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The Theatricality of Baseball

I don’t know very much about baseball. Out of all of the sports that I take little interest in, it is definitely the one I have the most (and that doesn’t mean a lot of) interest in. I grew up in a family of die-hard sox fans so I vaguely get the gist of the sport. I can follow a game if my attention span dictates it (should be read as “I can follow a game if I have the proper snacks and beverages and if I’m sitting in Fenway park with a family member who doesn’t mind taking a little time off from grumbling about the other team to explain to me that someone just hit a double. And also if the weather is good”). Clearly baseball isn’t my cup of tea. But after reading Allison Vanouse‘s post on Howlround on the subject, I think I need to suck it up and get myself to a sox game.

From http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fenway_Park_2009.jpg

Fenway Park, 2009

In her post she explains how similar baseball really is to theater. There’s a playing space with a very specific set of rules, and though the players (generally) adhere to those rules, no two plays are the same. And because no two plays are the same, there is always some suspense. We cheer and boo when something moves us to. We idolize the players who can really hit it out of the park.

Additionally, baseball makes more sense if we see it in the context of a season. Or (in the case of particularly old teams especially) in the context of the history of the team. A sox game is fun on its own. But it is about 10 times more exciting if you know that the Yankees are only a half a game up. Thus, the stakes for winning this game are higher. And the stakes are higher still if your team is under a curse (a shout out to the cubs fans).

Sound familiar? Of course it does. Each one of these elements are not only applicable to theater, but they help shape the essence of theater. There is a certain theatricality to the game of baseball that we as theater artists should come to recognize and appreciate.

Johnny Baseball at the A.R.T.

Johnny Baseball at the A.R.T.

In 2010, I had the opportunity to see one of the most moving and simultaneously fun theater experiences I have ever been a part of: Johnny Baseball at the A.R.T. of Cambridge. The show was a skillfully blended piece on American social history and Boston baseball, all within the context of a musical. There’s just something about the pressures of the game of baseball that lent itself so well to the theater. And there’s something about the musical as a form that made it appropriate to tell a story about baseball. Johnny baseball would not have worked in a movie and it definitely would not have worked outside of Boston. In fact, a theater in Williamstown MA out in the Berkshires did a heavily edited version of the play this past summer. It had the same level of musicality and the same social message but a lot of the Boston specific jokes and references were taken out of the show. It was still enjoyable perhaps, but it lacked specificity of the other production because baseball in Boston is not like baseball anywhere else. The fans are crazier. The park is older (by a lot). The team has so much history that its theatrical (and I’m not just talking about Harry Frazee). Baseball and Boston and theater just make sense together.

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