport in very nearly all of its myriad forms.

Oh! The feel of damp grass on a Saturday morning. The fizzle of anticipation watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The intoxicating perfume of chlorine hanging on the off-white tiles of a leisure centre swimming pool. The hours idled away with the dulcet tones of Peter Allis shimmering over the emerald greens of Augusta. The sweat! The tears! The glory! The lingering feeling of anti-climax.

I blame my mother, she used to be a PE teacher and her ability to raise me to be competent at every sport it's important for a young boy to be able to play meant my secondary school years were spent as a hardworking if critically ungifted everyman in a variety of school teams. She is also to blame for an addiction to that far (physically if not emotionally) easier role of spectator. I have measured out my life in great sporting events, and now, crippled as I am by an almost insatiable need for competition, I can watch any sport and within a minute have been unconsciously transformed into an utterly partisan supporter. For me there has never been such a thing as neutral spectating.

All of which serves as an interesting contrast to the reams of theatrical bombast that is more the norm hereabouts. In fact I think this is almost the first time I have mentioned this particular fascination.

You see, the relationship between theatre and sport hasn't been a rosy one, less a love story and more Kramer vs. Kramer. In which case sport has definitely been playing the Dustin Hoffman role, ending up with all the exposure, the supporters, the money and the freedom of the cities of first Manchester and now London. All the while theatre is absent, crying in an elevator somewhere.

Sport is the nation's favourite past time, it is The People's diversion of choice. As I have already suggested with myself as a particularly pathetic test case, it is a lifelong commitment and a manufacturer of era-defining events (it is, after all, 1966 and all that, not 1956 that causes (most) people of a certain age to lapse into teary eyed nostalgia).

Primarily theatre's only response to the rise and rise of sport (and not just football but rugby, tennis, cricket and even formula one) as a headline grabbing, nation-captivating glitzy entertainment phenomenon has been staggeringly dull. With its focus on content rather than form, we have had a series of workmanlike plays about how much sport becomes a site of hope and community in the otherwise mediocre lives of (generally working class) men; so we've had Up n Under, An Evening With Gary Lineker and its follow up Breakfast with Jonny Wilkinson, and, of course, Andrew LLoyd Webber's The Beautiful Game. In addition to this, dance and physical theatre have discovered a collection of interesting ways to turn sport into a pale and cloyingly precious series of smug vignettes, most of which end up becoming a part of the opening ceremony of some big sporting event or other. For examples see the utterly silly Kataklo (at Aurora Nova at Edinburgh last year) and the superior (and funnier) though no more interesting Score by French company Au Cul de Loup (at the same venue this year).

Problem with all of these productions is that they borrow all the wrong things from sport. Sport is not about personalities. In all honesty most of those magical stories and marvellous characters involved in sport are utterly cliched and predictable. Sport is not good at telling stories; mainly because it only knows about five of them. The down on their luck losers who (almost) triumph against all odds. The local boy done good. The wisened old master, soaked in drink and full of wise aphorisms and a moments of cuddly misogyny. The victory clutched from the jaws of defeat in the last minute. We know all this. We've seen all this. It offers nothing to us but the same faintly warming glow of familiarity as the Hollywood movie.

People do not play sport or watch sport for these mediocre narratives. What sport offers is actually the complete opposite. It offers chance. A framework in which for people to challenge themselves and each other. When people in sport talk about performance they are referring to something far more dynamic and interesting than the way that most people would use that term in theatre. In sport performance is about a relationship with chance, an acknowledgement of the unrepeatability of this particular moment and this particular action. While the actor rehearses his performance, the sportsman rehearses for his performance; he practises, he trains, he prepares and when the whistle or the gun goes he pitches himself knowingly into the unknown. Hence while most mainstream theatre tends towards the uniform, sport is always tilting at the impossible.

It's no surprise therefore that the one area of theatre that had taken up the form of sport (its language and its structures), rather than merely its detritus, is improvisation. In improv you frequently have games, competitions, exercises - no surprise then that people have been using the term theatresports for a certain kind of improv since the legendary Keith Johnstone coined it in the 70s. And, indeed, most of the improv shows I have been to have more of the feeling of a sporting event about them than the theatre, there is a flavour of something urgent and unrepeatable in the air (normally sadly drowned out by an offensively loud soundtrack of jaunty remixed 80s pop music) and regardless of the quality (which is frequently as terrible as the music) the audience is almost always enthralled.

