It’s Not About Soccer, and Other Musings

Last month I completed a draft over a draught: a rough go of chapter one of my dissertation, with the final words lubricated by a couple of brews at one of my favorite haunts. Having a drink was a nice way to commemorate a milestone that seemed a long ways off last summer, when, according to my approved timeline, I should have already had some pages in my pocket. That timeline was always more for show, anyway; what really matters is that I have something.

While my dissertation takes a wide angle view of performance, the first chapter is very much focused on traditional plays. In it, I examine two “soccer dramas” that center high-performing women and girls: Caridad Svich’s Guapa and Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves. Svich’s heroine Guapa, a young Latina woman living in a Texas border town, longs for an opportunity to test her futbol skills at a street tournament in Dallas. Despite seeming relatively straightforward, actually making the trip to that tournament presents a significant challenge to Guapa’s family: not only is taking their one junky car to Dallas a risk, but the prospect of success isn’t that promising. As Guapa’s guardian Roly is keen to remind her, even successful women, like Marta of Brazil, aren’t paid what they are worth. It takes a debilitating accident that robs Guapa of her ability to play to change Roly’s mind. To combat the after-effects of Guapa’s accident, which are exacerbated by trauma suffered at the hands of her step-father, the family rallies around her and uses futbol to facilitate her rehabilitation and set up a potentially fateful trip to Dallas. Despite the happy ending, the results of that tournament are ultimately left unresolved.

While Guapa focuses on a woman closely aligned with the Beautiful Game, The Wolves centers an all-girls indoor team focused on the labor of practice. The action of DeLappe’s funny, richly drawn ensemble piece unfolds in a series of warm-up sessions, during which the nine Wolves chatting about everything from post-genocidal justice to weird crushes. Their huddle is a new and intimidating environment for #46, an erstwhile world-traveler trying to fit in with a group that has been together for years. As #46 waits for her moment to shine, the other girls struggle to manage broken relationships, debilitating expectations, and the after-effects of injuries suffered on the pitch. Ultimately, the remnants of the team are forced to come together in the direst of circumstances when one of their number is struck and killed by a car. Rather than see them commemorate their fallen comrade with a win, the play ends with the team meditating on a cathartic pre-game chant and the tenuous unity they have forged.

Despite some obvious differences in their dramaturgy, these two plays share a number of qualities themes, including a nuanced depiction of success and failure. The ball-playing characters in each are driven to succeed yet constantly reminded of the limitations placed on them by the structure of the sport. Those limitations are often presented in stark contrast to the privilege afford male players, though in Guapa’s case it also includes her economic and social disadvantages. They also keep close ties to risk and mortality, Guapa through the injury suffered by its main character, an injury solved somewhat fantastically (and questionably) by a synthesis of her futboling prowess and spirituality; and The Wolves through the injuries suffered by the players, the global conflicts discussed in their huddle, and frequent mentions of the ways men dominate and take advantage of them. What I appreciate about these plays is that they problematize the “transcendent” narratives that privilege individual achievement and proffer sport as a way to “play your way” over material barriers. The barriers in these plays are quite real, which ultimately forces each set of characters, or at the very least the audience, to consider what they are meant to playing for. Then again, part of the problem, as I argue with help from other scholars, is the idea that play should have to do something at all. At some level, both of these soccer dramas trade on the idea that just getting to play and be part of a team has intrinsic value, even if that value has to be defined and contested.

Interestingly, both playwrights introduce published editions of their texts with long, thoughtful prefaces that distance soccer from their play’s essence. They literally say that their work is not about soccer as such, but about something else. Soccer is merely a vessel, a “prism,” as Svich says, for exploring these characters’ lives and the themes that undergird their stories. On the one hand, this assertion makes sense: after all, not a lot of play makes it onstage, save for The Wolves’ warm-up sessions and Guapa’s freestyling. Even the games that would conclude these characters’ journeys and seemingly validate their sacrifices are left unresolved, offstage, and out of the scope of the play. On the other hand, the idea that these plays are not “about” soccer yet are saturated in soccer suggests they are trading on assumptions about the sport – indeed, on what the sport itself can be “about”: beauty, creativity, empowerment, teamwork, pain and suffering, even symbolic violence. By simultaneously framing their plays with soccer but distancing the sport from their supposed essence, Svich and DeLappe open up opportunities to consider what it means to play – or at least, what it supposedly means to play. It’s this “meaning” that gets mobilized and challenged in the work I consider throughout the rest of the project, whether that means mythologizing a one-off historical event, maximizing a celebrity’s legacy, or cultivating political power through sport. At some level, the idea that these and other performances are not about soccer but something else furthers the notion, one commonly adhered to by fans and commentators all over the world, that soccer is “about” something more than itself.

