Get over it: straddling the arts-sport divide

Ian Pidd

Sport excels at creating the kinds of universal metaphors and epic narratives that artists always strive for – so why is sport so often reviled in the arts world?
Get over it: straddling the arts-sport divide

Participants in Polyglot's First On The Ladder, 2018: Shepparton Scavenger Hunt. Photo credit: Dan Koop.

I like art. I like sport. I like both of them a lot, and pretty much equally. I guess if I had to choose one I would favour art over sport – it has been my living for over 30 years, so I have to give it that respect – but it’s (ahem) a close-run thing. When I say sport, I mean watching sport, following teams and athletes, getting all caught up in games. I don’t mean playing sport. Any of you who have seen me dance will know that I have unconventional physical gifts.


I am fortunate that my work as a theatre director has taken me all over the place, and my memories of many of my working trips are as full of sports highlights as they are with art ones. While working in Berlin a couple of years ago I lucked the last ticket to hear the Berlin Philharmonic playing Mahler’s 5th Symphony in their incredible new(ish) home. It was a dazzling, mesmerising night of music. But as an experience it jostles next to an afternoon on that same trip witnessing Eisern Union FC’s hysterical fans ride the roller coaster of a 3 – 2 loss in the German second division. In ways, an afternoon as full of meaning and historical heft as the evening spent with that orchestra. This football club has a history of strong resistance to both Nazism and Communism, and is famous for playing a flamboyant but fragile game style that has resisted sustained success. All of which (including the failure) gives them a hugely deranged and loyal supporter base. As I approached their iconic stadium in suburban Berlin, the sound of those fans singing the club’s famous catchcries, ringing out over the streets, was spine-tingling. The whole afternoon was. The loss in the dying minutes adding to the depth of the experience.

I have similar jostling memories from Warsaw. The Henryk Tomaszewski retrospective, at Warsaw’s main art gallery, sits in my mind next to the near riot I got caught up in as Legia Warsaw’s fans celebrated winning the Polish League by letting off thousands of flares and fireworks in the centre of the city. (Legia has as shameful a reactionary history as Eisern Union have a magnificent one.)

In Rotterdam images of our trip to The Parade festival (which still informs the way I work on festivals) jostle with images of the joy unleashed in the streets when the Netherlands beat Germany in the quarter final of the 1998 world cup – all week people had been telling us that the people of Rotterdam have very fresh memories of the Nazis flattening the city in the early stages of World War II, and this history deeply informed the reading of the game. At one stage that afternoon a complete stranger threw our then-seven year old child Zak into the air five times out of sheer excitement.

I have always been bewildered by those of my art mates who express disdain at the world of sport. This is in part because, as I said already, I love art and sport equally and am as stupidly content when walking towards a country football match as when I ride my bike to see a great show. But it’s also because there are things that we as artists attempt to do in the world that I think some sporting clubs do equally well. I want to try and articulate a couple of those here.

There are things that we as artists attempt to do in the world that I think some sporting clubs do equally well

I do want to stress that many of my art friends are as crazy for sport as I am. Bec Reid, JOF, Martyn Coutts, Megan Cameron, David Pidd, Dan Koop and Luke Smiles are amongst my collaborators with whom I can waste valuable rehearsal time talking footy, football, rugby, cricket, cycling – jeez, Martyn and I once got completely obsessed with ice hockey.

I am currently directing a project for Polyglot Theatre. It’s a three year art-meets-sport project called First On The Ladder, which sees a group of artists working with the young people of two Indigenous sporting clubs: Rumbalara Football Netball Club in Shepparton (Yorta Yorta country), and the Boomerangs Rugby League Club in Moree (Kamilaroi country). We are running radio stations, making animations and street art, creating dance and music, and setting up lots of playful “situations” for which Polyglot is renowned. We are also seeing an awful lot of country footy (two codes) and netball, and we are having the privilege of being brought close to the heart of these two important institutions. What we are seeing there is moving and vital and a profoundly optimistic experience. These are clubs that first and foremost want to win premierships – and they both have had great success, despite, historically, obstacles being placed in their ways by blatantly discriminatory peak sporting bodies. But they are also deeply involved in developing their communities’ health and education outcomes, including raising huge sums of money to create new infrastructure, and have consistently better outcomes in turning around the lives of troubled young people than any other kind of intervention.

