Olympic Questions: Further responses to LeanerFasterStronger

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Kathryn Dimery. Photo by Amanda Crowther

We are approaching the end of the run of LeanerFasterStronger at Sheffield Crucible, and have had a fantastic response to the work in the regional press, on twitter, and via the Guardian and Sheffield theatres’ website. This is the start of a period of reflection for me – what lessons might be learnt? How much of my initial ambitions and intentions have I achieved?

When I was approached by Chol Theatre with this commission, I had no interest  in sport outside watching Wales vs Ireland in international rugby matches, and no experience of participating other than representing Birmingham in the high jump as an over-excitable twelve year old. I’m a collaborator, not a competitor, so I wanted to understand this drive to succeed – highlighted by the strap line: ‘How far would you go to be the best?’ This was particularly important in relationship to commerce, sponsorship, and big business – the commercialisation of sport and the commodification of our athletes.

Apart from individual athlete characters and their pressures and challenges, I wanted to explore the bioethical issues around human enhancement, sports science, bio- and genetic engineering.

The internet has broadened the field of interaction, commentary and criticism, encouraging dialogue and discussion. Having access to members of the audience’s thoughts and reactions via chats in the bar after the show, to their online comments, can be tremendously useful to a dramatist. It allows a panoply of responses, from the professional critic to the amateur enthusiast, from fellow playwrights and theatre makers to the novice or occasional theatre-goer, perspectives from all walks of life, including sports engineers and elite athletes, the subject and focus of much of the script.

The timing of the production has been pertinent – many have commented on how some of the issues in the production will throw a long shadow across the upcoming Games:

‘…it’s a show bound up with the impending Olympics and the coverage surrounding that,’

the poet Andrew McMillan says on the Sheffield Theatres website:

‘…we’re all invited to be part of the Olympics through all mediums, radio, film, tv, even adverts now, the immersive nature of the piece, casting the audience as delegates watching conversations unfold, to me just simply continued this invitatiom to the Olympics, but examined sides to sport which might not readily be discussed. We debated some of the issues on the train ride home, and that is all an piece of theatre can really hope to achieve…’

http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/event/leanerfasterstronger-12/


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Ben Addis. Photo by Amanda Crowther.

‘As the Olympic torch moves around the country, I’ll be thinking and talking about LeanerFasterStronger’

playwright Richard Hurford wrote on the Guardian theatre blog: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2012/jun/01/stage-reader-reviews-georgie-sinatra?INTCMP=SRCH

For me LeanerFasterStronger was a powerful and refreshing example of theatre which not only has something genuinely important to say, but also cares enough about its subject matter to say it in a direct and uncompromising way.

I’m no sports expert and I know little about biotechnology, but like everyone else I’m currently experiencing what it’s like to live in an Olympics host nation. The play rises above the hype, the hard sell and the emotional aerobics to offer a welcome, provocative perspective on the bigger picture. It’s no easy ride and you have to work hard to keep up, which feels appropriate given the themes of the piece. The text is sophisticated, witty and fierce and keeps on throwing out ideas at a relentless pace. However, it’s always accessible and illuminating and not about trying to beat an audience into submission. Rather it’s about encouraging us to keep on pushing forward to consider what actually lies beyond the finishing line, not just for the sporting life, but also for the human race.

The production sticks to the courage of its convictions by placing the text firmly at the centre, intelligently and subtly supported and enhanced by the other theatrical elements to create an effective unity. The moments when the full on debates are invaded by emotionally charged fragments of athletes’ lives -particularly the exchanges between the brother and sister torn apart by the demands of his all-consuming talent – are startling and disturbing. Throughout there’s a sustained and detailed physical underscoring, which at times bursts into the foreground with explosions of intense physical exertion, suddenly thrusting the close-up spectacle of bodies sweating and muscles straining into the faces of the audience.

The theatrical container of a sports conference and specifically the late night boozy discussions of a clutch of delegates from different sports sectors – importantly none of them are athletes and only the hanger-on boyfriend of one of the women seems to participate in any actual sporting activity – provides a clever vehicle to raise and wrangle over the issues on an informed and expert level. It had all the feel of one of those councils of the gods which regularly crop up in Greek myths in which the immortals bicker, throw tantrums and settle personal scores, while casually deciding the fates of humankind with lofty and chilling disdain. Like those immortals the sports delegates have little connection and less interest in what really happens down on the ground, in the stadia, boxing rings, locker rooms, lives and minds of the athletes whose fates and futures they’re shaping over another bottle of wine.