Practicing the Art of Speculation

A few weeks ago I had the special pleasure of returning to a play after a long time away and finding that it didn’t stink to high heaven. I’ve been picking at it ever since, mostly in scratch scenes, of which I already had plenty. At some point I will need to make some choices to create a proper draft, but for now, I’m enjoying listening to my characters talk to me again. I’m also giving myself time to sharpen my speculation. The play is set in a near future where app users have the opportunity switch lives with other users – not science fiction, per se, but speculative fiction, a look at what our relationships with technology and the economy might produce next. This kind of writing has always interested me – I even wrote a short, 1984-inspired comedy that anticipated the rise of non-stop personal streaming, violence included – and it’s something the great works do really well. In fact, two stories I read this year demonstrated mastery of speculative fiction: Machinehood by S.B. Divya and the two-part Parable series by Octavia Butler (Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents). Divya’s book is part of the time-honored corpus of fiction that examines the boundaries between humanity and machines, but it also offers some striking speculation as to how that relationship might shape labor. In fact, the way people earn money, whether through minding machines or earning tips from an ever-present public watching them through swarms of cameras, was even more intriguing to me than the larger theme of “machinehood.” If Divya offers a look at what work could be, Butler, writing in the mid-1990s, portrayed a world eerily similar to the one we would inherit twenty years later. A crumbling environment and economy, a resurgence of fascists operating under the guise of religion, a pandemic of violence with global ramifications: it’s all there in grisly detail, albeit leavened by the heroine’s dream of taking her community to a better place in the stars.

It’s tempting to celebrate Butler for her foresight and test the validity of Divya’s predictions over the years, but what’s more important is recognizing that speculative fiction bases its version of the future on observations of the present. The rise of Donald Trump and the collapse of American infrastructure surprised a lot of well-placed and well-meaning liberals, but it did not surprise people accustomed to living on the margins. Keen observers like Butler saw some of this coming. Divya, meanwhile, is a trained engineer, someone who understands human and machine relationships in a way many others do not. She knows what she is talking about. For my part, I may not be an expert in lifestyle applications, but I am paying attention to how our relationships are evolving – not through technology as such but through the services technology supports. The app in my play isn’t a literal portal to another life; it’s a tool that helps consenting adults check and see if the grass really is greener on the other side. The systems that make that tool function, the hidden contracts and business commitments, are a significant interest to me, too. Ultimately, I have a sneaky feeling we may be set to turn even more of our personal lives over to some kind of management, perhaps with little appreciation for who (or what) is pulling the strings behind the scenes. Only time – and, maybe, some good speculative playwriting – will tell.

Being (with) the Beatles

Last year I hit upon a great way to fill the time while waiting for new arrivals from the library: gradually reading one very big, very dense book a chapter at a time! The best books for this purpose are the ones worth taking slowly or dog-earing for a second look. Last year’s was A History of God by Karen Armstrong (which, full disclosure, I finished earlier this year). This year’s was The Beatles by Bob Spitz, an 850-page (not including notes) beast that I just wrapped. It’s been on my shelf for years and it was worth the wait. Granted the criticism it has received (like all Beatles books), Spitz’s opus is beautifully written, complete with an in-depth look at each band member’s childhood and their early years together, not to mention a recounting of their greatest hits, on and off the charts. It was a fantastic reason to not only learn about the band but revisit their complete catalogue, which I got as a (rather expensive) birthday present years ago, before they were even on iTunes. In a way, it was like getting to know old friends.

