Human drama

Spiralling costs, ticketing arguments, corporate sponsors... it’s easy to be cynical about London 2012. But these theatre companies are setting out to remind us of the true spirit of the Olympics, finds Caroline Bishop.

feature | Read in About 6 minutes
Published 23 Jul 2012

“I’m not a massive fan of sport,” says Steve Gilroy with a laugh. It’s an amusing confession from a playwright who is currently creating a piece of verbatim theatre—The Prize—based on the stories of athletes heading to London this summer. But even a sport-averse writer can be inspired. After interviewing an ex-soldier who will be competing in the Paralympics three years after losing both legs in Afghanistan, Gilroy took up running. “After leaving him I felt incredibly humbled and since I’ve been home I’ve started to run – and when I say run, I managed to run outside my house to the end of the street! But I am gradually improving.” 

Inspiration has hit Charlotte Josephine, too. Hearing that women would finally be allowed to box in this summer’s Olympics, the Snuff Box Theatre playwright wrote Bitch Boxer based on the subject – and began boxing herself. “I started going to boxing in January, for research, because I didn’t want to write about it not knowing anything about it, and I’ve fallen in love with it,” she says. She now trains three times a weekly at an Islington club.

The Prize and Bitch Boxer are among several shows in Edinburgh this year which delve into the human stories behind the behemoth that is the Olympics. Whether it be smashing the last bastion of male-only sport, or the story of a powerlifter who has battled Crohn’s disease to qualify for the Games, the world’s biggest sporting event has proved enlightening for theatremakers who previously had little insight into competitive sport. “I couldn’t believe it when I found out that women were only just allowed – weren’t they before?” says Bitch Boxer director Bryony Shanahan. Josephine adds: “I don’t want to preach my feminist views on anyone, but for me it’s interesting to explore it through the play and realise how I feel about things.” Both admit they hadn’t thought much about the Olympics prior to working on Bitch Boxer, apart from general annoyance at the thought of extra tourists descending on London.

Newcastle-based Gilroy, whose previous verbatim piece, Motherland, played the Fringe in 2008, was drafted into The Prize by co-writer Richard Stockwell, who wanted to chart individual journeys to London 2012. The pair interviewed around 25 athletes—including Olympic medallist Roger Black who ‘comperes’ the show—and the play reflects the personal stories of hardship and sacrifice, illness and “prescribed destiny”, that led them to compete this summer. “It all comes down to these defining moments in people’s experience, not just about sport but in people’s broader lives,” explains Gilroy.

It’s hardly revelatory to say that sport and theatre make natural companions. Sport is inherently dramatic; both involve performance, pushing yourself to achieve, intense focus, and as Shanahan puts it, “the crowds and the occasion and the one shot and everything can go wrong...”

That’s not to mention the visual opportunities. “Sport in itself is a gift to theatre-makers,” says Gilroy. “It’s so visually exciting. All the iconography around the event, the physicality of it, the muscularity, the technique.” As with Bitch Boxer, the actors cast in The Prize have been working on their physical fitness, and both plays promise an element of physicality on stage.

In other cases, the physicality isn’t restricted to the actors. Endure – A Run Woman Show, is a dance performance piece in which the audience gets an insight into the mind of a marathon runner by joining performer Melanie Jones on a run (or walk, if you prefer) through Holyrood Park. During the journey from start line to finish, the participant hears her intimate thoughts via an iPod audio track.

Jones, a Canadian performance artist and triathlete, was inspired to create Endure after experiencing the emotional rollercoaster of training for an Iron Man competition. “One moment I would be in complete bliss, the next moment I would be in utter despair, the moment after that I would be a blind rage,” she says. “It was almost like the sport was working through whatever emotional stuff I had to work through. That seemed really powerful to me and a rich place to draw from as a subject for creative work. The metaphor of a long run being a metaphor for the things we endure in life emerged.”

Created in New York’s Prospect Park, it was Jones’s goal to bring Endure to London during the Games, prior to Edinburgh. “Performing it in the context of a big event like the London Games will give audiences insight into what’s happening with the Olympic athlete. You wonder, what did that person go through to get here? What are they thinking now, at mile 10 of the marathon?”

It’s this human element, adds director Suchan Vodoor, that makes the Olympics so intriguing to watch. “Yes I want to see these wonderful people show the peak of human ability, but I’m also really curious about what makes them driven. That can be just as inspiring as watching the athletic event itself. That’s a big part of the theatre of the Olympics that we love.”

It’s easy to lose sight of the humanity of the Games in the face of news headlines about priority car lanes for corporate sponsors and budgets of £9bn. But interestingly, none of these shows are specifically challenging or satirising this. That’s not to say they aren’t aware of it (“You have to ask the question, how do you reconcile some of the things that flow from that business model with the Olympic ideals?” says Gilroy) but in focusing on the purity of sporting endeavour, it’s as though the business side of the Olympics is being shamed into submission.

“The Olympics always has the ability to transcend the aspects of it that in a capitalist society you might feel are a bit dubious,” says Angus Farquhar, Creative Director of Speed of Light, a celebration of endurance running commissioned by the London 2012 Festival for EIF. He cites watching the torch relay as an example of how the “pure simple human drama of someone running with that flame” overrides the Games’ commercial obsessions. “I expected to be ‘oh yeah, whatever, there’s the Coca-Cola sign, how cynical’. But it wasn’t cynical.”

Farquhar has channelled this humanity into Speed of Light, a participatory piece involving thousands of runners on Arthur's Seat. “I really liked that idea of cooperation,” he says. “I looked at some of the great examples of support that has been given by athletes to other athletes where they sacrifice their performance in order to allow someone else to succeed. Doing something like that with a collective spirit felt like something I could believe in.”

It’s ironic that, despite being creatively fuelled by the Olympics, performing in Edinburgh means none—bar Jones—will be in London to experience it. Josephine will be keeping up with the GB women’s boxing team on Twitter, while Gilroy has stationed a reporter at the Olympic Village to update him on the progress of The Prize’s protagonists. It’s an apt reminder that, for all the drama they inspire, these human stories are very real indeed.