By Jim McCarthy Jun 4, 2010 0 comments

The Agony of Defeat and How to Use It

This article (via Thomas) has me thinking about some big stuff.  To sum up, it’s about the National Theatre (UK) and its program to broadcast theatre productions live around the country to satellite-equipped movie theatres.  That’s familiar, of course, and the Metropolitan Opera (NYC) obviously was the leader in this area starting several years ago.

Here’s what I’m really thinking about though.

The agony of defeat.

Well, not the agony of defeat itself, but instead, this clip:

If you were a sports fan, well, really anytime in the last 40 years, there’s a good chance you’ve seen that obscure ski jump from 1970.  Why?  Because it was in ABC’s intro sequence to “Wide World of Sports.”

And if you haven’t seen that jump, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “The Thrill of Victory, and the Agony of Defeat.”

Well, this ski jump went with the ‘agony of defeat’ part.

And what the hell does this have to do with Helen Mirren on stage at the Olivier in London?

I’ll tell you what:  Roone Arledge.

Roone Arledge was the man who pretty much invented modern sports.  No, he didn’t design plays or better training methods or any of that.  He invented modern sports in that he took them from a niche-y jock backwater to the broad cultural juggernaut that they are today.

You see, in the 50’s and 60’s, sports was on TV and in the papers, but it wasn’t the same.  Mostly, TV and radio stations would stick a camera or microphone somewhere in the vicinity of the field or court and then some earnest reporter would dutifully recount what was happening on the field.

Roone turned sports into entertainment for the masses.  He gave it drama.  He brought you into the action.  He took it from no-nonsense transmissions of the details of athletic contests to an unfolding human drama in multiple dimensions.

If it weren’t for Roone, kids in the 90s wouldn’t have wanted to “Be Like Mike.”  If it weren’t for Roone, the Olympics would be a droning, dull, endless broadcast of shot put attempt after shot put attempt, and you’d never know that the guy about to try to break the world record survived the war in his home country by hiding in a cellar for two years.

When Tiger Woods makes a bad shot, you expect to see the expression on his face.  Is he mad or does he look calm and ready to plan his next shot?  Before Roone Arledge, no camera would have been there to let you know that.

So when I hear about this program at the National Theatre, it’s not, for me, so much about getting theatre “out there” to other places.  It’s about using the techniques of live broadcast NOT JUST to broadcast, but perhaps more importantly to BRING MORE to the performance.

Who’s the Roone Arledge of theatre?  Who’s in a position to take what now seems to be a niche-y drama geek backwater and turn it into a broad cultural juggernaut?  It doesn’t work to sit back and say “let the work speak for itself.”  Sure, of course, let the work speak.  But that’s like saying Roone Arledge should have let the on the field performances speak for themselves.

Wrong.  Roone realized his job was to tell the story that gets you TO the field or the court or the ski slope, and then HELP the performances speak for themselves.

You could not care less about the result of some obscure ski jumping competition in Austria that happened during the Nixon administration.  But if you watch that ‘Agony of Defeat’ clip, you’re transported instantly, and you care.

Roone did that.  He used broadcast techniques and story telling techniques to make the content better for the audience.

Who’s going to be the Roone Arledge of Theatre?  I can’t wait to find out.

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