In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Thursday, July 7, 2011

SPORT THEATRE AND “PLAYING DIRTY”: A performance experiment on soccer

by Athina Vahla
Images courtesy Mark Wilby

This paper aims to introduce a hybrid form of performance named Sport Theatre. The first part of the document is about defining Sport Theatre as a concept through discussing its constituent elements, purpose and potential, while the second part discusses a performance experiment called Playing Dirty, part of the Synthetic Dirt Colloquium which aimed to test the practical application of Sport Theatre in performance.

By definition, sport is highly structured. Its rules, arena, equipment, etiquette, roles of the participants, positioning of the spectator, and the win-lose outcome sets the parameters.
Sport Theatre is both sport and theatre. Its departure point investigates the sporting body  its actions and dynamics, its physiology, biomechanics and psychology; the point of limitation in the physical extremes of pain and fatigue and its balance between mental and physical training. The ultimate aim of Sport Theatre is to dissect the language of sport in order to re-construct a movement language that, rather than a translation to physical theatre or dance performance retains the affinities of sport. From this foundation of systematic information, science and knowledge, the intention is to build webs of meaning and meta-narratives.
The spectacles that emerge are hybrid performances. Through exposing points of friction in performance, the events aim to push both participants and spectators to ‘see’ the edges with regards to the physical and mental effort in contest, and hopefully to gain an insight into what it means to be human. Sport Theatre performances seek to:

1. challenge the liminal space between sport and art performance, the functional and the aesthetic;
 2. create a ‘distinct’ artistic voice by ‘mixing’ two different physical practices performed by sports people rather than athletically trained actors;
 3. encourage collaborative exchanges between different academic disciplines in order to observe what emerges from this synergy;
4. test the boundaries among sports, arts and science, and the way we look into established structures or systems;
 5. define new territories.

Sport Theatre is defined by the concept of conflict (agon), its spatial location (arena), its use of energy (effort) and the synergy of these three components, in order to achieve structural rigour.
Agon and Arena

Sport theatre performance take place in spaces or sites specifically configured or set aside for the agon, an ancient Greek word meaning contest, competition, conflict, challenge, struggle, or argument.  Agon is the root of the words antagonist, and agony.  An example of such a site would be a raised square platform for a boxing match, a field with diametrically opposite goal posts for a soccer game, or a long corridor space for a relay race. 

With agon being the driving force, spaces become more than neutral locations. The agon is what renders these spaces arenas and this raises a fundamental performance question, namely, does space define the encounters or do encounters dictate the space?

Sport theatre is about ‘choreographing’ the agon circumstances that unfold. This implies a painstaking process of dissecting the inherent elements of structure, rituals and gestures in a sport activity, in order to study them, followed by the creation of time and action- based interventions.  These interventions aim to alter the parameters of the contest at play and to explore the dramatic potential of the agon without disturbing the essence of the sport. If action and space are essential components for defining the actions in sport theatre then the use of energy, meaning the quality and intensity of effort used for the agon, is essential for the transformative potential of the contest.

Sport becomes a vehicle to investigate the use of energy in performance and particularly the specific point at which performers exceed their own self, reach beyond physical and mental limits, and ‘transcend’ fatigue and pain. Sport offers direct insight into how energy is being used by being a single goaled activity demanding a winner- loser outcome and rarely dependent on the aesthetic result. As an effort to understand better the essence of the ‘transcendental’ and locate this in the real body, it is important to understand and investigate the biomechanical and mental functions in elite athletes during sport performance. There seems to be a deposit of energy in our bodies and a portal to it. Ensuring access to this portal requires lengthy research and the input of expertise from science, medicine and psychology. I believe that the effort spent to locate this portal is worthy; accessing consciously this energy reservoir we possess as humans may lead to an understanding of how individuals can be in control of their energy and reach their full potential physically as well as mentally during their life span.

 It is sometimes said that in our cultures we have used our knowledge to bad effect or that we have outsmarted ourselves and the damage is irreversible. I believe that f we can understand agon in its full Greek, Nietzschean* and existential senses, then it wouldn’t be too late. This is the artistic challenge I set for myself as an artist.

Identifying content and context
With the creation of sport theatre I am looking to create a performance model which is not about conflict, but is conflict per se. Samuel Beckett once made a comment on James Joyce’s book Ulysses. He said that Joyce’s book is not about ‘it’ but it is ‘it’.  To go beyond illustration, it is imperative for the work in sport theatre to develop outside the proscenium stage. Exposing the body in different indoor and outdoor locations has been essential; the spatial frame holds the conflict and, equally an arena hosts the body and how it manifests and mediates struggle, agony and antagonism in it. Hence, agon and arena together. Hence, the actual athletes are the protagonists of a ‘play’ which does not have a pre-defined outcome. I believe that this kind of synergy can create a kind of a ‘critical mass’ for the impact of the artistic performance to the public as it is equally and simultaneously  supported by all  its elements to create a web of meaning.

