By Ed. Lange
What a great play!
By Ed. Lange
What a great play!
Sports and theatre share unexpected similarities
In the Super Bowl, did you see the Pittsburgh Steelers score that touchdown with only 35 seconds to go when Ben Roethlisberger threw a fade pass over triple coverage to Santonio Holmes in the end zone? What a great play! Recently, a friend asked me how a career in theatre differs from the more normal workday office world. “I always think of a career in theatre as a completely different world from mine,” she asked. “Am I right?” By the end of this column, although there is nothing up my sleeve, these two seemingly unrelated events – the touchdown play and the answer to my friend’s question – will mysteriously intersect. Maybe.
Having participated in theatre on the professional university, and community level for more than 40 years, I have a reasonably good knowledge of how it’s done. And being an avid sports fan and former jock who long ago dreamed of playing shortstop for the Yankees, I understand a few of the demands of athletics.
My early working years of scrambling for gainful employment to put food on the table led me through a diverse fruit salad of occupations. Retail sales, factory assembly work, commercial printing, miscellaneous office jobs, the brute labor of unloading railroad cars and ships, de-scenting skunks, humping as rifleman in the U.S. Army infantry, and I swear it’s true, chasing wild geese by canoe for a goose round-up. I’ve been an hourly employee, a salaried employee, a months-at-a-time Government Issued G.I. I’ve worn suits and ties, blue jeans, a Pinkerton security guard uniform, jungle fatigues and worked shirtless. So, I have garnered a working knowledge of life in a variety of occupations.
How do I answer my friend? Yes, a career in theatre is completely different from yours. Decidedly different. A cast and crew preparing a production are not unlike coaches and a team preparing for a big game. Both require teamwork. Teamwork as intense and collaborative as any profession. Both require fierce discipline and concentration. Both require hard work, commitment and passion. For an athlete to succeed, he or she must train, work out and persevere against difficult competition. The same is true of actors and other artists in the theatre. It’s interesting that both athletes and actors are called “players” and make “plays”, because their work is hardly play at all.
In sports, teams have owners, head coaches, assistant coaches for specific elements of the game and players. In theatre, there are producers, directors, designers for specific elements of the show and actors – the players. The head coach is responsible for unifying all the elements into a cohesive team, and the director is responsible for interpreting the script and unifying all the design elements and the actors’ performances into a cohesive, clear, communicative production. In both, creativity and talent come into play, and cooperation and collaboration are among the most precious qualities a coach or director needs to instill in the team.
Teams practice plays over and over again – together, as a unit. Actors and the crew rehearse plays over and over again – together, as one. In both cases, trust is the most essential element being built in rehearsal or in practice. When a ground ball is hit in the hole to a second baseman, that player trusts the shortstop to cover the bag, because they have practiced the play again and again. When an actor gives another actor a cue, the actor trusts that the other will enter on time, just as he has done in rehearsal many times. At a specific instant in the play, the sound technician must ring the telephone, or the actor – who trusts the technician because of numerous rehearsals – will be waiting on stage for a phone call that never comes. It may not be as physically painful as a quarterback who is sacked because the running back forgot to block the blitzing linebacker, but it’s painful in other ways. In theatre, the medium is the literature of the script. In most team sports, the medium is the ball and the goal, but I’m always fascinated when I hear announcers tell us the coach has “scripted” a series of plays in his game plan.
Office work involves periodic staff meetings, but after they meet the staff returns to their individual offices or cubicles to do the independent work needed for the organization to accomplish its tasks. Office staffs are led by bosses who frequently provide direction, monitor progress and assess the work of their staff. But theatre directors and coaches guide and oversee their teams during nearly every minute of every work session. The “teams” work together as a whole constantly. Rarely does an employee go off to work independently except to study lines or song lyrics, or to work out in the weight room or study game films. And while all occupations face deadlines, there is something unique about the thrill of an opening night performance or the adrenalin rush before the kickoff of a game.
Once upon a time, following the closing performance of a particularly successful play, I walked out onto the stage after the audience and everyone else had gone home. The theatre lay dark and quiet, but not still. Throughout the entire empty space there crackled an electricity left behind from the dynamic interaction between the people of the audience and players. The electricity was not metaphoric, but palpable. Never have I felt the same sensation in an office, on a factory assembly line, in a printing plant or while de-scenting skunks or chasing geese.
Ed. Lange was recently named one of the 10 most significant individual contributors to the performing arts in the Capital Region of the past 30 years by Metroland for “his influential work as a stage director, playwright, educator and arts administrator” for NYSTI. He may be reached at