Editor’s note: After the initial publication of this story, the premiere of ‘This is Not a Game of Baseball’ was postponed due to COVID-19. More details at the end of the article.
I spoke with Cavan Hallman, Curtis Jackson and Caleb Rainey — the writer, director and lead performer of the forthcoming play This Is Not a Game of Baseball — the morning following Major League Baseball’s Field of Dreams game. That beloved movie and the W.P. Kinsella novel, Shoeless Joe, on which it is based both celebrate a certain vision of baseball and its role in American mythology.
Hallman, Jackson (who lives in Chicago and has worked with Mirrorbox and Riverside Theatre in recent years) and Rainey (a writer, spoken word artist and actor) will be stepping into the batter’s box with a significantly different kind of story to tell.
This Is Not a Game of Baseball takes as its jumping off point the no-hitter thrown by Pittsburgh Pirates righthander Dock Ellis on June 12, 1970. Ellis accomplished this impressive feat (one of only four that season) under the influence of LSD. He himself could hardly remember the game at all.
That game, as the play will illustrate, was hardly the end-all-be-all of Ellis’s life. There is a much more complex and human story to bring to life for audiences — baseball fans or not.
Mirrorbox Theatre’s premiere production of This Is Not A Game of Baseball: The Far-Out Story of Baseball’s Most Revolutionary Pitcher will run from Sept. 17 to 26 and will be performed outdoors at Allen’s Orchard in Marion.
“Mirrorbox was really happy with the results of our first adventure into outdoor theater when we did The Parking Lot last summer at CSPS,” Hallman explained. That was very much a response to the pandemic and a response to necessity. But sometimes necessity shows you things that can work outside of necessity. And so I was really excited about continuing the use of site specific and outdoor theater as something we could do to bring our mission forward, to keep doing contemporary plays in Iowa.”
Hallman got what he called a “wild hair,” and decided the company should produce a baseball play. Failing to find the right one — and given that he is a playwright himself — he decided to write it. The story of Dock Ellis was of a piece with much of his recent work delving into memory and creative adaptations of history.
“For me, the thing that really locked me into this story was when I started thinking about the tragedy of this amazing man whose legacy, if it’s remembered, is often reduced down to a novelty. And the other side of that with memory is that arguably his greatest professional achievement is something he could barely remember because he was high.”
The play centers around Ellis, but other historical figures are also part of the play, serving a purpose traceable back to the earliest days of drama.
“I went into this thinking structurally that I was interested in creating something that felt like a solo with a Greek chorus,” Hallman said. “Somebody who is really connecting directly with the audience and telling a story but that also has that theatrical support of that ensemble that’s providing texture and character and kind of a scope to it.”
Jackson and Hallman decided early on that a traditional approach to casting this “chorus” — which would make most of the cast white and male — would not serve this story or production well.
“I wouldn’t call this a ‘colorblind casting’ play,” Jackson said. “It’s a little more specific than that. But the way that we were able to open the net in casting to allow other performers, other actors to get a chance to tackle these characters was super, super interesting to me. I mean, how do you have Bill Mazeroski, who is a white male Major Leaguer, how do we have Bill Mazeroski who comes back later, possibly as Dock’s mother, who is an African-American woman played by a Latinx actor? That to me was not only challenging, but exciting, and I think it will definitely work. I think it’s something that just adds to the flavor of American baseball as we know it.”
In the end, Jackson was simply looking for a great ensemble.
“I need strong actors who work well together and rely on each other. They know how to lead when they need to lead and they know how to follow when they need to follow.”
The actors will be doing their work of leading and following and collaborating in a huge field in an apple orchard — a setting that is, arguably, in tension with the story the play has to tell. Hallman put it this way:
“I think the setting will give it an appropriately nostalgic feel — that we’ll then immediately start to mess with through Dock Ellis’s acid trip.”
Hallman wrote the part of Dock Ellis with Rainey in mind, noting the convergence of the two men as great storytellers with big hearts and big consciences. For his part, Rainey was quick to note that the convergence does not entail a shared skill for pitching. But pitching is, of course, just part of Ellis’s story.
“Dock Ellis is so much more than what people are saying he is, so I’m excited to be able to play with that complexity and maybe push boundaries in terms of who I think he is and who the play says he is and who the world thinks he is.”