The potential of sport theatre as a hybrid performance rests on its creative role; to re-define a frame for the notion of the agon -an integral part of humanity- by merging and testing traditional forms of ‘play’ in sports and theatre through the studying of different aspects of human activity related to body and mind, space and place, and informed by disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, sociology politics and economics.  In sport theatre the notion of performativity becomes a springboard for testing borderlines amongst different disciplines. It challenges our viewing of established academic and scientific concepts and structures proposing more flexible and fluid ways of creating connections and re- engineering models in which the unfamiliar often lies next to the familiar.

Playing Dirty-Women’s Soccer was a performance experiment presented in the Box Theatre of Rhodes Drama Department and created for the Synthetic Dirt Colloquium. This was a  collaboration between Rhodes University’s Departments of Sports, Psychology, Journalism, Human Kinetics and Ergonomics, Fine Arts and Drama.

 The experiment was based on the pre-performance routine of the Rhodes women soccer team*, placing the rituals of their practice into a performative space. The team’s training was dislocated from the outdoor field and re-located to the black box theatre.  Therefore the notion of the site-specific in performance was reversed. With regards to the sport activity both temporal and spatial dimension were condensed and reduced. The performance was a training session for the soccer team that aimed to exercise their physical and mental ability to adjust to unfamiliar game situations. The dislocation of the playground, the shifting of goal posts, the reduced number of players, selected texts from Sun Tzu’s doctrine Art of War narrated live during the game and alternated with sport psychology questions specifically designed for the players, all challenged the team’s training as well as the performance per se.

Theatrical interventions were subtly introduced during the training, to subvert the game rules and ethos. Their function was to demonstrate potential layers of perception, and alter expectations about the outcome of a sporting event. For example, a member of the collaborative team writer Anton Krueger, inspired by the linguists and philosophers Ferdinard de Saussure and Ludwig Wittgenstein who compared language to a game, set to investigate the similarity between language and sports. Posing the question if there is a marked difference between thinking with the body and thinking discursively, in language, Krueger asked a series of questions to the soccer players while they were engaged in the competitive activity of the practice training match. The purpose was to observe if the verbalization of thought patterns would enhance, or be detrimental to the game.

 Despite the theatrical interventions, the authenticity of the physical and mental training was maintained throughout the pre-performance routines of warm up, drills, pep talk, debrief and conclusion. The players were soccer players rather than soccer trained actors and our contact time prior to the performance was limited to three hour sessions shared between the field and the theatre. The ‘dirtying’ of the game became apparent in that expressed human effort was revealed rather than concealed. The safe terrain of a highly structured sport was deliberately ‘sabotaged’. A number of idiosyncrasies were highlighted; the playing field became an enclosed theatre, and most importantly, the borderland between the private (training) and the public (game) was challenged and exposed. In a wider context, the Synthetic Dirt Colloquium as a hosting structure became an arena in which those interventions were played out.

 Theatre maker and academic Alexandra Sutherland located similarities between the soccer performance and approaches to theatre that aim to democratise the theatrical process and experience:
 “In many theatre practices, even those that try to open up who participates in theatre and how, the conventional theatrical space tends to remain the domain of trained artists, due to the hegemony associated with it as a structure. The transformation of the theatre space into space for sport and competitiveness fundamentally shifts questions around who can and should perform on stage, and in what context...My interest is what impact the process of training in a radically different context to the sports field has on the player’s sense of themselves and their relationship to each other.  How can the players’ engagement in ‘training’ from a theatrical performance angle provide opportunities for a shift in how they story themselves and the world in their team? And what modes can we use to assess this?”

According to some historians the roots of modern day sports can be found in ritualistic practices associated with religious ceremonies. In her paper Sport as Ritual: Interpretations from Durkheim to Goffman, Susan Birrell regards sport as a legacy of ritual. “Over time, the religious meaning of sporting activities may have been lost, yet the form of those activities remains, ready to take on new meanings” (Birrell,1981,p. 354).

According to Durkheim and Luckmann three aspects comprise a symbolic system: the individual, the social order, and the symbolic order, or religion. If for some sociologists and sport is a symbolic order, that aims to bring harmony to society, then it also needs its mediator- its hero, the sportsman, the actor, the one presence that enables the spectator to cross over from the profane to the spiritual side.  Both sport and theatre share the function of negotiating rapture in performance. May be sport theatre is more than choreographing the agon; May be it is about re-ritualising the passage from the bodily experience to the transcendence of the body.

 For Nietzsche, pain is an inevitable corollary of the Life-Force, and as such it is to be welcomed rather than lamented. For Nietzsche, pain means birth-pangs. And it is this violence, pain and conflict that Nietzsche insists is essential to ancient Greek culture. (Pool, 2005, p.63)

Although the nature of gender in soccer is significant and was taken into consideration throughout the performance process, for this experiment specifically I chose not to focus on gender and its consequences for soccer. Working with women ‘s soccer  was the offering from the Rhodes Sport chairman Andrew Matatu as the particular team needed extra support to strengthen their game in their new soccer season.

Athina Vahla lectures in the Drama Department, Rhodes University

Pool, Andrian. 2005. “Tragedy: A Very Short Introduction”. Oxford
Birrell Susan, 1981. “Sport as Ritual: Interpretations from Durkheim to Goffman” Social Forces. University of North Carolina Press.

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