To watch Phil Guthrie and Jamie Atkinson guide the group of young people who make up Rumbalara’s Under 14’s footy side is to see the very essence of encouragement, of inclusivity, of applied discipline, of enacted values. If you turn up, you will get a game; if you play for the whole season you will become a better player; and by the end of the year you will have a massive bonding experience, possibly the most profound experience outside of their families that these kids will have growing up. I am in my third year of observing Phil and Jamie in this role. It isn’t an accident. It’s some kind of annual miracle. There are similar stories to be found throughout both clubs. Year in, year out.

Polyglot Theatre's First On The Ladder 2017, Moree. Photo credit: Simone Ruggiero.

The aim of First On The Ladder is to similarly engage and nurture and advocate, and to identify and develop skills in young people, and I believe it is doing that effectively. But it is fair to say that we are leveraging off momentum that both clubs have built over decades, and I can speak for all the outside First On The Ladder artists in saying that we are learning a huge amount about social practice from the elders at the clubs, and from those two Indigenous communities in general.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that sport does social engaged practice better than the arts – there are so many great socially engaged arts organisations and projects going. I am merely making the case for sport as an equal role model and collaborator for us artists working in that space.

I love the way that sport celebrates all tiers of competition. You will not hear professional sports people looking down on their amateur colleagues with the disdain that I recently heard when an actor friend of mine publicly dismissed amateur theatre with the refrain, ‘I don't know what they are doing, but it is not art’. It is incredibly common in this country for professional artists to express similar dismissive attitudes to amateur and vernacular artists. But I grew up performing in amateur shows in Hobart. I loved those days. They still inspire me, and I regularly attend amateur plays and musicals and I reckon they have a hit and miss rate no worse than the professional work I see. If you visit the website of any AFL side you will see next to each player’s name the amateur/school/country side that the player was recruited from. Many professional athletes retire to amateur and country football. Rumba and the Boomies both have former top tier professional players playing and coaching. None of them feel that what they are doing now is anything other than hugely important on both a sporting and social level. Indeed many of them have ambivalent memories of their professional careers.

The fetishising of professional art in the western world has not served us well. Amongst other things it has led us to create far too many trained professional artists for whom there are no jobs, but who have been to spoiled to return to the amateur companies from where their love of art was almost certainly fostered, and where, if they returned, they would bring with them a huge amount of creative and social joy. But on the whole, our professionalised class of artists would see such a return as a failure, a giving up. I think this is a massive shame and a completely unnecessary waste of talent.

The fetishising of professional art in the western world has not served us well.

The one area where this is not true, of course, is music. Musicians move in and out of paid and amateur ensembles without a second thought. In part this is because the professional path for musicians is so precarious, but I do think there is a healthier culture around music playing that is closer to the sport model. Belonging to this club/band/choir has rewards that transcend a paycheque, and people feel that they can be a teacher/police officer/baker/gardener and goal attack in the netball seconds/play lead guitar in a band, and no shame accrues to their efforts in either field.

Sport is also genius at creating the kinds of universal metaphors and epic narratives that we as artists always strive for. The image of Nicky Winmar pointing to his black skin in defiance of jeering Collingwood supporters arguably did more to highlight racism in sport than any other single moment. Cathy Freeman carrying the nation on her shoulders over 400m is as defining a moment of courage and grace as you will see on a stage. The current Take A Knee controversy in the US is hilariously fracturing the already fractured temperament of the US President. And, hubris, thy name is Lance Armstrong.

