The University of Kentucky meets UCLA this week — in the theater.
Not surprisingly, sports are involved. The occasion for the meeting is UK's second James Rodgers Playwriting Competition, which was won by UCLA theater graduate Andrew Shafer.
His play, Weak/Side/Help is an exploration of the dynamics of friendships and race relations set against the backdrop of a major college football program teetering on the edge of a scandal.
”When he retired, we wanted something to commemorate his work here,“ UK Theatre Department chairwoman Nancy Jones said of Rodgers, who retired from UK three years ago, but has since been extremely active writing and directing theater and opera productions.
The first competition was opened to college students in Central Kentucky and the winner was then-UK student Lauren Argo, whose The Noise in the Room was produced by UK Theatre.
This time around, the competition was opened to a global field and attracted approximately three dozen scripts from as far away from Australia, Jones said. But competitors had to be younger than 30.
Shafer found the competition on a theater Web site, just a week after he had finished revisions on the Weak/Side/Help script.
”It seemed like it addressed some things they were looking for, like social issues, racial issues,“ Shafer said.
Jones said the final six scripts were read by a committee that included herself, Rodgers, Actors Guild of Lexington artistic director Richard St. Peter and Adrien-Alice Hansel, director of new play development for Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Shafer's script, Jones said, stood out from the rest.
”It was a no-brainer for us,“ Jones said. ”It was really perfect. It had college students, it was set on a college campus and it focused on college sports, which is, of course, huge here.“
No one was slated to direct the play. But St. Peter, who played college baseball at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., and considered pursuing a baseball career before he found theater, loved the script and threw his cap in the ring.
”There's a lot of stuff going on in it,“ St. Peter said. ”It asks a lot of provocative questions using sports as the backdrop.“
In the story, a college radio station sports reporter winds up uncovering dark secrets about the use of performance enhancing drugs by members of the football team, which appears to be en route to a championship season.
The story touches on loyalty, as one of the players involved is the reporter's best friend from high school; race issues, as some players invoke stereotypes in an attempt to pin responsibility for the drug use on a black player; and college sports mania. As it becomes clear the drug use was not isolated to one or two players, the reporter is told people won't want to know the truth because the consequences for the team would be horrendous.
Shafer got the idea for the story when a scandal broke with players from the UCLA football team being allowed to use handicapped parking spaces on campus, he said. Friends told him that wasn't a terribly sexy topic, so he looked to the hot issue of performance enhancing drugs.
Both Shafer and St. Peter emphasize the team in the play is not meant to be representative of any specific team.
Shafer also wanted to address what he saw as a superficiality in a lot of sports reporting.
”I was really frustrated with sports journalists always going for the simpler story,“ Shafer said.
He cited the example of Michael Vick, the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback who was recently convicted of running a dogfighting ring in his home state of Virginia.
”So he's a bad guy and that's the end of it. That's an easy story. They don't go the additional steps to look at why this happened, how he had a rough childhood and how that influenced him. Because the game is so clear cut, we want winners and losers and statistics and pat answers. We don't want shades of gray.
”In baseball, they talk about guys like Barry Bonds using performance enhancing drugs and they pin the whole thing on him, while ignoring the fact there are a lot of other guys doing this in baseball.“
Shafer and St. Peter were both stumped to name many plays about sports, and Shafer, specifically, views that as an unhealthy sign in theater.
”Sports are a huge part of our society, and the fact that theater has not dealt with sports more is a sign of illness,“ Shafer said. ”A lot of the plays that are out today have nothing to do with contemporary life.“
Part of the problem, he said, is that much of the playwriting community exists in an insular world, primarily in New York, that doesn't regularly engage in the larger society.
The contest Shafer just won aims to take steps toward broadening the spectrum of playwrights.
”Maybe its our proximity to Humana,“ Jones said, referring to the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, ”but we are really interested in getting involved in new plays more.“