X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)
By KJ Sanchez with Jenny Mercein
Directed by Tony Taccone
Main Season · Thrust Stage
January 16–March 1, 2015
Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Are you ready for some football? American identity and our love of the game meet head-on in this world premiere commissioned by Berkeley Rep and directed by Michael Leibert Artistic Director Tony Taccone. Our singularly American sport is intricately woven into our culture and rituals, yet its traumatic effect on players and their families has us reexamining its place in our country’s story. Playwright and football superfan KJ Sanchez, along with Jenny Mercein, brings us a fascinating and hard-hitting docudrama—based on interviews with players, their families, and their fans—that examines our country’s passion for a sport that is both generous and dangerous, life-giving yet lethal. X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) is as visceral, emotional, and as highly theatrical as the game itself.
X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) was originally commissioned by Berkeley Rep and Center Stage, and developed in The Ground Floor, Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work.
X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) uses strobe effects. Berkeley Rep offers an advisory about any stage effect of potential concern to patrons’ health. We don’t offer advisories about subject matter, as sensitivities vary from person to person. If you have any concerns about content, please contact the box office.
Current ticket prices
Premium: $57–79 · Section A: $46–67 · Section B: $35–55
Prices are subject to change at any time. Generally, your best bet is to buy early. Weeknight tickets tend to cost less than weekends. For the consistently lowest prices, see any three or more subscription plays.
Partial support for open captioning provided by Theatre Development Fund
KJ Sanchez · Playwright
KJ is the founder and CEO of American Records (amrec.us), devoted to making theatre that chronicles our time. As a playwright, KJ’s work has been produced at Asolo Repertory Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Two River Theater Company, Center Stage in Baltimore, Round House Theatre, Cornerstone Theater Company, Chicago’s Yo Solo Festival, Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Hopkins Center for the Arts, and HERE Arts Center, and off Broadway at Urban Stages. Her directing credits include the Studio Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Round House Theatre, Two River Theater Company, and Actors Theatre of Louisville. KJ is the co-author, director, and producer of American Records’ flagship production ReEntry, based on interviews with Marines returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. ReEntry has toured extensively to theatres across the country as well as over 35 military bases and hospitals in the U.S. and abroad. KJ is also the voice of many characters on the Nickelodeon cartoons Go, Diego, Go! and Dora the Explorer. She is a Fox Fellow, a Douglass Wallop Fellow, and the recipient of the 2014 Rella Lossy Playwright Award.
KJ Sanchez is the 2014 winner of The San Francisco Foundation’s 2014 Rella Lossy Playwright Award for her X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story). The award is given annually to an emerging playwright and their world premiere play in honor of the memory of the late Rella Lossy (1934–1996), a lifelong lover and champion of the American theatre and playwriting.
Tony Taccone · Director
During Tony’s tenure as artistic director of Berkeley Rep, the Tony Award-winning nonprofit has earned a reputation as an international leader in innovative theatre. In those 18 years, Berkeley Rep has presented more than 70 world, American, and West Coast premieres and sent 23 shows to New York, two to London, and one to Hong Kong. Tony has staged more than 35 plays in Berkeley, including new work from Culture Clash, Rinde Eckert, David Edgar, Danny Hoch, Geoff Hoyle, Quincy Long, Itamar Moses, and Lemony Snicket. He directed shows that transferred to London, Continental Divide and Tiny Kushner, and two that landed on Broadway as well: Bridge & Tunnel and Wishful Drinking. Prior to working at Berkeley Rep, Tony served as artistic director of Eureka Theatre, which produced the American premieres of plays by Dario Fo, Caryl Churchill, and David Edgar before focusing on a new generation of American writers. While at the Eureka, Tony commissioned Tony Kushner’s legendary Angels in America and co-directed its world premiere. He has collaborated with Kushner on eight plays at Berkeley Rep, including last season’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. Tony’s regional credits include Actors Theatre of Louisville, Arena Stage, Center Theatre Group, the Eureka Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, the Huntington Theatre Company, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Public Theater, and Seattle Repertory Theatre. As a playwright, he debuted Ghost Light, Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, and Game On, written with Dan Hoyle. In 2012, Tony received the Margo Jones Award for “demonstrating a significant impact, understanding, and affirmation of playwriting, with a commitment to the living theatre.”