Of course sport has black spots and excesses, especially at the highest levels where it is addicted to capitalism, and is far too willing do its bidding. But arguably no more than art as it is seen in Hollywood, on TV, or around huge music acts. Sport can be boorish and violent and foster rivalries that are petty and damaging. We are only at the very beginning of a massively overdue revolution around women’s sport, after millennia of discounting women’s contribution to both the physical and club side of the sporting world. Unbelievably no player in the AFL has ever felt comfortable enough to come out as LGBTIQ. Personally I have ceased going to AFL games – I gave up my membership of St Kilda over their refusal to give up poker machines (though I did enjoy the Doggies incredible run through the finals in 2016 and the women’s AFL competition is a tonic). I take no notice of the English premier league because the competition is meaningless due to the obscene amount of money require to field a side with any chance of winning (Leicester’s 2016 triumph proving rather than smashing the rule.)

Of course there are excellent examples of collaborations between artists and sports organisations, and some great works with sport at their heart. I’ve just returned from directing an Everybody NOW! work for the Commonwealth Games Festival 2018 where considerable resources were put into a series of really good local commissions. Rawcus’ wonderful basketball dance work Fanaticus; the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra commissioned score for the Saints vs Pies drawn Grand Final; Back To Back’s White Maggots super 8; The Longest Minute by JUTE Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre, and debase productions about the Cowboys’ breakthrough premiership in 2015.

So, simply, if a sporting obsessed friend invites you to a game, go. If you pass a country netball game while on tour, stop for half an hour. If you are in Shepp or Moree anytime over the next couple of years, look up Rumbalara and the Boomerangs. You’re likely to find one of us Polyglotters there. You’ll have an awesome day out, and possibly have a seriously emotional moment, such as you might not have had since you last saw a great show.

About the author

Ian Pidd is a Melbourne based freelance director of theatre and festivals. His theatre credits include his four year Artistic Directorship of Back To Back Theatre and ten years directing the majority of works at Snuff Puppets, where his productions travelled throughout the world. Ian has directed for The Business, MRPG, Barry Morgan, Polyglot Theatre and many others.  Ian’s production of Men Of Steel’s Hard Rubbish was a popular and critical hit for The Malthouse in late 2013. Ian has been the artistic director of festivals as diverse as Moomba and The Works (Glenorchy, Tas) and was for six years the Chair of Melbourne Fringe. For ten years he was co-artistic director of boutique festival The Village and was founding Artistic Director of Junction Arts Festival (JAF) in Launceston. For the last eight years he has curated the Village program of performance, visual art, workshops, music and participatory works at all three Falls music festivals in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales. Ian is now programming the new family focused music and arts festival The Lost Lands. Ian has an ongoing relationship with the creative community in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where he has directed a series of large outdoor theatre works, as well has hosting a number of Indonesian artists on projects in Australia. Ian directed Polish and Philadelphia based casts in iterations of Polyglot Theatre’s Ants in Europe and the US and was one of the key artists in Dookie Unearthed (Regional Arts Victoria’s Small Town Transformations) where children and townspeople came together to create a multi-layered event across the whole town. Ian collaborates with Bec Reid and Kate Macdonald on a series of social dance projects under the bannner of Every Body Now. Their hit The Inaugural Annual Dance Affair has been seen in iterations in Queensland and Melbourne with more in the pipeline, and You Should Be Dancing premiering at the 2016 Brisbane Festival. Ian works in a variety of contexts, but has a particular interest in creating works that are highly participatory and which feature professional and vernacular artists working side by side. Ian has sat on the boards of Back To Back, Snuff Puppets, Arts Access, ASIALINK performing arts board, The Village Inc, Junction Arts Festival, Melbourne Fringe (Chair), as well as five year stint on the City Of Melbourne’s Culture And Arts Advisory Board. He has sat on funding panels for the Australia Council, Arts Victoria (now Creative Victoria), City Of Melbourne, Regional Arts Victoria and Arts Tasmania.