When I was a teenager, I drew a clear distinction between the worlds of art and athletics. My high school excelled at both. We had a championship football team and an award-winning band. We had a chorus that regularly took top honors at competitions, and we excelled in basketball, tennis, and track. We had professional visual artists teaching in the classroom and outstanding coaches for all our athletic teams.
And, lucky for me, we had a serious extracurricular theater program that rivaled any performing arts curriculum in the state.
But arts and sports were separate fiefdoms, and in our sports-obsessed culture, athletics reigned. A few people participated in both (like the football jocks in the spring musical), but mostly we went our separate ways. To excel, we had to specialize. Those football players could never have been in our fall theater production. They practiced at the same time we did, and like us, they still had homework to do when they got home.
Add to that my family’s passion for books, music, and art, and you can understand why I didn’t wind up playing sports. But as an adult, I’ve come to see striking parallels between sport and art, particularly theater. Both require focus, attention to detail, physical stamina, and team work. But the strongest link between sports and theater is grounded deep in the human psyche: the mesmerizing appeal of conflict.
By way of illustration, imagine this: you’re at a professional basketball game, settling into the stands, getting ready to cheer as your team enters the arena. Here they come: a group of top-notch athletes and a couple of referees. They tip off and head down the court to shoot a perfect basket! Score!
Then they all head down to the other end of the court, dribbling and passing flawlessly, and shoot for the opposite basket. Score! And that’s all they do: dribble, pass, shoot, score! Nobody blocks, nobody steals the ball. Nobody loses. Nobody wins.
Now, is that interesting? Of course not. Without opposition, there is no game. Without conflict, there is no drama.
Let’s imagine another scenario. You’re in a gorgeous theater, settling into your plush seat, and silencing your cell phone as the house lights dim for the opening scene of your favorite play, Romeo and Juliet. It’s so romantic; these two young people from feuding families fall in love! Their parents call off the feud, invite all the relatives in from out of town, hire a band, and have a big Italian wedding! End of play.
Oh wait, that’s not how it goes, is it? Of course not. Without opposition, there is no story. Without conflict, there is no drama.
And we need drama. We need to gather in large groups and watch people act out our primitive urge for conflict, struggle, and triumph. Sports arenas, black-box theaters, elegant opera houses . . . these are all places where people come to laugh, cry, gasp and cheer as we experience together “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
I’m currently performing in Lombardi at Aurora Theatre, a play about legendary football coach Vince Lombardi and a perfect example of sport as art. On opening night, I heard Producing Artistic Director Anthony Rodriguez speak about the value of theater, which he discovered in high school. (He was one of those football jocks in the spring musical.) The worlds of art and sport are not so different, he said. They bring us excitement, suspense, and hope. They call out our passions. They bring us onto common ground.
These days I find myself smiling backstage as one of my fellow actors practices a time-step in his cleats, then runs onstage to portray the great Paul Hornung, then stays after the show to work on a Shakespeare monologue. I am living at the intersection of art and sport.
I never expected to find myself here. But as long as I’m in this game, I’m playing to win.