Todd Rosenthal · Scenic Design
Todd previously designed Tribes and Ghost Light for Berkeley Rep. His Broadway credits include August: Osage County (Tony Award), The Motherfucker with the Hat (Tony nomination), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Tony Award for Best Revival), and Of Mice and Men. Off Broadway, he designed for the premiere of Red Light Winter at the Barrow Street Theatre and Domesticated at Lincoln Center Theater. Todd was the set designer for six years for the Big Apple Circus. His international credits include August: Osage County (National Theatre in London and Sydney Theatre in Australia) and The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Theatre Royal in Ireland. Todd designed 33 productions for Steppenwolf Theatre and is an artistic partner at the Goodman Theatre. He also designed for the Guthrie Theater, the Alliance Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum, La Jolla Playhouse, Arena Stage, Cincinnati Playhouse, the Alley Theatre, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and many others. Todd was lead designer for Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition and the International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes. He received many other accolades, including the Laurence Olivier Award, the Helen Hayes Award, Ovation Award, the Back Stage Garland Award, the Joseph Jefferson Award, and the Michael Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration. Todd is an associate professor at Northwestern University and a graduate of Yale School of Drama.
Meg Neville · Costume Design
Meg’s recent and upcoming Berkeley Rep credits include One Man, Two Guvnors; Party People; Tribes; and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. She also worked on Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Ghost Light; In the Wake; Yellowjackets; Eurydice; TRAGEDY: a tragedy; Suddenly Last Summer; Dinner with Friends; Closer; and The Life of Galileo. Her recent and upcoming productions at Oregon Shakespeare Festival include Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2015), The Cocoanuts (2014), Taming of the Shrew (2013), and Ghost Light (2011). Meg is an associate artist with California Shakespeare Theater, where she has designed numerous productions including Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and lots of Shakespeare. Other Bay Area theatre credits include Marin Theatre Company, the Cutting Ball Theater, American Conservatory Theater, San Jose Repertory Theatre, Joe Goode Performance Group, and Magic Theatre. She has also worked at Second Stage Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, Center Stage in Baltimore, South Coast Repertory, Atlantic Theater Company, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Chicago Opera Theater, NY Stage and Film, Hartford Stage, Kirk Douglas Theatre, Portland Stage Company, and Dallas Theater Center. Meg is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and Brown University and resides in San Francisco with her husband and three children.
Alexander V. Nichols · Lighting & Video Design
Alex is returning to Berkeley Rep for his 30th production. His Broadway credits include Wishful Drinking, Hugh Jackman—Back On Broadway, and Nice Work If You Can Get It. His off-Broadway productions include In Masks Outrageous and Austere, Los Big Names, Horizon, Bridge & Tunnel, Taking Over, Through the Night, and In the Wake. Alex has worked at regional theatres throughout the country, including American Conservatory Theater, Mark Taper Forum, National Theatre of Taiwan, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and La Jolla Playhouse, among others. His dance credits include resident designer for Pennsylvania Ballet, Hartford Ballet, and American Repertory Ballet; lighting supervisor for American Ballet Theatre; and resident visual designer for the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company since 1989. His designs are in the permanent repertory of San Francisco Ballet, Boston Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Hubbard Street Dance, Hong Kong Ballet, Singapore Dance Theatre, ODC/SF, and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Alex’s recent projects include the museum installation Circle of Memory, a collaboration with Eleanor Coppola, recently presented in Stockholm, Sweden, and the video and visual design for Life: A Journey Through Time, a collaboration with Frans Lanting and Philip Glass, recently presented at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.
Jake Rodriguez · Sound Design
Jake is a sound designer based in the San Francisco Bay Area who last worked with Berkeley Rep on Tribes. His regional credits include the world premieres of Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright, Girlfriend, and Passing Strange at Berkeley Rep; world premieres of Brownsville Song and The Christians at Actors Theatre of Louisville; Underneath the Lintel and Scorched at American Conservatory Theater; Hamlet (2012) at California Shakespeare Theater; world premieres of Bruja, Annapurna, and Oedipus el Rey at Magic Theatre; Eurydice at Milwaukee Repertory Theater; The People’s Temple at Guthrie Theater; and Clementine in the Lower 9 at TheatreWorks. He has designed off Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center for Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creature. Jake is the recipient of a 2004 Princess Grace Award.
