Theatre and Sport - More In Common Than We Think
Updated: Jun 5, 2020
Sport and theatre are two things that are often kept very far apart. Possibly this is because a lot of theatre people aren’t necessarily drawn to the competitive athleticism of a sporting environment and maybe weren't especially good at sport at school. Similarly sportspeople often view theatre as somehow ‘soft’. But I really think the two have much more in common than they have in opposition.
I’m increasingly struck by how much of an influence sport has been on my theatre and coaching practice, and also how much my theatre practice has influenced my approach to sport. In both cases, with overwhelmingly positive outcomes.
First, for a bit of context, what is my relationship with sport? Well, growing up the thing I wanted to be more than anything else was a cricketer. I wanted to score a century at Lord’s Cricket Ground during an Ashes Test Match - that was the goal. I was a relatively talented youngster, playing successfully at youth level at club and school. I was soon playing in the youth county championship, firstly with Berkshire and then with Buckinghamshire. At the latter stages of this, I was also a member of an elite coaching academy based in Oxfordshire, run by former Somerset cricketer, Gary Palmer, and former England cricketer, Richard Illingworth. It was at this point, that other areas of my life started to become more important than cricket. I wanted to go to university, I wanted to make plays and be in plays, and I started to miss training sessions in order to be better prepared for my exams or to be at rehearsals. The dream of being a professional cricketer was slipping away – both in the sense that it was becoming less and less likely, and that it was no longer really the dream.
So what did this experience give me and why is it relevant to my work now as a theatre director and coach?
Well, on a linguistic level, my first engagement with the word 'coach' was completely in a sporting context. My first experience of being a coach myself was as a cricket coach – as a teenager I qualified as an England and Wales Cricket Board Level 2 Coach. I still do coach cricket (as well as rugby and, occasionally, hockey) and have worked as a cricket coach off and on for nearly 15 years now.
Coaching is all about bringing out the best in others – both individuals and teams. It is about seeing what’s in front of you and working out how best to improve and nurture it. I became very adept at spotting technical faults and coming up with slightly alternative methods of correcting them. I also became very aware that these technical faults were often a manifestation of something more psychological, and that working with the person was actually more important than working with the player. (This is certainly something that I would have benefited from in my brief sporting career. I was often viewed as being one of the best technical batsmen in the team but that rarely translated into runs on the pitch.) So a lot of the time, my work as a cricket coach was about breaking patterns of thinking and freeing people from self-doubt, self-criticism and unhelpful thoughts. It was about clearing the mind to focus purely on that one moment – watching the ball and trusting your instincts to do the rest. Also, about accepting that it won’t always go your way. We can’t control everything. Sometimes the game isn’t fair – we get given out incorrectly; we get an unplayable delivery. That’s life and we have to move on.
Why do I mention all of this? Well, because really this is no different from the process of working with an actor! Actors come to you with a whole host of technical skills and creative ideas. They also bring their own personality, mentality and (for better or for worse) a certain degree of psychological baggage. As a director, you are looking to work with what that actor brings to the room technically and creatively, but also to prepare them mentally to be ready to perform, to trust their instincts, to be in the moment and be ready to respond to the ever-changing nature of live performance. They also have to come to terms with the fact that they are not fully in control of their environment – a lighting cue might be missed, an audience member might shout out, a fellow actor might get a line wrong. As a director, my job is to get them to a place where they feel comfortable enough within themselves, their role and the piece to be able to respond to these moments in a positive and truthful manner.
A lot of my theatre practice is actually shaped by my reading of books designed to help improve psychological performance in sport. (But that’s probably for another blog!)
Another cross-over with the directorial process is in the creation of a team – or to use theatre vocab, ensemble. A sports team at the top of its game is no different from a theatrical ensemble that is working in perfect harmony. Both put the group ahead of the individual. Both work to make their teammates (or cast-mates) look better. Both work towards a common goal. Both communicate effectively and efficiently (often without words and with an almost instinctive ability to pre-empt what’s going to happen next). Both respond to failure in a positive and constructive manner. And both are an absolute joy to watch as a spectator or audience member.
The other similarity, of course, comes in the form of the live event itself. In essence, both involve one group of people paying to watch another group of people do something that they have spent days, weeks or even years preparing to do. I find it interesting that, in the age of ‘on demand TV’, sports games are one of the few pieces of TV that are still overwhelmingly watched live. Sport and theatre are also two events where it is widely recognised that actually being there and watching it live in the theatre or stadium, is a fundamentally different experience to watching from the comfort of your own home. (Something that we’re all the more aware of in the current lockdown.) What connects these forms of live entertainment is the bringing together of people with shared interests and passions in one space, and the excitement surrounding an event that is unfolding in front of your eyes and, therefore, has the potential for (almost) anything to happen.
I will undoubtedly write more about the similarity between sport and theatre in this blog. But I'll close this one with a few questions. Is there anything that theatre can learn from sport? In particular, the way it builds an audience and a following? How it celebrates the live event and the builds a community with its fans? I don’t have answers to these questions at this stage. But now might well be a good time to start asking them!