It’s the idea of working to bring the entirety of a person to life that drew Rainey to the play.
“That’s what excites me the most. He’s very clearly a flawed man, but there’s merit to him also. How do you grapple with that? This is a very real person — both in the play and in real life.”
Ellis’s real life story is not one that many people know, and that appeals to Jackson. His notion of the ways in which the play can accentuate the rich “flavor” of baseball seems of a piece with the idea that baseball players, like all of us, contain multitudes. A longtime fan like myself might be able to rattle off a player’s stats or debate their credentials as potential Hall of Famers, but those things hardly stir the waters of the richness of a person’s internal life on the field — let alone off of it.
Jackson is interested in the ways in which this story can, perhaps, break through a monolithic conception of baseball (and of America) in general and of Ellis in particular.
“I find it fascinating for Americans to learn history that is just not the mainstream — even though it deals with very, very iconic mainstream things such as baseball,” he said. “A lot of people, I found, don’t know about Dock Ellis. Or if they do, they know right off the bat about him wearing curlers and being fined. They don’t know so much about his civil rights activism, they don’t know so much about the fact that he continued to play baseball even after he left the Major Leagues. And they don’t know very much — I don’t want to give too much away — about how his life ended.”
Hallman believes Ellis’s story lends itself to exploring the conflicts and struggles that underpin powerful dramas.
“Dock Ellis has set out for himself an impossible struggle in this play which is to remember something that he can’t remember.”
It may be here that all the threads of mythology — the American mythos, the allegorical uses to which baseball is frequently put and the myth-making magic of a contemporary Greek chorus — come to be woven together. This Is Not a Game of Baseball is, potentially, a mythic corrective to the overly simple stories we often tell ourselves that emphasize the tidy and pastoral rather than the complex and chaotic.
All three artists hope that the play sparks conversation and reflection.
“I do think that we are currently in a moment — certainly heightened and accelerated by George Floyd’s murder — where the reckoning with our national mythology is something that a lot people are doing intentionally and purposefully,” Hallman said. “And so I would hope that through one person’s perspective — starting with my perspective as the writer, but then ultimately being owned by Curtis as the director, by Caleb as the performer, by the whole ensemble — that it ultimately is an opportunity for all of us to reckon with national mythology and to say what we want to say about it through this story. … This is an opportunity with us to wrestle with the meaning of baseball as a mythical, cultural object. And ‘wrestle with it’ doesn’t mean to tear down to bits. It doesn’t mean to obliterate it. Wrestling can be done with love, too.”
Mixed sports metaphor aside, Hallman’s point is a good one. Even the most avid baseball fans (and I certainly count myself among them) can benefit from looking at baseball — and by extension, America — through clear eyes. And this play centered on a man who accomplished something amazing while he was not wholly (or even partially) clear-eyed may well provide an opportunity.
“I hope the audience is inspired,” Jackson said, “to learn more about what really happened or about other players who were not broadcast in the media, learn more about the ensemble of these teams and how they all had to work together to win their championships and how they were all very complex people. They were all struggling with their own demons and battles and America during that time and the time of them growing up. I feel like there is reflection in that because no matter how old or how young you are, living in America you are battling America’s battles. We have issues.”
UPDATE, Sept. 2, 2021
Mirrorbox Theatre’s production of This is Not a Game of Baseball has been postponed to a yet-to-be-determined date in 2022. A member of the show’s production team tested positive for COVID-19, upending the show’s tight production schedule.
“There is a certain immediacy built into the Mirrorbox process in terms of how we produce a show,” said Cavan Hallman. On top of that, he explained, the performances were to rely on natural light, and changing the dates would have changed how that light could be used as the days get shorter.
“The 10-day isolation just made it impossible to move forward safely and thoroughly,” Hallman said.
Happily, the person in question is asymptomatic and feeling well. The cast and crew of the production are all vaccinated and everyone has been masked at indoor rehearsal.
“It’s my hope,” Hallman said, “that our procedures ensure that everybody comes through this as safely as possible.”
Schedules permitting, all members of the original cast will remain in their roles for the 2022 production.
Rob Cline believes Orel Hershiser should be in the Hall of Fame. He may have seen Dock Ellis pitch on TV in 1971 when he was an infant and his mother was fervently rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 298.