Sports or Theater?

By Simon Hodgson 

In a room deep below the bustling crowd, performers prepare for a great entertainment spectacle. They put masks over their heads, they cover their bodies with brightly colored outfits, they rub greasepaint on their faces. As they step out into the arena, the crowd roars. Is this a grand drama on the stage of The Geary, or the Super Bowl?

Manford (Tim Liu, right) gives his pitch to Coach Saul (Arye Gross, left) in A.C.T.'s production of The Great Leap. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The idea of performance—sporting or theatrical—is full of crossover, and costume is just one shared element. While we are used to seeing actors transfigure to create three-dimensional characters onstage, the same transformation takes place in the world of sports. Think of football players, layering their bodies with helmets, shoulder pads, gloves, and mouthguards, or ice hockey goaltenders donning wire-mesh faceguards and throat protectors. These “costumes” are just as essential as those on a stage.

So too is the arena. Focusing the attention of the crowd, like a crucible, it also enriches the event with history and the glorious ghosts of past players. Young actors stepping out onto the Geary stage remember the names and faces of all those who have climbed the same steps from the dressing rooms—Sarah Bernhardt, Laurence Olivier, Robert Donat, Judith Ivey, and John Douglas Thompson. Similarly, today’s athletes recall the heroes of Fenway Park in Boston, Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, or Stade Roland Garros in Paris as they step out onto the field of play. On some occasions, the same space is utilized by both actors and athletes—17th-century French playwright Molière frequently saw his work performed within the walled confines of tennis courts.

Theater and sports don’t just intersect on their technical elements. They are each oriented around the same fundamental building block: drama. Whether it is a young Chinese American desperate to make it onto the plane for Beijing in The Great Leap or a veteran point guard taking the money shot in a playoff basketball game, we want to know what happens next.

“There is a huge audience out there for sporting stories,” says actor and playwright Maxine Peake, who wrote about real-life cyclist Beryl Burton in Beryl (2014). Millions of Americans today view the world through the lens of sports. Walk down the streets of Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco, and you’ll see residents wearing the jerseys and the colors of their city’s teams.

The Great Leap, which takes Geary Theater audiences from the hardscrabble basketball courts of San Francisco’s Chinatown to the Forbidden City of Beijing, is both a slam dunk sports play and an insightful drama, investigating father-son dynamics and the complex cultural ties between China and America. For playwrights such as Lauren Yee, sports is the lens to explore contemporary culture—a jumping-off point for other human stories of underdogs and inequality, dedication and corruption, love and power.

Want to read more? Find an extended article in Words on Plays, your in-depth guide to the A.C.T. mainstage. And don’t miss The Great Leap, which must close March 31. Get your tickets today!

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