John Sipes · Movement Director
Previously at Berkeley Rep, John provided movement direction for Tony Taccone’s productions of Macbeth and Pentecost, and Lisa Peterson’s production of Antony and Cleopatra. For 16 seasons John was a director and resident movement director for Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Before joining OSF, he served as the artistic director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. John is a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique (AmSAT) and a certified actor/combatant with the Society of American Fight Directors. He also trained in corporeal mime with Étienne Decroux in Paris, and studied with Tadashi Suzuki in Japan. John is currently an associate professor at the University of Tennessee and a company member of the Clarence Brown Theatre.
Madeleine Oldham · Dramaturg
Madeleine is the director of The Ground Floor: Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work and the Theatre’s resident dramaturg. She oversees commissioning and new play development, and dramaturged the world premiere productions of The House that will not Stand, Passing Strange, and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), among others. As literary manager and associate dramaturg at Center Stage in Baltimore, she produced the First Look reading series and headed up its young audience initiative. Before moving to Baltimore, she was the literary manager at Seattle Children’s Theatre, where she oversaw an extensive commissioning program. She also acted as assistant and interim literary manager at Intiman Theatre in Seattle. Madeleine served for four years on the executive committee of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas and has also worked with ACT (Seattle), Austin Scriptworks, Crowded Fire, the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, the Kennedy Center, New Dramatists, Playwrights Center, and Portland Center Stage.
Amy Potozkin · Casting
This is Amy’s 25th season at Berkeley Rep. Through the years she has also had the pleasure of casting plays for ACT (Seattle), Arizona Theatre Company, Aurora Theatre Company, B Street Theatre, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Dallas Theater Center, Marin Theatre Company, the Marsh, San Jose Repertory Theatre, Social Impact Productions Inc., and Traveling Jewish Theatre. Amy cast roles for various indie films, including Conceiving Ada, starring Tilda Swinton; Haiku Tunnel and Love & Taxes, both by Josh Kornbluth; and Beyond Redemption by Britta Sjogren. Amy received her MFA from Brandeis University, where she was also an artist in residence. She has been a coach to hundreds of actors, has taught acting at Mills College and audition technique at Berkeley Rep’s School of Theatre, and has led workshops at numerous other venues in the Bay Area. Prior to working at Berkeley Rep, she was an intern at Playwrights Horizons in New York. Amy is a member of CSA, the Casting Society of America.
Calleri Casting · Casting
Calleri Casting is James Calleri, Paul Davis, and Erica Jensen. Their most recent theatre credits include Venus in Fur on Broadway and the long-running Fuerza Bruta, as well as All in the Timing, My Name is Asher Lev, the revival of Passion, and The Revisionist starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg. Some past Broadway credits include 33 Variations, Chicago, James Joyce’s The Dead, and A Raisin in the Sun. Calleri also cast for shows at The Civilians, Classic Stage Company, Epic Theatre Ensemble, the Flea Theater, Keen Company, Long Wharf Theatre, McCarter Theatre Center, New Georges, the Old Globe, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, STAGEFARM, Summer Play Festival, and Williamstown Theatre Festival. They cast 10 seasons with Playwrights Horizons, including such plays as Betty’s Summer Vacation, Goodnight Children Everywhere, Lobby Hero, Small Tragedy, and Violet, to name a few. Their TV credits include Army Wives, Ed, Hope & Faith, Lipstick Jungle, Monk, and Z Rock, and film credits include Another Earth, Armless, Merchant Ivory’s The City of Your Final Destination, Heights, Lisa Picard is Famous, Peter & Vandy, Ready? OK!, Trouble Every Day, The White Countess, and Yearbook. Calleri received 12 Artios Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Casting and is a member of CSA.
Kimberly Mark Webb · Stage Manager
Kimberly’s credits at Berkeley Rep include more than 75 productions over the last 30-plus years. His other work includes productions for Center Theatre Group, New York’s Joyce Festival, the Huntington Theatre Company, La Jolla Playhouse, Williamstown Theatre Festival, American Conservatory Theater, and Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Kimberly served as production stage manager at Theatre Three in Dallas for six years.
