Play, Ball: A Theatrical Look At The 'Beauty And Brutality' Of Football In the new play Colossal, a former football player, paralyzed after taking a bad hit during a game, reflects on his glory days and his struggles as a gay man in the macho culture of football.
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Play, Ball: A Theatrical Look At The 'Beauty And Brutality' Of Football

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Play, Ball: A Theatrical Look At The 'Beauty And Brutality' Of Football

Play, Ball: A Theatrical Look At The 'Beauty And Brutality' Of Football

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Play writing and Chicago Bears fan Andrew Hinderaker wants theater to be as thrilling as a football game. He's so fascinated with the influence of football on society he wrote a play about it called "Colossal." It opens this week at a theater in Minneapolis and later in cities nationwide. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports on the show's lively movements and language.

ELIZABETH LAIR, BYLINE: "Colossal" is not an easy play to execute. The show is very physical. The actors need to literally suit-up and play.


BLAIR: There's dancing at a halftime show.


BLAIR: And despite all of this vigorous movement, the main character Mike is in a wheelchair.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: You have an incomplete spinal injury. There's a chance you can stand.

BLAIR: Andrew Hinderaker takes this massively popular American pastime and looks at it from different angles - how football shapes ideas of what it means to be a man and its punishing physical demands. But Hinderaker says make no mistake, he loves football.

ANDREW HINDERAKER: Yeah, I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. So I, from the age of four or five, was going with my dad to University of Wisconsin football games at Camp Randall. And I'm also really troubled by a lot of what football lifts up from a standpoint of violence, but also from paradigms of masculinity and sexuality. And it's a sport that I find absolutely thrilling and exciting and really troubling.

BLAIR: Starting with the language - lots of cursing. But also, Hinderaker says, a language that is hyper-straight, even though, as "Colossal" points out, football players do wear tights and lock bodies for a living.

In the play, before he was injured, Mike was a star and co-captain of the University of Texas football team. He's also gay. He and his co-captain fell in love, but one of them wanted to keep it a secret.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: They saying I'm going fifth round at best. Who the [bleep] is going to draft me when they find out?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Look, don't worry about that [bleep] changing.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Changing ain't changed.

BLAIR: "Colossal" does seem ripped from the headlines even though Hinderaker says he started writing it before Michael Sam became the first active NFL player to be openly gay, before Ray Rice was suspended from the NFL for domestic violence and before the NFL agreed to settle concussion-related suits by several thousand former football players.

Most of the actors in the Olney production didn't have much experience playing football. So the theater brought in Hall of Famer Brig Owens to talk to them. He played for Washington in the 1960s and '70s. He says the actors had all kinds of questions.

BRIG OWENS: They asked me about the speed of the game, did all the players really get along, and the pressures of winning, the pressures of playing with pain.

BLAIR: Brig Owens says when he saw the play, it stirred up some old memories. One of his teammates and close friends, Washington tight end Jerry Smith, was a closeted gay man who died of AIDS in 1986. The play also reminded him of defensive back Yazoo Smith, who was a top draft pick for Washington in 1968.

OWENS: And I knew him very well. And I remember him being hit. And he said, Brig, I can't move my legs. So seeing this guy sort of resonated back to that time.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As Mike) I can feel - I can't feel my [bleep] legs.


BLAIR: Throughout the play, Mike watches instant replays of the catastrophic hit that left him partially paralyzed. To help the actors perform the replays, playwright Andrew Hinderaker researched what happens when football players collide.

HINDERAKER: One of the videos talked about it being the equivalent force of a 35 mile per hour car crash. And that of course happens again and again and again and again throughout the course of a game. So it's a - it's an extraordinarily brutal, violent game, and of course a theatrical and a thrilling one. And we've tried to really capture both the beauty and the brutality of the sport in the show.

BLAIR: "Colossal" also looks at the beauty and brutality of Mike's relationships with his team, with his family and with the past. In the play, Mike's father runs a dance company. He is horrified when his son decides to play football. As Mike puts it...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: Only son in the history of the United States to disappoint his dad by choosing football over dance.

BLAIR: Actor Michael Patrick Thornton, who uses a wheelchair in real life, says he typically doesn't like plays about people with disabilities.

MICHAEL PATRICK THORNTON: It's brought up in a kind of, what I call what-happened-to-Timmy story, right, where it's this kind of like inspiring story of overcoming adversity and whatnot.

BLAIR: But Thornton says that is not what Andrew Hinderaker has done with "Colossal."

THORNTON: I think he's treated the subject of a disability masterfully because everyone in the play is disabled. And much of it goes back to I think what he is concerned often with as a writer, which is what is it to be a man and how do we talk to each other?

BLAIR: This theater piece about football has a lot to say about life. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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