When Derek Jeter stepped up to his final career at-bat at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014 and hit the game-winning single, the moment was one of the most theatrical that baseball, or sports, had seen. His final moment at home plate was filled with drama, waiting for the nail-biting outcome. Will he end his career at Yankee Stadium by whiffing at a fastball and striking out? Will he gently hit into a ground ball and trot off, head down, into the night? In typical Derek Jeter fashion, he drove in the game-winning run, and walked off the field and out of his baseball career more of a legend than we had been reminded of throughout his twentieth year of playing in Major League Baseball. It was a night filled with great drama that all sports are familiar with, having their own similar-yet-unique theatrics.
Baseball being the only sport I follow and the one I know well, I could envision the thousands of fans after the game filing out of the stadium chanting, in their loudest voices, “DE-REK JE-TER!” all the way to the subway, and continuing the tribal chant on the subway platform while waiting for the train to pull in. Being a New York Mets fan, I’ve never experienced this at Yankee Stadium, but I’ve had my (few and far between) moments exiting Shea Stadium chanting “LEN-NY DYK-STRA!” and “ROB-IN VEN-TU-RA!” and “MIKE PI-AZ-ZA!” So on the night of Jeter’s farewell RBI, I could hear and sense the Yankees tribe, 250 miles away from where I live.
Imagine theater mirroring sporting events. The audience takes their seats. At 8 p.m., instead of the obligatory “turn off your cell phone” announcement, they rise and sing the national anthem. Before sitting down for the start of the play, the playwright’s name is chanted by spelling out their last name, then chanting the name three times–for instance, “R-U-H-L, RUHL! RUHL! RUHL!” The audience takes their seats, and when the curtain rises, they cheer and pump their fists (which did happen when I attended The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway. The curtain rose on the colorful and perfectly-recreated set from his television show, and the audience erupted in a huge and elongated cheer).
At the beginning of the play, a roll call begins, where the audience repeatedly chants each actor’s name until the actor breaks character and the fourth wall, acknowledging their individual chant by waving to the rich folks sitting below and the rest of the world in the rafters above. One-by-one, each actor must accept their roll call moment before the play can finally get underway.
A referee stands in the wings waiting for an actor to forget a line. Once an actor flubs a bit of dialogue, the referee blows a whistle, enters the stage, pulls the actor off and places them in a see-through penalty box upstage. An understudy finishes the scene. At which point the actor who committed the flub is allowed back onto the stage, and the understudy exits to the wings to wait for their next pinch hit appearance.
Any actor who displays a brilliant moment is required by the audience to immediately return to the stage for a curtain call–even the rookie actors. The audience stands and cheers. The play isn’t allowed to continue until the brilliant actor waves to the shouting masses. (If their costume includes a hat, it’s obligatory that they tip it to the audience.) Those humble actors who choose to ignore their own curtain call (because they don’t want to upstage others actors entering the stage for the next scene) cause the audience to grumble, but people eventually retake their seats so the evening can continue. Every audience member can eagerly anticipate the next curtain call moment.
On opening nights, umpires wait in the back of the theatre, listening to the playwright’s words. If a playwright places a character solo on stage and has them use a telephone to have a conversation, the umpire yells “Strike one!” If the playwright forces a character to use direct address for the majority of the play, then it’s “Strike two!” If the umpires decide a playwright has written a screenplay instead of a play, then the umpire, with their best flourish, calls “Strike three–you’re out!” The playwright is suspended from writing until their publicist issues a mea culpa on the playwright’s behalf and promises the playwright will donate part of their earnings to a charity. At which point all is forgiven and the playwright is allowed to write another play.
By paying a theatrically-unique dynamic ticket price, some audience members can be part of the Wild Fans section. Different from Tweet Seats, where the last few rows are allocated to those who want to sit with brightly-lit phone screens during a performance and write about what they’re experiencing rather than experiencing it, the Wild Fans sit in a soundproofed section. When a perfect moment happens on stage thanks to a creative director’s choice, those in the box can jump and cheer, donning oversized masks of the director’s face. When a gorgeously-costumed actor enters, the cheering crowd can high-five each other and mimic the movements of the perfectly-clothed actors. Each impeccably-executed set change and beautiful lighting adjustment elicits stomping and an Everybody Clap Your Hands rhythm section.
Intermission would bring the audience to its feet while the theatre organist serenades all with a singalong of “Take me out to the theatre, take me out with the rich. Buy me some wine and chocolate snacks, I don’t ever want my money back. Let me holler and hoot for the playwright, if they don’t write well it’s a shame. For it’s one, two three strikes, you’re out, in our theater games.”
The producer would hold a press conference after each performance, breaking down the evening scene-by-scene, and letting the media know what improvements could be made for the next night’s show. For Jujamcyn shows, each night the president Jordan Roth could enter a press room packed with journalists, and update them as to how the actors felt that night, how much time is left on their contracts, and what replacement casts he might be considering.
A winning evening would end with the audience chanting the playwright’s name as they file out of the theatre. Throughout the night, the loud echoes of “ED-WARD AL-BEE!” or “AU-GUST WIL-SON!” or “PAU-LA VO-GEL! PAU-LA VO-GEL! PAU-LA VO-GEL!” would be heard, and the subway platforms would be full of sporting tribal chants of the theater kind.