Drama and Sport

Posted June 6th, 2008

In high school and college, I occasionally enjoyed student theatrical productions, but I never had much in common with my classmates who were into drama. They appeared to take themselves too seriously, they stayed up very late arguing obscure interpretations of a playwright’s intentions, and most of them smoked. Of course, the theatrical crowd didn’t have much use for us jocks either. We were frequently stereotyped as too dumb to discuss anything except sports, more concerned about getting 10 hours of sleep then cramming for an exam, and were far too focused on health to smoke or even drink coffee.
I remained relatively unshakable in my view of the theater crowd until I met my wife, Kay, who is every bit as passionate about the theater as I am about sports. Kay has been performing on stage since high school and her credits include an impressive list of community theater productions, small parts in a couple of movies, a few TV commercials, and last summer, rave reviews as a contestant in the Prairie Home Companion Norway Fjords Cruise talent show. For many years Kay has taught drama and directed middle school musicals.
What has emerged in our marriage is a greater appreciation of the similarities between a devotion to the stage and the ski trail. For starters, athletes and Thespians both work very hard at their crafts. As a former Olympic biathlete, I thought I knew about long hours of training prior to an important race, but my focus on skiing and shooting is nothing special compared to the time and energy Kay invests in memorizing every word of an 80-page script.
Kay loosens up before a performance with stretching, verbal agility drills, and finding a quiet place to focus. This is very similar to how many athletes prepare for a competition.
The cast of a play, along with the backstage and technical crew, all function as a highly skilled team. And like an athletic team, the cast of a play has problems if one of the actors tries to hog the spotlight in the same way a team suffers if a player won’t pass the ball to his or her teammates. Conversely, Kay has expressed great admiration for actors who have the stage presence to smoothly adjust and cover for a colleague who may have dropped a line, not unlike an athlete making the best of a bad pass.
Kay and I have had interesting discussions about directors and coaches. The similarities between these two roles is striking, but perhaps not surprising since the goal of both is to guide and encourage talented people to perform at their optimum level, often under considerable stress. We have shared memories of wonderful coaches and directors whose insight and selfless dedication inspired their athletes and actors to strive for the Olympics or for Broadway. We also recalled less gifted individuals in both domains, who were tyrants who had lost their perspective, living out their own unfulfilled dreams through the young people under their care.
Of course some sports, like figure skating or synchronized swimming, are by nature more dramatic. A friend of mine who works for the U.S. Olympic Committee once confided that he had misgivings about any sport in which the athletes were as worried about their makeup as their results. But I guess to be fair, I’d have to admit that black stuff on Tom Brady’s cheeks probably qualifies as makeup, of a sort.
On the other hand, there are probably a lot of dedicated athletes who could not endure the physical challenges of performing with a top-flight ballet company. Although I’ve never been a big ballet fan, there is no question that those jumps, spins, and lifts require tremendous strength, poise and athletic ability. There was a story a while ago that one of the top NFL teams hired a ballet instructor to help their receivers and running backs become more agile in evading defensive players. The team results improved and the ballet classes were no longer a source of jokes and ridicule.
Kay and I have achieved an admirable level of mutual respect. She has eagerly embraced Nordic skiing, participating in the Canadian Ski Marathon the past few years. For my part, I attend, and usually enjoy, a lot more theatrical productions than I ever did before. I just wish those theater folks didn’t always wear black.

John Morton

John Morton

John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.