Marissa Joy Ganz · Assistant Movement Director
Lynne Soffer · Dialect Coach
Bill Geisslinger · Frank / Rocky / Tough Guy / Chorus
Bill previously appeared at Berkeley Rep in Ghost Light, Continental Divide: Mothers Against/Daughters of the Revolution, Dinner with Friends, and The House of Blue Leaves. As an acting company member at Oregon Shakespeare Festival for 25 years he participated in more than 70 productions, including most recently August: Osage County, the world premiere of Ghost Light by Tony Taccone, and as assistant director of A Streetcar Named Desire. Other credits include the world premiere of Continental Divide by David Edgar (OSF, Berkeley Rep, La Jolla Playhouse, in the UK at Birmingham Rep, and the Barbican in London). He has also performed at the Old Globe Theatre, South Coast Repertory, Long Wharf Theatre, the Huntington Theatre Company, Intiman Theatre, the Denver Center Theatre Company, Virginia Stage Company, the Mechanic Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, and Portland Center Stage. Bill’s film and TV credits include Grimm, Cheers, St. Elsewhere, News Radio, Nowhere Man, Dead by Sunset, A Thousand Heroes, Imaginary Crimes, and American Playhouse: The Skin of Our Teeth.
Dwight Hicks · George Coleman / Ramon / Chorus
Dwight began his career in athletics as a defensive back on the University of Michigan’s football team. He signed with the San Francisco 49ers and his outstanding play led him to four consecutive Pro Bowls and two Super Bowl Championships. Dwight is now creating a successful career in the entertainment business. His film credits include The Rock, Armageddon, Jack, Virginia, and Cartel War. Some of his television credits are Castle, Body of Proof, How I Met Your Mother, and Cold Case.
Anthony Holiday · Addicott / Ben / Chorus
Anthony is making his Berkeley Rep debut. On Broadway he understudied and debuted playing Magic/Willy/Henry in Magic/Bird at the Longacre Theater. His Los Angeles credits include Richard in Questa at the Court Theatre, Red/Jason in Play at the Gardner Stages, and Peter in The Last Pitch at the Renegade Theatre. Anthony also played Richard in Machinal at the Chandler Theatre in Los Angeles, for which he was nominated for an ADA Award. He has been in films such as Roy Campanella Night, Elegy for a Revolutionary, Divorce Invitation, and Finding Amanda. He also has starred in numerous television shows, including Mistresses, The Exes, Dads, Hot in Cleveland, Perfect Couples, and The New Adventures of Old Christine, to name a few.
Eddie Ray Jackson · Eric / BJ / Anthony / Chorus
Eddie Ray makes his Berkeley Rep debut in X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story). A San Francisco native, he was last seen playing Muhammad Ali in Will Power’s Fetch Clay, Make Man at Marin Theatre Company. He was also a 2013 company member at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where he appeared in the U.S. premiere of The Heart of Robin Hood. His New York credits include Much Ado About Nothing at Classic Stage Company; A Midsummer Night’s Dream and La Ronde at the Riverside Theatre; and Miss Julie, The Proposal, and Endgame at Columbia University. Jackson received an MFA in acting from Columbia University and BA in theatre arts from California State University, Sacramento. He is a proud AEA member. Visit eddierjackson.com.
Jenny Mercein · Kelli / Martha / Roberta / Chorus / Co-Creator
Jenny is thrilled to make her Berkeley Rep debut as both an actor and a co-creator of X’s and O’s. Writing credits include her solo shows pretty, Waiting, and her current piece in development Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge. Her theatre acting credits include Keen Company, HERE Arts Center, New Georges, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Pioneer Theatre Company, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Florida Studio Theatre, White Heron Theatre Company, Connecticut Free Shakespeare, and the Fulton Opera House. Jenny’s TV/film credits include 30 Rock, Blue Bloods, Unforgettable, Law & Order, The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer, and The Prospects. She graduated from Yale with a BA in Theatre Studies and History of Art and received her MFA in acting from the University of Washington. Jenny teaches at UC Santa Barbara Theater/Dance.
Marilee Talkington · Caroline / Team Physician / Laura / Chorus
Marilee is thrilled to be making her Berkeley Rep debut. Off Broadway she played Eleanor in A.R. Gurney’s The Middle Ages and Eileen in the revival of John Belluso’s A Nervous Smile with Theatre Breaking Through Barriers. Most recently, she played Catherine in the Bay Area premiere of Rapture, Blister, Burn at the Aurora Theatre Company. Regionally, Marilee has worked with American Conservatory Theater, Crowded Fire Theater, Center Rep, Magic Theatre (where she played Master Sunflower alongside Taylor Mac in The Lily’s Revenge), and TheatreWorks. Her solo show Truce has toured around the country and ran on BBC4 Radio in 2010. She is the recipient of a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critic’s Circle Award, a California Center for Cultural Innovation Award, and is a proud MacDowell Fellow. Marilee is one of only two legally blind actors in the country to earn an MFA in acting (American Conservatory Theater).