LeanerFasteStronger treats its audience with respect, while insisting we do our bit too. Theatre can engage us through the stories and the experiences of characters, but there’s also a place for plain-speaking. This is one of those occasions and the approach works for the complexity of the subject matter. Some might be tempted by a more conventional dramatic development of the athletes’ stories, but I appreciated the fact that the play kept leading me back to the debate and kept me focused on the ideas rather than lost in the drama.

I really value theatre which leaves me with something I can use in the real world and this is a seriously useful piece of work. As the Olympic torch moves around the country, I’ll be thinking and talking about LeanerFasterStronger.’

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Morven Macbeth. Photo by Amanda Crowther

Many people, including Jane Lloyd Francis, have commented on how they feel the issues in the play will have more relevance after the Olympics and Paralympics are over.

I was honoured when Paralympians Steve Judd and Suzannah Rockett Coughlan attended the performance. They were involved in my research  (see earlier blog: https://kaiteoreilly.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/leanerfasterstronger-a-week-of-olympians-and-paralympians/).

In an email after the show Suzannah said:

It was such an intense play with almost every possible emotion I have had in relation to my sport.
I must confess I found the scene regarding the end of ones career  particularly poignant, as this is an area the public rarely see or to be honest care about as the next star is ready to replace them. Also the family scene was significant and again an area which is rarely touched upon.

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Christopher Simpson. Photo by Amanda Crowther.

Such an honest and engaged response from an elite athlete is humbling as well as gratifying, for through Suzannah’s response I know I have achieved one of my intentions. I sought to tell less familiar stories around sport which revealed the particular stresses of being the national hope for gold.

I will continue reviewing the process, script, production, and response over the coming days and weeks, and give sincere thanks to those who have taken the time and effort to enter this dialogue between spectacle and spectator.

Finally, some thoughts from Julie Armstrong, who reviewed the show for the Sheffield Telegraph:

Sheffield Telegraph, Thursday May 31, 2012  Julia Armstrong

A STRIKING tableau greets the audience as they enter the auditorium, with the four actors striking sporting poses while balancing on stage blocks. This is the shape of things to come as the actors combine fluidity of movement, including rearranging the performance space, with words that move fast through various scenarios. The actors take on different roles to explore issues of what sacrifices elite sportspeople and their loved ones make, at how pure sport really is in our money-driven world and at how technologies could affect sporting achievement and all of our lives.

As part of the city’s contribution to the artistic response to the London 2012 Olympics, Kaite O’Reilly’s new play is a beautifully written and timely examination of issues that have far-reaching consequences beyond the sporting arena, perhaps even as to what it will mean to be human in the future. This is a chilling prospect as she says in her programme notes that she has been looking at the future of real elite sport science.

On a more intimate level, the actors Ben Addis, Kathryn Dimery, Morven Macbeth and Christopher Simpson perform compellingly as individuals and a team to look at what all this means for the people involved, from the athlete whose sister says his pursuit of his Olympic dream has damaged their whole family to the boxer who constantly pushes mind and body to the limit. A smooth-talking sports promoter hangs around in the background like a vulture assured of a next easy meal, ready to drop a star who is past their best.

3 responses to “Olympic Questions: Further responses to LeanerFasterStronger

  1. This seemed to be about more than, ‘what does it mean to be human’ and perhaps more about hypocritical behaviours displayed by humans? You really have no right to claim ignorance of the issues raised after this experience, as it was more than just watching the performance of a play. Being made to feel like a ‘delegate’ and feeling involved and engaged, specifically with some of the actors was unexpected. Impressive, non-the-less. I was already aware of some issues but I left questioning the future significance of both versions of the Olympics. However, I am perhaps, a little more cynical of the modern day reasoning behind them….

  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and reflect on your experience, Gavin. Playwrights and theatre makers seldom have access to this first hand feedback of an audience member’s experience of being at a performance we helped create (other than eavesdropping in the toilets after a show – but I can’t make every performance, nor, without a little controversy, the gents). Thank you for this response – it’s really appreciated.

    • Well, Oscar’s comments after coming second yesterday made me think again about this play. How far do you go to win? What comes to mind is, ‘…if you can’t beat them, join them….’

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