Getting to know the Beatles meant learning more about their shortcomings and the many layers of performance that made them myths. I knew beforehand that the members of the band, John in particular, were not entirely like the mop-topped boys who kicked off the British invasion. They were competitive, even cutthroat at times; they were, by and large, woefully self-absorbed and inattentive to their mates, sometimes to the point of abuse; and they held certain prejudices of their time. In short, they were young, immature but driven guys who rose to untold heights in one of the fiercest, most exploitative industries there is. It’s no surprise that they weren’t actually nice. Of course, they were carefully cultivated for an audience that was evidently hungry for what they brought to the table. The clean-cut, besuited image they became famous for in the early 60s was the creation of their manager, Brian Epstein; before that, they were leather-clad rockers and rebels. Somehow, their new look made them global sensations and the object of then-unimaginable teen obsession, appropriately dubbed “Beatlemania” for the sheer, violent intensity of affection it prompted. Beatlemania became a prison for the Fab Four (one made all the more egregious by the shamefully exploitative licensing deals made on their behalves), so much so that they quit the stage and retreated to the studio. From there, they experimented not just with music but with themselves, hitting new conceptual heights with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album enabled by a colorful persona that allowed them to step outside of themselves. From there came the “discovery” of Indian spirituality, John’s creative frustrations nurtured by the much-maligned and misunderstood Yoko Ono, a medley of side projects, and a growing disillusionment with the band on everyone’s part. Being the Beatles, whatever that meant, was eventually too much, especially after they contrived to throw away even more money with their ill-fated Apple Records escapades. Each man went on making new versions of himself in the public eye, never quite escaping the myth of the band that made him famous. They were, as Paul pointed out in a recent interview, all too human, of course, but what the rest of us see is so heavily saturated in myth and layers of performance that the truth is often difficult to determine. Not that many people want the truth; the music, and the story, tends to be enough.

On the Ethics of Sports Spectatorship, and Other Musings

A collage (with credits) of the life and death matters tied up in sporting mega-events. Clockwise from top left: Danish players guard their fallen teammate, Christian Eriksen, as he receives treatment for a cardiac arrest (photo by Friedemann Vogel). Protestors speak out against the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (photo by Yuichi Yamazaki). A World Cup stadium under construction in Qatar (photo by K. Abou Mehri).

On the Ethics of Sports Spectatorship

This summer, sports are going back in time. The Tokyo Olympics, still known as the “2020 Olympics,” are slated to go ahead despite widespread resistance across Japan. Much of that resistance is driven by fears of a rise in COVID-19 cases, which could be a big problem for a country with a very low vaccination rate. Unfortunately for them, only the International Olympic Committee has the right to cancel the Games. That’s right: contractually speaking, a sovereign nation does not have the right to cancel the Olympics happening within its own borders. Meanwhile, soccer’s European Championships, “EURO 2020,” has continued with its original pan-continental setup, with matches taking place in eleven cities as far apart as Seville, Spain and Baku, Azerbaijan. In addition to putting teams through a thicket of contradictory health and safety measures, many of the host nations have welcomed fans back to their stadiums. While some, such as Denmark, had some justification thanks to good numbers, even they have seen some fans contract the new Delta variant. Scotland, meanwhile, has tied nearly 2,000 new cases to fans who traveled to matches, mostly at Wembley Stadium; many of those fans went against government warnings and traveled to London despite not even having tickets. Then there’s the Copa America, South America’s continental soccer championship, which pulled out of Colombia and Argentina at the last minute and moved instead to Brazil, one of the worst-hit countries in the world, despite criticism from the host nation’s own much-beloved team. This is the same country that hosted a World Cup (2014) and Olympic Games (2016) back to back, which required enormous financial investments in stadiums and facilities that are largely unused. It’s also currently under the rule of President Jair Bolsonaro, who, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, is implementing a vehemently right-wing agenda.

Unfortunately, authoritarian politics and high costs for host countries, in addition to the militarization of public space and widespread labor abuses – looking at you, World Cup 2022 in Qatar – are standard practices for these sporting mega-events. Once again, the old adage that “sports aren’t political” is demonstrably false. (Even my going to two sporting events in D.C., a welcome if tentative return to “normalcy,” is made possible by a myriad of political decisions regarding land, economics, and vaccination distribution.) With all that in mind, I have been asking myself how I can be an ethical spectator of these mega-events, knowing the dangers involved in staging them. Can I, as a performance studies scholar, truly critique these events through my cheers? I would like to think the answer is yes, which is why I decided the least I could do was try to hold the beautiful and the ugly in tension, mostly by spending way too much time on Twitter alternating between commenting on EURO 2020 games and posting coverage on the COVID-19 and political shenanigans behind the scenes. Despite my low follower count and suspicions about Twitter activism, I decided the exercise would at least attune me to a kind of critical spectatorship that could prove useful to my dissertation and act as a platform for further action ahead of Qatar 2022.