The actors and stage managers are members of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
“Judging by the standing ovation at Friday’s opening, anyone who loves football might want to rush to see Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of X’s and O’s…Handsomely and smoothly directed by Tony Taccone, X’s unfolds on a round stage that looks like a sports-talk TV set, with multiple small and large screens…In the most dramatically effective scene, [Jenny] Mercein—a strong presence in several roles—and [Marilee] Talkington play two very different widows of former players, their fond memories of the early years of their marriages gradually giving way to the deep pain of their spouses’ rapid declines, increasing mental instability and early deaths. Their monologues are movingly interwoven with another by Eddie Ray Jackson as BJ, a son remembering his once-carefree late father go through the same process.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“For all the zippy fun in the play—and there’s plenty—this is a play that says loving something blindly or madly is ultimately irresponsible if you’re not also considering the bigger picture. That X’s and O’s asks us to seriously consider the duality of football—its value, its cost, its cultural relevance—is a significant matter. It is a play that makes you think…A deep, rich topic…Credit director Tony Taccone with providing just enough flash with the stadium lights and the near-constant video projections to balance with the generally strong performances from his energetic cast of six.”—Theater Dogs
“KJ Sanchez is an amazing theatre-maker. Her play will be a theatrical event that will reveal something about the heart of American society.”—Tony Taccone
“Eye-opening, unnerving yet entertaining…Even if you are not a football fan, it’s hard not to be moved…X’s and O’s is like the game itself: Some of the hits are so hard, they’ll make you uncomfortable, but you won’t want to stop watching! Taccone keeps the testimony moving at the speed of a two-minute drill, and the mix of wide-ranging interviews also touches on NFL history, popular culture and some colorful players’ anecdotes…[Former 49er Dwight Hicks] proves a nimble, empathetic and knowing story teller. When he recounts the sometimes violent experiences of a former player (interview subjects are identified by fictitious names), you can sense his attachment to the story.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
“These x’s and o’s will have you blowing kisses…From the very first moments, the balletic slow motion accompanied by the soundtrack of cheers and electric visuals ropes you in for what will be an entrancing 85 minute ride…Every lighting cue and every sound cue work to heighten this realism and transform the Berkeley Rep’s thrust stage.”—Stark Insider
“X’s and O’s certainly deserves to be seen. Whether you’re a rabid fan or someone who watches the Super Bowl just for the commercials, there’s enough pathos, humor, and humanity here to engage and delight! Six actors play a multitude of roles, and all give sincere, empathic performances…Special note is due ex-49er Dwight Hicks, whose portrayal of a fellow former player is hysterically funny and delightfully honest, and Eddie Ray Jackson, who steals the show with a vibrantly energetic turn as an 11th-grade high school player.”—Talkin’ Broadway
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
I’m a baseball fan. My father took me to the ballpark when I could barely walk and I became forever enamored of the game. But during the course of my now long life, I watched, sometimes in horror, as football took over as America’s favorite sport. The reasons for this have been endlessly discussed by sociologists, sports writers, and fans: football is better suited for television, is more of a team game, is more entertainingly violent, is better marketed, has more parity, is more suited to the mythology of American culture. Whichever reason(s) you prefer, the undeniable fact is that football is king.
But after decades of ascending popularity, the sport is suffering the worst attack on its legitimacy since the early 20th century. Everywhere you look there’s negative press ranging from the devastating effects of head concussions to domestic violence. Commissioner Roger Goodell has come under intense fire for every manner of obfuscation, threatening his tenure and his yearly salary of $44,000,000. Owners are worried about their golden goose; players are divided about their relationship with the League; parents are increasingly fearful about letting their children play the game; and fans are, well…arguing. Fans have always been arguing, but the content of many conversations has shifted to the discomfort they feel or should feel while watching really, really big guys who run really, really fast take really, really big hits. Life has suddenly gotten very complicated for the NFL.
