Sometimes sports and theatre feel as though they are without overlap, belonging in two different categorical boxes. Nevertheless, a team sporting competition and a piece of live theatre share an essential foundational pillar: both events are inherently dramatic. In sports, the conflict is immediate: two opposing sides with the exact opposite, high stakes goal. The athletes are the performers, while the spectators serve as the audience. And, perhaps most importantly, neither know the outcome before it happens. A sporting match contains the ultimate level of suspense: an outcome is inevitable, the specifics of which are utterly unknowable beforehand.
Athletic competition also serves as a rich space for adolescents to explore relationships and identity along with those key goals of teenagehood: independence and community. Despite sports’ utility as a stage for YA themes, it is not widely incorporated into YA theatre or YA literature. However, both media have fundamental and unique abilities to bring multi-dimensionality to a sports story. A recent, and outstanding, production of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves (directed by Lila Neugebauer, produced by The Playwrights Realm in NYC) provokes one to consider the efficacy of team sports as a framework in YA storytelling, both on the stage and on the page.
The Wolves, an ensemble production that re-opened on November 29 for a limited engagement after an extended off-Broadway run last month, follows a team of 16-year-old soccer players whose collective goal is to win their winter league championship. The entirety of the play takes place on an unchanging space – a stage covered in artificial turf. Almost every scene shows the squad warming up for their upcoming matches, both through tightly choreographed stretching and ball movement drills. This physical setup provides the visual bones of the play, although the dialogue often strays from the subject of the upcoming game. DeLappe has her characters converse on subjects ranging from menstruation, Harry Potter, yurts, genocide, birthday parties, college boyfriends, and the joys of orange slices all while the actors perform complex athletic choreography. Although none of the action portrays an actual soccer game, the characters get touches on the ball and have a collective goal of winning their winter league championship.
Of course, playwrights and novelists have different story-telling tools at their disposal. As the differences between a live production and a 250-page novel are many, on what narrative element does the success of an effective sports story hinge? Circling back to live sports, the key element is suspense.
In theatre, a significant portion of the suspense originates from the nature of live performance. Like a real soccer game, to a certain extent, neither the audience nor the performers know exactly what will happen because the margin of error, regardless of the skill and amount of rehearsal on the actors’ parts, is so high. No matter how long-running the production, each live performance is its first. This element of theatre is particularly useful when the play revolves around athletics, a topic where suspense is also essential, regardless of whether the match itself is ever executed onstage. The inherent unpredictability of live performance mirrors the unpredictability of any given sporting match. At every skill level, human error is an unavoidable aspect of performance, whether on field, onstage, or on artificial turf placed in a black box theatre. So the question remains, how is that unpredictability, that thrilling suspense, reproduced in a novel’s two-dimensional world?
In novels, the connection between storyteller and audience is less defined by the same variables of unpredictability. An author cannot rely on unplanned physicality to underscore the suspense in their fictional retelling of a soccer game, but they can utilize access to their characters’ interiority – emotions, thoughts, and desires — to raise the stakes. A writer can describe the force behind their protagonist’s shot on goal, while also detailing their inner monologue, pairing nuances of the character’s possible exhilaration, confidence, or anxiety with the physical action. Not only does adding an element of emotion to an action that is often perceived as purely physical promote deeper reader engagement, but also it adds a layer to the narrative. In theatre, the emotional lives of the characters are brought to the surface by the actor, which is incredibly exciting, but also incredibly variable. In a novel, the writer has the opportunity to invite the reader into the mind of the fictional athlete, while still dictating, to an extent, that character’s emotional experience.
So, if a theatre maker has the tool of physical unpredictability on their side, and a novelist has the gift of emotional interiority on theirs, which medium is better suited for the fictional retelling of a sport? Perhaps making such a determination is reductive and eclipses the idea that these two forms might actually work in tandem in popularizing YA story-telling with an athletic twist.
There are not a lot of plays about sports, and YA fiction is not known as the medium that most often uses athletics as a foundation to explore relationship and identity. TV and film seem to have the overall monopoly on adolescent sport stories. It’s easy to see why; film brings a third dimension to game that words on a page lack without the burdensome unpredictability of live performance. While film may be the safest way to portray fictionalized sports, theatre and fiction have their own unique strengths that take the excitement of sports and the intensity of the teenage experience and formulate them into something fresh, unknown, and ultimately, suspenseful – and, perhaps, just what the fans are waiting for.