Of course, there remains a strong argument that the only way to ethically engage in any exploitative practice is to not engage at all. The problem there is that tuning out is easier said than done, especially when, no matter what individual choices we make, elite sport will play on no matter the circumstances. This was made very apparent when Christian Eriksen, the star of the Danish national team, suffered a cardiac arrest while on the pitch in Denmark’s opening EURO 2020 match against Finland. In an astounding scene, Eriksen’s teammates stood in a circle around their fallen friend as the medical team fought to revive him, many of them struggling to remain calm through the tears. Some broke away at one point to intercept Eriksen’s distraught partner when she rushed to the sidelines. Throughout it all, fans in the stadium stood on in silent horror, while the commentators calling the match did their best to maintain composure, offering grave reminders that “football is just a game.” That same refrain was repeated over and over again throughout the day: “football is just a game.” When the match was finally suspended and ESPN’s coverage turned back to the studio, it was all the pundits could say: “football is just a game.” I know all this happened because despite the Danish team’s efforts to protect Eriksen’s privacy and despite the calls from some the commentators to cut away, the camera stayed on. I know it stayed on because I stayed in my seat, watching and waiting to see what would happen next. Call it shock, call it grim fascination, call it marveling at the solidarity shown by the team and supporters – whatever it was, I did not turn away.

Fortunately, Eriksen survived and received treatment at the Copenhagen hospital conveniently overlooking the stadium. Unfortunately, despite the evident trauma of the event, the Danish players were forced to make a choice: pick up the match that day and play on as if nothing had happened or pick it up the following day and play on as if nothing had happened. Fearing the shear exhaustion of waiting and wondering, the players apparently decided to continue that day, and ended up losing to tournament debutants Finland. Thankfully for the Danes, that was not the end of their journey: with Eriksen watching in recovery, they bounced back from another loss to Belgium by thrashing Russia in the last group game and thrashing Wales in the second round. Maybe they’re taking out their anger on UEFA, the European game’s governing body, by going all the way in the most peculiar circumstances, just like they did when Yugoslavia’s collapse in 1992 had UEFA calling them up to take their place.

Whatever happens next, Denmark’s situation accentuates one thing: that the sports-industrial complex, the vast network of political, economic, scientific, and cultural powers that enable massive governing bodies like UEFA and the IOC, will always play on. At some level, maybe I wanted to keep watching so I could confirm that for myself. But then, I already knew that would happen, didn’t I? It was proven before the match, before the tournament, even started. For all the reminders that it is “just a game,” football continues on in the face of mortal danger, not just for the love of the game but for the love of the money guaranteed by lucrative sponsorship and broadcast contracts. That’s why the camera stays on and that’s why the pundits have to fill their time with half-hearted reminders that it’s all “just a game,” even though they know the game will go on after a very close, very public brush with death.

Sports have a peculiar relationship with reality. They get cast as war, as art, as a matter of life and death, right up until real life and death matters encroach on their terrain. Then they’re just games. But life and death are always going on behind the scenes, too. A ball hasn’t even been kicked in Qatar and thousands of migrant workers have already lost their lives since the country was awarded the World Cup. Nevertheless, it will play on, just like EURO 2020, the Tokyo Olympics, the Copa America, and all the rest. And many of us, myself included, will continue to watch, so long as we are given the platform to do so. Christian Eriksen’s heart attack helped me prove that to myself this summer. What I actually do with that witness is a work in progress.