Enter KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein, two passionate football aficionados and dynamic theatre makers. Since discovering their mutual love for the game a few years ago, they set out to get the full story. They started interviewing former players (Jenny’s dad used to play for the Packers), and gradually widened the parameters of their investigation to include coaches, family members of football vets, physicians, academics, and parents. By the time they came to The Ground Floor (our new play development program) last summer, KJ and Jenny had sculpted a compelling docudrama of powerful, intersecting stories. Since then we’ve worked on expanding the scope and theatricality of the play.
It’s been a blast, working on a subject that’s such an entertaining and powerful part of our culture. The design team (even those who couldn’t give a damn about sports) has gone all out to realize the vision of the play, and we’ve assembled a first-rate ensemble that has an impressive level of skill as actors, fans, and former players. As they say in the big leagues, welcome to the show.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
Okay, I’ll be entirely honest with you. I couldn’t tell a touchdown from a touchback. My husband Greg can get mighty riled up over a dropped pass or a fumble, and can transform before my very eyes from a perfectly civilized human being into a grunting and wailing embodiment of abject pain and disappointment when the 49ers are in the throes. But it is, I hate to say it, all Greek to me. What I do get, though, is the extraordinary power that our athletes exert over our lives. They inform our sense of what is fair; they contribute to our affection for our alma mater; they brighten or darken our day. I guess what fans experience is a truly epic battle in every game, always between the forces of good and evil. A game is not just a game. It is a life-and-death battle. In my household, every game results in exultation or profound despair—there is no middle ground.
That said, things are inexorably changing in the NFL. The price that our athletes have paid for this much-loved game has begun to be understood in a new way. The price has proven to be too high. With X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) we ask ourselves, while we ask you: When is enough really enough? Where do we as caring fans and friends draw a line in the sand? How do we love a sport but not love what it does to people?
Earlier this year Meow Meow asked us, “When I’m gone, will you remember me?” UNIVERSES and their Party People asked their own fundamental questions: Do you remember? Do you remember our complexity? In Red Hot Patriot, Molly Ivins advises us that we’d better remember…or forget at our own risk.
In X’s and O’s, KJ Sanchez demands that we remember, and not just that we remember, but that we specifically remember that football players are not mannequins who are there for our entertainment. These are human beings. They carry an awful lot of our aspirations on their backs, and we have some obligation to them.
Sports…theatre…for some people, both are just different forms of entertainment, quickly enjoyed and quickly forgotten. But for some fans these are where our epic battles play out. The Greeks understood that, thousands of years ago, when Olympic events celebrated both athleticism and art. Those old Greeks understood that there is a connection between mind and body, between physical prowess and creative endeavor. And they understood that a special bond exists between the doer and the watcher, a bond that we enjoy in this Theatre more than 350 times a season.
Tonight, as you delve with us into the world of professional football, on a stage in Berkeley where you are sitting with hundreds of other people, you are participating in an epic experience that is thousands of years old. We challenge you to enter the fray, listen, take sides, and then take action.
The NFL in the news
Head trauma, litigation, and a changing game
By Madeleine Oldham
While baseball still holds the reputation of being America’s national pastime, football eclipsed it 50 years ago as the most popular sport in America and never looked back. Today, football is viewed in over 70 percent of American households, and more than 111 million people watched the 2014 Super Bowl. The league generates around $10 billion in annual revenue, and still manages to maintain its status as a nonprofit organization (though individual teams do pay taxes). NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants to grow that number to $25 billion by 2027. Football has become a new American religion complete with Sunday rituals, fierce devotion, and the faith of a true fan. However, football now finds itself facing something of a dark night of the soul, as new information emerges almost daily regarding the effects of the game on the people who play it.
Questions began to arise during the 1990s about why some former NFL players seemed to be exhibiting things like memory loss at relatively young ages, mood swings, or personality changes. In 1994, the NFL launched an initiative to fund research on the effects of repeated blows to the head in the game of football. Some held this up as an example of the league’s commitment to its players and its willingness to put some real money toward addressing the issue—taking action instead of merely paying lip service. Others criticized the step for being insincere, pointing to the choice of a rheumatologist with no training in the study of the brain to lead the investigation. The NFL research team conducted studies that found no extraordinary risk connected with playing football, and announced that no line could be drawn between concussions and any long-term effects. This contradicted a growing body of information gathered by outside doctors and scientists, which pointed toward high rates of cognitive impairment among former football players, particularly those who had suffered multiple concussions.