But what of the potential for borrowing from sport in some other form than a bunch of energised comedians playing games? As much as I love the idea of having two competing productions fighting over stage space for the audience's delightful (The Seagull finally losing out to Sarah Kane's Cleansed when a rat runs off with the former play's titular prop), in practise I can't see it working out. Perhaps what's needed is a sense that of that reaching for the impossible - of theatre not as a product to be honed to perfection but as a unique event to be prepared for and played. What the script needs to represent is less a guideline or blueprint for the production and more a set of boundaries within which to play.

Either that or let's simply turf the Theatre Royal stage, invite Wayne Rooney in and have done with it.


alexf said...

i think sport does stories brilliantly. Its stories are too big to fit in theatres. They last years. Think of David Beckham from post-world-cup-sending-off disgrace to that free kick against Greece. Think of the England Rugby team at this world cup. These are stories of redemption which are played out live and then cemented in iconic images. They reach toward the language of myth.

As to what we can take from sport as theatre artists... i did an interview with Inform Theatre for Noises Off back in the day. They talked about footballers and actors as those we allow to dream for us. I like that formulation.

I think it comes down to your relationship to your audience. Brecht argued that the atmosphere in a theatre ought to be like that at a boxing match. The Globe was a venue for bloodsport as well as for theatre. There is a particular relationship we have to the action when we watch sport. For a start, everyone is a critic. Everyone feels they have a right to an opinion and to voice that opinion. i love that. At football matches there are crowds. In the theatre there's an audience. i think we can learn from that.

danbye said...

Hear hear.

I do an exercise in the Shakespeare workshops I run which requires participants to watch a scene with the sort of partisanship associated with Elland Road rather than the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The quality of the theatrical experience is radically improved, with no corresponding loss of textual sensitivity - if anything the actors' relationship to their language becomes more nuanced. And it's terrific fun.

In a theatre where people could buy food and drink during the show, be seen as well as the actors, and where occasionally fights broke out due to pickpocketing, I reckon this sort of thing might not have been simply useful to keep the audience engaged with the show, but necessary.

Andrew Field said...

Yeah... I think you're right, in the liveness sporting stories have a staggering monumentality to them.

And not just those written over the years but even in the story of a round of golf say, a lonely figure, like a baseball-hatted Lear, struggling with the elements and their own thoughts and distractions, or a batsman in a game of cricket, with slips buzzing around him like flies, niggling and heckling, while missiles fly at him from a streaky fast bowler.

But is in their liveness that these stories have such weight, constructed as they are out of an unrepeatable cocktail of chance, circumstance and personality. When the arts in general (and theatre in particular) try and (re)construct these stories they lose that wild mythic quality and I think they then become trite and cliched. Even sportsman self-mythologising after the fact start to lean on over-familiar narratives and motivations.

I think I'm trying to say that those marvellous sporting narratives have to be forged in the moment which is why I've never bought a Chelsea's Greatest Goals DVD and Match of the Day is always a minor disapointment.

And I agree absolutely with the sentiment of crowds/audience. I've always found the new globe a decidedly neutered space, marshalled by anoraked shushers who demand you stand with appropriate meekness. I think last year, Comedy of Errors even planted a heckler to try and inject some vitality into the audience, to no avail.

I love the idea of a packed Olivier at the National, row upon row of screaming theatre fans, burger and beer in hand, raucously enjoying an electrifying Duchess of Malfi.

Andrew Haydon said...

It bugs me slightly that this is some very fine writing and a wonderful quality of discussion and that I really don't like sport one bit. I know it's bad to generalise, but on all available evidence, it is also 100% accurate.

That said, I don't like or trust crowds. Even big audiences worry me...

Andrew Field said...

I think it goes:

1. Audience > 2. Crowd > 3. Mob > 4. Uprising

Now in my mind in the ideal show the audience will arrive as 1. leave as 2. and dream of 4.

The problem is that to often 2. snowballs ineluctably into 3. which is the point at which communality is replaced by conformity. In which case the 4. is always flawed.

What radical theatre offers us is a model for a different kind of thinking. A thinking that doesn't reduce us to individuals or a mass. Radical theatre (or performance) gives us a plural model in which we can be both active and passive, both spectating and involved. As Dan suggests above, the bellows of the crowd don't serve to distance us from an individual appreciation of the play, but on the contrary enhance it.

Thus radical theatre offers us a metaphor for a better society and a way to change the world.

Boom. Let the 4. commence.