Other Musings

More Like PTC’s The Wolves, Please. Last month, I published a Theatre Journal review of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves as staged by Philadelphia Theatre Company. Originally slated for an in-person production, this story of a girls’ indoor soccer team navigating a challenging, not to mention the thickets of young adulthood, made a surprisingly smooth transition to the virtual realm. In fact, by putting a play that normally depends on an abundance of space into Brady Bunch Zoom boxes, PTC’s production illustrated how a shift into the virtual realm can refresh our understanding of plays we think we already know. Rather than watch from a voyeuristic remove while the girls practiced in an arena, as I did at the Goodman Theatre in 2018, I was instead consumed by DeLappe’s rush of teenage chatter gushing out of a wall of unfamiliar faces. It was overwhelming and isolating, just like it must have been for #46, the new girl in the group. I came to realize that as much as the play is about a shared spaced, it is also about a struggle to connect, a fact brilliantly accentuated by the Zoom boxes and the photographic backgrounds that never quite matched up with their neighbors’. In short, PTC’s production illuminated a play I thought I already knew fairly well. This is one of the many reasons why I hope virtual theatre – or just “theatre” as some prefer to call it – will stick around in some form or fashion. Apart from expanding access, virtual productions have the ability to stimulate audiences in very different ways. Some of that comes from advances in technology that blur the lines between realities, some of it from highlighting the limitations of digital connectivity. If nothing else, the voices of PTC’s superb cast have been living rent-free in my mind as I write my dissertation. Thank heavens I was able to watch them workout more than once.

The (Un)Realities of In the Heights. The onscreen arrival of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes’s In the Heights is the kind of thing most theatre-folk have to take note of. Though I came in unfamiliar with the show, there are a couple of things that jumped out to me about the film and the resulting discourse around it. The first is the way director John Chu and his team embraced magical realism in many of the numbers. While not all instances are particularly good – the wig mannequins turning their heads in “No Me Diga” had major haunted house vibes – and while there was not much internal consistency in how reality got warped, I appreciated that the film leaned into the way musicals already flaunt realistic conventions. Why not send massive banners over the tops of the neighborhood in “It Won’t Be Long Now” or dance up the walls in “When the Sun Goes Down” if it accentuates how the characters feel? Ironically, a lack of reality has been a sticking point in criticism of the film, particularly in regard to the dearth of Afro-Latinx performers, which is notable for a story set in the predominately Black neighborhood of Washington Heights. This, in addition to changes in the script that eliminated confrontations of anti-Black racism, has placed the film into a broader discourse on how colorism touches the many groups that make up Latinidad. As Miranda himself acknowledged, these are criticisms worth listening to, though it it is also worth being wary of the weight of expectation placed on films touted as feats of Representation-with-a-capital-R. Bearing in mind that I speak from a position of astounding privilege when it comes to representation, it should go without saying that no single Hollywood film can truly capture all the shades and nuances of any people group, let alone serve as an accurate barometer for true political empowerment. As others have pointed out, the reaction to the film is as much an indictment of a cultural landscape where Latinx stories are scarce as it is anything else. Nevertheless, it is also worth remembering that levels of reality hit differently depending on who is in the story and how it gets told. Audiences are often happy to go along with the magic of movies, but they are just as likely to call out one that makes a disputable claim to a reality the audience knows very well.

Building a Syllabus with the Students. This Fall, I’ll be teaching Texts and Contexts in Western Theatre, a course that introduces students to dramaturgy and script analysis while exposing them to a wide range of Western theatre styles throughout history. There’s a lot to cover, which means tough choices have to be made when it comes to drawing up a syllabus. To help me make those choices, I’ve decided to have the students help me fill in our reading list. A lot of that will involve them simply weighing in on what plays they’ve already read from the different “slots.” If most of them have already read Macbeth, for example, then that leaves me room to do Twelfth Night instead. This will help me ensure students are covering the important material without retreading terrain that’s too familiar. It also clues them in to other opportunities within each of these slots. A slot on the absurd and surreal might include Beckett and Ionesco, but it might also include Kennedy and Churchill. I’ll also give the students an opportunity to weigh in on our “wild card” play. Do they want to do an adaptation of a play we’ve already ready? Do they want to do an understudied period or genre, like Roman comedies or the work of Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim? Do they want to do a solo show a la Anna Deavere Smith or John Leguizamo? Apart from our reading materials, I also plan to collaborate with students to set up class policies regarding discussions and assignments. Ideally, the more students have a stake in how the class is structured, the more they will learn. These efforts, combined with experiments in grading and some other pedagogical tools I picked up last Fall, should (hopefully) make for an experience that’s at least as educational for me as it is for them.