Huskies' Dramatic NYC Trip
The Husky basketball team took a hefty bite out of The Big Apple in December, shooting hoops against Marquette and Duke in Madison Square Garden and attending two Broadway musicals. The theatre portion of the trip was part of an independent study course developed for the team by the School of Drama. It is believed to be the first course offered for credit for a sports team on a regular-season road trip within the U.S. in NCAA history.
Sarah Nash Gates, director of the School of Drama, credits the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics with the idea of an academic component for the New York City trip. Contacted about having a drama professor teach the course, Gates ended up volunteering herself.
The UW Basketball team visits with cast members Adam Pascal and Montego Glover
(center) after a performance of the Broadway musical Memphis. Photo by Kenny Seymour.
“I approached several faculty first,” she explains, “but they couldn’t make it work since it required being away the last week of the quarter. I wasn’t teaching fall quarter, so I was able to take it on.”
It doesn’t hurt that Gates is a fan of Husky basketball. “I became a fan when Will Conroy was a point guard and was a drama major,” she says, “and I’ve been a fan ever since.” (Huskies Forward Darnell Gant, a senior, is also a drama major.)
Gates planned three class sessions prior to the trip to provide background on theatre, with an emphasis on musical theatre. She covered the components of the art form and the history of musical theatre. “Musical theatre is considered to be an indigenous American art form, like jazz, which makes it special,” she says.
More challenging than planning the classes was selecting two Broadway plays for the team to attend. Gates sought shows that would grab the young athletes’ attention and get them involved. One pick was The Lion King, a blockbuster hit that uses a very theatrical language—puppets—to tell a story. “Using puppets to represent animals requires the audience to engage its imagination,” she explains. “You have to get over the hump and believe.”
"I believe that these young men are going to be changed a
little bit forever because of this experience. It opens your eyes
little wider. And that's what theatre is trying to do."
Gates’s other pick was a newer show, Memphis, a Broadway musical about racism and prejudice in the 1950s South. “It’s about how music can help people overcome prejudice,” says Gates. “It has a serious message but also has great rock n’ roll music.” The show’s diverse cast also appealed to Gates, who “wanted the students to see their own diversity reflected on the stage.” An added bonus: one of the show’s producers, Kenny Alhadeff, served on the board of Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre with Gates.
Alhadeff—whose Seattle roots go back many generations—arranged for the players to meet the cast after the show. He also led a class session in Seattle before the trip.
“When I talked to the team, I tried to connect for them the passion we feel in theatre with the feeling they had the first time they stood on a basketball court and someone threw a ball at them. It changed them. And it’s the same for people in theatre,” says Alhadeff, a Huskies fan despite attending Washington State University. (“My wife and daughter are Huskies,” he explains. “I may be a mixed breed, but there’s definitely some Husky in there.”)
Kenny Alhadeff, far left, talks to the team about musical theatre during a
class session before the New York City trip. Photo by Jacob Lambert.
Alhadeff also shared the business side of theatre, again relating it to athletics. “It takes 130 people a night to put on a Broadway musical,” he told the team. “It’s like in basketball, when five players are on the court but there are all the people behind them who got them there, from trainers to coaches to publicists and teammates.”
By the time the Huskies made it to Broadway, they were primed for the theatre experience. Even so, the power of the productions, particularly Memphis, took some by surprise. “In the last row… [of the] orchestra level of Broadway's Shubert Theater, Darnell Gant, Desmond Simmons, Aziz N'Diaye, Abdul Gaddy, and Hikeem Stewart were dancing, clapping and cheering,” reported Gregg Bell in a story about the team on the athletic department's official website, GoHuskies.com. “They were swaying to the gospel sound that had filled the small theater for the previous two hours.”
Bell, director of writing for Intercollegiate Athletics, reported that many of the Huskies had never attended a play, not even in a grade-school assembly, including Shawn Kemp, Jr. “It was awesome,” the freshman forward commented at the end of the production, admitting that he was almost in tears at some of the play’s more poignant moments of race relations and love.
Gates is thrilled that the play elicited such strong responses. She knew the play had succeeded when, during a study session in New York, the players disagreed about the choices the characters in Memphis had made. “That they had different opinions and could debate them was wonderful,” she says. “At the end of the discussion, somebody said to me, ‘Good choice, Sarah.’ Someone else agreed. And then they all applauded. After that, I could feel a difference. They understood better why I was there and what theatre was all about.”
Gates hopes the team members continue to have an interest in theatre, recognizing it as a medium that can both “help you think about many important things and be very enjoyable.”
Alhadeff is convinced that many of them will.
“I believe that these young men are going to be changed a little bit forever because of this experience,” he says. “It opens your eyes a little wider. And that’s what theatre is trying to do.”
Return to Table of Contents, January 2012 issue