LeanerFasterStronger: The trouble with sport

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Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.                

Photo by Kaite O’Reilly

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I was an English/Drama student at Sheffield University, so The Crucible Theatre was well known to me, and not just for the televised snooker tournaments I watched alongside my Father. Although the city is now redeveloped to the point I no longer recognise anything but the most obvious landmarks, the Crucible’s blunt boxed facade is as familiar in my memory as the faces of my fellow students, sparking with youthful theatrical ambition. It was one of our haunts, alongside the Leadmill and a scoot over Snake Pass to Manchester’s Hacienda and Royal Exchange. It was part of our landscape, perhaps somewhere we aspired to, back in the day. And now I’ve returned to the city built, like Rome, on seven hills, as one of my scripts is going to be produced here.

I’ve written before about my research process for LeanerFasterStronger – a commission from Chol Theatre, part of imove, Yorkshire’s cultural programme for London 2012. A co-production with Chol and Sheffield Theatres, my work has massively benefitted from the project’s partnership with Sheffield Hallam University’s Sports Science Department and sports engineer Dr David James.

Part of the focus of this project has been the developments in the understanding and exploitation of the human genome, bioengineering, and human enhancement. All my research suggests we stand now at the threshold of a new age – “the new biology of machines” – and my prime concern has been how to tell stories connected to this without it becoming too technical and futuristic, or plain science fiction. The research has been fascinating, alongside the bioethical concerns which have become almost an obsession – source, I’m sure, of blogs in the future.

The project is also about sport and bodies in motion, which has set me further tasks. Dramatically, competitive sport gives only a few possibilities plot-wise: the sportsperson wins or loses; they succumb to pressures of doping, or they stay ‘clean’; they are injured or grow older and so the young athletes overtake them; they retire or are injured out, and are faced with the existential dilemma of what to do next…

The sports field or team is also often used as a microcosm for a particular sector of society, or the fans and extended community are caricatured or analysed in minor ‘state of the nation’ plays.

Or so I concluded, after reading all the existing sports-related plays I could find, everything from David Storey’s 1971 The Changing Room, through Louise Page’s doping drama Golden Girls, via a whole scrum of sports-specific John Godber scripts, alongside Arthur Smith and Chris England’s celebration of the beautiful game in An Evening with Gary Lineker, a swim in an empty pool with aptly-named Steve Water’s Amphibians, to last year’s boxing duo, Bryony Lavery’s Beautiful Burnout and Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch. There are other scripts by Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and Alan Ayckbourn which are strewn with cricketing references, and films too numerous to mention dealing with the challenge and anguish of humankind versus sport. But it all seemed too much of a binary to me dramaturgically, and I struggled with finding something new to say.

‘The rules define the test’ my Sports Science advisor, Dr Dave James, often told me – so often, it is a line that has gone straight into the script. For elite sport tests the limits of what humans can do – and put in this context, the polarised, linear-chronology, ‘will she or won’t she’ trouble with sport-related  plots I had previously identified, melts away.

Quite how successful I’ve been in exploring alternative narratives will be tested this week, working at the Crucible with director Andrew Loretto, producer Susan Burns of Chol, Sports engineer Dr David James and a company of actors. I’ll be writing about our process, so you can have a ring-side seat.

4 responses to “LeanerFasterStronger: The trouble with sport

  1. The memories flood back. Tramping round Sheffield trying to find stories for the journalism course I shared with Miriam O’Reilly. Popping into The Crucible and being surprised that it was much smaller in reality than the small screen version. Pretty sure I saw more than a cue ball collide with a colour but maybe the odd(?) night at The Limit (Miriam reminds me) has overshadowed.

  2. this sounds fascinating – I will eagerly sit on the sidelines willing you on….

    • With that kind of encouragement, I’m sure to do well…
      Which is, incidentally, also part of the thinking around LeanerFasterStronger – what is the impact of encouragement and support on elite sportspeople? How might the audience or general public be implicated?

  3. Sweet site, super style and design , very clean and use friendly .

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