An Unexpected Piece of Theatre: The ACC Men’s Championship Game

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From Sarah Ross, Associated Press*

As I turned on the TV and flipped to the ESPN channel, I felt a bit anxious.

For weeks I had been hearing more and more about college basketball than I ever have-- be it Duke’s rising ticket prices, Zion Williamson’s injury, or everyone’s thoughts on contenders. I contemplated even watching the championship game, considering I know very little about basketball.

For far too long, the great worlds of sport and theatre have been divided. However, I felt a great discovery awaited me. Indeed, as soon as I saw the stadium, I knew I had been lied to, for this “game” was in fact theatre.

Though the title of the show was a bit lengthy— “ACC Men’s Tournament Championship Game: Florida State v. Duke” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue – the spotlights could not lie. There seemed to be a pre-show ritual intended for the audience, introducing the players with beautifully dramatic spotlights and exaggerated swagger. I appreciated this because I didn’t have to look back up and down at actors’ headshots in my seat in the back of the theatre squinting at each ensemble member.

Rather, the very focus was on the players and who they were. They took their places on the stage and both teams quickly scored several points before I even could understand what was going on.

I imagine that if I was in the stadium, the whole experience would much resemble theatre in the round. The main plot and conflict revolved around getting to either end of what is called a “court”. The players were quite adept at facing the audience from all angles, although quite often they were blocked by other players. I can only assume this was a crucial part of the choreography and the overall message of the piece as it happened constantly.

Disembodied voices said most of the dialogue, mostly describing what was happening, but adding helpful background information (we love exposition!) and their own thoughts on the game.

These voices focused on the star of the game, Duke freshman Zion Williamson. He is essentially a demigod figure who makes every move seem fluid and easy. He is certainly a rising star and one to keep an eye out for-- you heard it here first, folks! He could be headed to the Great White Way with that kind of footwork!

Really though, all the players were fantastic. You could really see they put an emphasis on method acting before the performance and, boy, did it pay off. I really felt like they were basketball players, people who lived and breathed the sport. They conveyed the sense of determination required in such a high-stakes scene, never straying into the realm of cheesy.

Their intensity was furthered by the percussion created by their movements. Pounding feet, the squeak on a floor, the occasional yell to pass-- they all helped contribute to a multi-sensory experience that left the audience holding its breath.

The rules reminded me of a semi-structured improv set, especially the concept of the “shot clock”, where each team must try to score within 30 seconds or the ball is handed over to the other team. This encourages as many shots as possible, as well as teamwork to get to the basket. Each player has a specified role but there is fluidity in how they carry out their job, allowing for a sense of personal style.

The narrators noted that two of the players, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson, like to spin. These spins were functional as well as aesthetically pleasing, for there was a moment of grace in this performance full of sweaty, tall man-boys.

Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett like to spin

Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett like to spin

The emphasis on movement was dominated by Williamson, the obvious golden child, his technique obviously following the rules of stage combat.

For context, in stage combat, the victim of said combat or person being attacked is always in control. While the combat necessarily makes it seem like the person is being hit or knocked down, in reality, that person is pushing himself down or forward, whatever the combat requires. Williamson made it look like he was not even being attacked by Florida State’s defense, easily splitting between two much taller defenders to make basket after basket.

I was somewhat confused on the role of the referees and coaches. Were they part of the performance? Were they highly visible stage crew? The same goes for players sitting on the sidelines. They would come in and out of the game, cheering their teammates on.

The audience was directly behind them with almost no separation. To what extent is the audience part of the performance? Do the cheers, chants, and boos count as audience participation or are they merely ensemble performers?

Ultimately, I decided this must have all been an avant-garde staging decision reminding us that we are all a part of a performance: the performance of life. Who am I to decide who counts as a performer?

As the last scene came to a close, the coaches were increasingly featured, their faces scrunched up in worry, thought, or both… definitely both. In the last ten seconds, Duke players threw the ball back and forth as if playing a lively game of catch, or perhaps as a last chance to taunt their opponents in the final moments before official triumph.

Duke won 73-63. Both teams displayed excellent sportsmanship, congratulating one another as blue and white confetti streamed down from the ceiling. Defeated or triumphant, each player’s hard work was evident.

This brings me to my final point: It struck me that they were referred to as “players”. Such language has been used in theatre of old and is starting to make a comeback among troupes, but what a delight to see it normalized in such a large event! Indeed, “players” encapsulates what actors do, even at the risk of making their acts sound a bit childish and undignified.

Players, actors, or neither, we are all playing at something, performing a version of reality, be it basketball or Shakespeare. Theatre is nothing but people presenting various human relationships in complex, sometimes almost unbelievable ways, and I believe that this championship game was no exception.

* not really

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