Evidence of a link between football and brain injury reached a tipping point after Dr. Bennet Omalu published his findings in 2005 from the autopsy he performed on legendary Pittsburgh Steeler “Iron Mike” Webster. Webster was only 50 years old when he died, and yet the inside of his brain mirrored that of a much older man. Omalu subsequently autopsied the brains of other former NFL players, and identified them all as having signs of a degenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The NFL tried to discredit Omalu, and attempted to have his article retracted. It did not succeed.
2006 saw the beginnings of former players seeking legal counsel to build a case against the NFL. Many of these men couldn’t hold down jobs, or in some cases even follow a conversation. They were often dealing with headaches, depression, the inability to remember simple things, lack of focus, substance abuse, or thoughts of suicide. The first major lawsuit was filed in 2011 on behalf of 75 players, asserting that the league deliberately withheld information regarding the potential brain damage the game can cause. This ballooned quickly, and today upward of 4,500 players are awaiting decisions, many in a massive class-action suit that will likely be settled by the time of this printing.
As of October 2014, 76 of 79 brains of deceased former NFL players displayed signs of CTE. The research is now incontrovertible.
Though the league was slow to respond to the evidence, once it finally conceded that significant risk of cognitive damage is inherent to the game, the NFL has taken a number of significant steps to address the issue. Rule changes designed to reduce the potential for punishing hits to the head continue to be put in place. Neurologists are more commonly seen as part of a team’s medical staff at games. Trainers now regularly occupy press boxes to look for signs of head trauma that the field-level trainers might miss because they are easier to see from above. Players who suffer a concussion during a game must obey strict guidelines about when they can return to play.
The response to what has been learned about CTE extends to the college, high school, and even youth levels. At the collegiate level, the NCAA faces similar issues to those in the NFL. The state of California recently passed a law that limits tackling practice for high school teams, and barred it altogether from taking place during the off-season. Similar legislation is expected to follow in other states. Enrollment in youth programs has dropped, and the future of football seems an open question. It’s a national struggle to celebrate our fierce love of the game alongside the knowledge that it causes irreversible harm to its participants. How, and whether, America can reconcile those two things remains to be seen.
A conversation with KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein
By Julie McCormick
KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein are women of many talents: KJ as a playwright, director, actor, and CEO of American Records; and Jenny as an actress, writer, teacher, and NFL aficionado. They bring their considerable experience and insight to the complex, far-reaching questions surrounding our national passion for football. Their keen dramaturgical eyes are guided by big hearts that carry incredible love for the game and the people it touches. Before going into rehearsal for X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) with director Tony Taccone at Berkeley Rep, KJ and Jenny gave us a glimpse into their process of creating the play.
Julie: Tell us a little bit about why you decided to collaborate on this piece.
KJ: Jenny and I had worked together a long time ago—in 2002 at the University of Washington. That was actually the very first play that I made on my own; before that point I was with the SITI Company. So I went to the University of Washington, where Jenny was in the MFA program, to make a play called Too Much Water, which was a dance-theatre meditation on madness and suicide.
We really enjoyed working with each other, and once in a while we would run into each other at parties. We were at a friend’s Cinco de Mayo party in 2012; this was right after Junior Seau’s suicide. We were talking about football and how it seems like the game’s not going to be the same after this. And then Jenny said, “You know that my dad was a professional football player?” Which I don’t think I had known up to that point. We started to talk about it, and then a lightbulb went off: since American Records’ mission is to chronicle our time and serve as a bridge between people, it seemed like a moment in time that we got excited about capturing theatrically. So I called Tony and pitched it to him, and he said yes, and then I called Jenny. Our first conversations were really about how I thought she could bring so much because of her personal investment, but also how we should work together, how this whole thing would go.
Jenny: In the same way that KJ didn’t know that my dad played football, I had no idea that KJ was a big football fan. And so it was this moment of—not to play gender stereotypes or artist stereotypes, but there just aren’t that many women in the theatre who really sincerely love football in my experience. And I’d always wanted to work with KJ again—Too Much Water was a huge game-changer for me—and I have also aspired to do documentary theatre. So it made total sense, but it was the kind of thing where you leave the party and you don’t really know if anything is going to come of it. But a month later, in what I have come to see as typical KJ fashion, she calls and says, “Hey, I got us a commission!” It was kind of amazing. She just makes it happen.
