The Rules Of The Game

I swear I’m not going to quote the entirety of The Shifting Point here. Really, I’m not. Nor is this blog going to become The Peter Brook Show. I promise. But, I just have to share another little nugget of wisdom that I came across the other day. Further proof that Brook can read my mind.

In his essay, “There is Only One Stage,” Brook writes:

“…to my mind sport gives the most precise images and best metaphors for a theatrical performance. On the one hand in a race, or in a football match, there is no freedom at all. There are rules, the game is calculated on the most rigorous lines, just as in theatre, where each performer learns his role and respects it down to the last word. But this all-guiding scenario does not prevent him from improvising when the event occurs. When the race starts, the runner calls up all the means at his disposal. As soon as a performance begins, the actor steps into the structure of the mise-en-scene: he too becomes completely involved, he improvises within the established guidelines and, like the runner, he enters the unpredictable. In this way, everything stays open, and for the audience the event occurs at this precise moment: neither before or after. Seen from heaven, every football match looks the same; but no match could ever repeated, detail by detail.”

I love this quote for two reasons: the first is that it makes me look at something that’s been on my mind for several years now in a different light. I’ve grown to believe that sports is a very apt metaphor for theatre, but have always thought of it more in relation to rehearsals and preparation (more on that in a moment). Here, Brook applies it to the event itself and is dead-on yet again (I know: I should’ve had a V8). Even though there are a prescribed set of rules and customs linked to both a theatrical performance and a sports event, the in-the-moment vagaries of both are limitless. That’s what makes all of the following – a last-second Hail Mary by Doug Flutie, a rambunctious Zero Mostel inserting random utterances of “Trick or treat!” at the Halloween performance of the original A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Robert Horry – possible.

The other reason I love this quote is because I think it’s cool that Peter Brook and I are on the same wavelength. Who knew he even paid attention to sports? And who knows: maybe my belief in this metaphor stems from first reading his words about it over 15 years ago and not consciously remembering it? I’m discovering quite a lot of that re-reading The Shifting Point: many aesthetic, theoretical, and ideological points of agreement between Mr. Brook and I, all of which make me wonder if I didn’t just pick them up from him in the first place.

As for my own thinking about the sports metaphor, I relate to it more in a pre-production and rehearsal mode. I very briefly touched upon this back in May, in a completely un-related blog post in which I wrote:

“I’ve always viewed the director’s role as being similar to the coach of a sports team. In sports, the coach designs the overall playbook, and tailors the gameplan to the strengths of the team roster. The coach implements the strategy and the philosophy, then its up to the individual players to execute as a unified team.”

Elaborating more on that, I kind of view the whole cast of a show as a sports team. Everyone on the team has a role to play, and knows what their job is. Sometimes you see teams built around one or two stars and a reliable supporting cast of role players. Other times you see teams where there are no stars, only role players. In both cases, there are always one or two benchwarmers who rarely see playing time, and are only brought in under special circumstances that are tailor-made for their skill set. Everyone on the team, however, knows their role and they all have a chance to be the hero every time out.

The key difference between sports and theatre? For me, it’s the obvious lack of an opponent. Actors go out every night and try to win over the audience: that’s how they win the game. Taken in those terms, every performance is an opportunity to win the championship. The actor’s job, like an athlete’s, is to go out and execute the gameplan to the best of their abilities. If an actor faces any opponent it’s himself. Actors must leave whatever insecurities, worries, hangups, and fears they have backstage or else they won’t be able to execute.

I applied this thinking and approach in an even more specialized way when I started working on my last show: I went into training. I quit smoking, cut back on the social libations, changed my diet, started exercising a bit, and changed my overall lifestyle in several other ways that were more conducive to being mentally and physically prepared for the show. It was amazing how much my mental outlook improved the more I altered my physical regimen. I felt better, happier in every way, and was a wellspring of positivity and zen-ness by the time the show opened (at least, I felt like I was). It was a very beneficial experiment for me, and one that I’m going to repeat when I start rehearsals for my next show (whichever and whenever that may be).

So, what’s your take on this whole sports/theatre metaphor? Does it sound good to you or like a bunch of hooey? Perhaps you have your own sports-theatre metaphor you’d like to share. Or perhaps you feel like one of my fellow nytheatre.com colleagues who calls sports “the great leech sucking the life out of the American working man.” Whatever the case may be, let me have it.

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One Response to The Rules Of The Game

  1. Natalie says:

    I’ve never compared sports to theatre, though they do both require team work, and they both have leaders, though in theatre you don’t always need a director.

    However, I always thought of sports as entertainment. Theatre is something that should be more than that. Entertainment is all well and good, but what kind of society is one where it’s art doesn’t comment on it’s faults? Sports can’t do that. I feel as though sports goes as far as takes away people from the reality of their problems. And while that is necessary at times–when one season of basketball ends, football begins, then baseball and so on and so forth. There is always something to distract people from what’s going on–and today I think that is a very dangerous game to play.

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