"My Life in Sports," the title of Bill Epstein's one-man show opening at Live Theatre Workshop this weekend, is only a bit ironic.
Epstein is a UA English professor, which might suggest a title like, My Life Teaching Shakespeare, or My Life Writing Scholarly Papers.
But Epstein says it's actually about his life not as a scholar, but his growing up in a small town, the importance of playing sports for his family, his musings about how the world has changed and what we may have lost as a result. The title is a take on what professional sports players usually call their memoirs.
The play began life, Epstein says, "as a piece of creative non-fiction which I began writing before my late wife Candace died."
"It was going to be a book. I wrote those chapters in the late nineties, drawing on these conversations she and I had, about what I would call now the romance of men and sports."
He says one day he was talking with Candace, trying to explain why men call in to sports talk shows. "She said to me, 'They just grunt. They don't really say anything. Just hey man, hey dude, yeah yeah.' My response was, 'Well, they're excited.' She asked about what, and I said, sports. She asked if they were happy, because they sounded angry. I said, 'Well, there's a lot to be happy about and a lot to be angry about. 'Oh, so, it's a romance. Men and sports. They do with sports what women do with men. Obsessively-compulsively talking about them with each other all the time; plenty to be happy with or angry with, but generally just sad, resigned and confused, but returning to it again and again.''
Epstein thought that this is a pretty remarkable insight. "Passion," he says. "That's what women want, but the men are giving it to sports."
The more he thought about it, he says, "I came to realize that a lot of men talk about sports because it's the only way they can be emotionally honest. Where they can express themselves in public."
It was an idea which he thought deserved some thought, but he put his work aside after Candace died in 1996.
He took some time off and then went back to it. He started sharing what he'd written with some theater folks, and they suggested that it felt like a play. So he worked with it some more, reconfiguring and refining it so that it was more theatrical.
"And now we've got this one-man play. Fundamentally, it's about the construction of identity and masculinity in the last half of the twentieth century in America, using sports as the lens to look through." But, he assured, this idea is the foundation of the piece, not the material in the play itself. "My own life is the material. It's a dramatic memoir. It is not at all scholarly."
He says he calls on his remembrances of the burden of being a smart and sensitive—and Jewish—kid growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania. "When I was able to play sports I was accepted as one of the guys. I could be just a regular guy."
So, really, this is a bit of soul baring. "Yes, and audiences will be engaged only when they know you are. Audiences know this."
LTW artistic director Sabian Trout is guiding Epstein in the development and production of this new piece, and Epstein couldn't be happier. "I believe in her, in her intelligence, her sensitivity, her theatrical knowledge. She's helping me get this thing on its feet."
Epstein, who has performed in numerous roles in Tucson theaters, says the performances here constitute a type of platform that he will use to try to take the play on the road. He says that the show will be filmed at the dress rehearsal, because producers want something tangible before they would consider a booking.
"I think one of my core audiences for this is people of a certain age, who grew up in the middle of the last century. I want to evoke for them some of their own experiences of that time. And I want to use that evocation as a way of talking about love and death and identity and masculinity. There are also themes of loyalty and betrayal."
And what would constitute a successful performance for audiences? "I'd like them to feel entertained—that's crucial; I'd like them to feel informed, to have a feeling of recognition; maybe feel nostalgic and contemplative; to feel their own experiences of love and death and coming back to life."
Ultimately, he says, it's about not only learning to live, but learning to live with oneself.