Can you talk about what your process has been like since that point? Some of the big milestones you’ve hit?
KJ: Jenny did a good bulk of the interviewing herself. Because it was easier for her to call up folks and say, “Hey this is Jenny Mercein,” and everybody knows “Mercein.” So they immediately trusted her. Then she connected with the wives, and we split those interviews up between us.
We transcribed the interviews and started to chat about them. And then we did a short workshop at Center Stage in Baltimore. We had a couple of days with some actors, and after every rehearsal, Jenny and I would go back to our apartment and we literally chopped up the script that I had at that time and laid it out on the floor and moved things around and talked about structure. That workshop was incredibly helpful; we left with a sort of pre-first draft with a general idea of what the frame would be. It was in that phase that we knew it was going to be about love.
Then the next phase was The Ground Floor workshop, which was huge. I really need the exquisite pressure of time—to know that there will be people coming to hear a reading in a week. Tony was a big part of this process because before Tony’s first responses to the play, it was a smaller play. It was a play mostly about the players and their families. He kept encouraging us to widen our lens and to look at this as a chance to reflect on other cultural issues.
Jenny: We also made one other early trip to Berkeley the summer of 2013. We got some great interviews, held a public panel discussion, and it was just wonderful for KJ and I to have that time together and to start processing.
How much of the dialogue ended up being verbatim, and how much of it has been fictionalized?
KJ: Right now, I would say…90 percent is from the transcriptions and 10 percent is adjustments for clarification.
The previous draft had a lot more of my free writing. There was a time when the fans were really just fictionalized representations of a lot of conversations that we’d had, but they were sounding like writing to me. So we went back and did more interviews, and now we’re pulling from direct transcriptions.
Jenny: There are one or two characters that are compilations of several players. The language—yeah, 90 percent is verbatim from real people’s mouths.
Did you get any pushback when you were speaking with people?
Jenny: Yeah, I certainly got pushback, and some of that you can hear in the play. Some of the people when I first approached them didn’t want to talk. But for the most part, people were pretty open, and I think because I really reassured them that our goal was to hear as many voices as possible. And as KJ said, being the child of an NFL player and totally loving the game, I could speak from an honest place. I didn’t have an agenda. I was a person who was sincerely interested in discussing football from all angles.
KJ: It’s not really pushback, but there were a whole battery of people who just didn’t return phone calls. We got a lot of help from a venerable journalist, who gave us a lot of direct phone numbers from his personal contact list. Some of those guys called me back; others just didn’t want to have anything to do with it because people are pretty nervous about the ramifications of who they talk to.
Jenny: We had contact information for NFL coaches: current coaches, former coaches, who didn’t call us back. Really anyone still entrenched in the NFL was very difficult for us to reach.
KJ: And then we decided to exploit that as an asset, because we knew pretty early on that this wasn’t going to be a journalistic exposé. So we ended up embracing the people who would talk to us, who were the guys who were retired. By the way, a lot of these older players who played before the ‘80s didn’t make big money like the guys today. Back when they played, many of them had summer jobs, jobs during the off-season to make a living.
Lots of the guys we talked to were not big, famous players. They’re not household names, and yet they’re still vital stakeholders, and the game means as much to them as to the Brett Favres and the Hall of Famers and the millionaires. And that to me was the more compelling story and a part of the community that I didn’t really understand existed until working on this piece.
Why do you think that football is such beloved sport in America specifically?
KJ: It’s great storytelling. It’s a sport that was made for the medium of television: instant replays and the way the game gets repackaged and talked about have all of the things Joseph Campbell wrote about with the hero myths. There are some basic principles to all of the stories we’ve told throughout history, and all of those principles and narrative structural points appear in one single game of football.
Jenny: It’s really interesting because there’s something in our mythology about being an American: this stick-to-it-ness, that we don’t give up—that myth is embodied in football. And there’s also an instant gratification about it. Baseball is America’s favorite pastime, but there’s something about the four downs in football—it’s so compact. And there’s something that is, for me, deeply embedded in who I am as an American, going back to colonial times: that we were a scrappy people who got knocked down, built ourselves back up, and became this giant empire. I think that there’s something in the idea of the superhuman feats that football players can do and the action and adventure of a football game that really appeals to the American psyche.
How has your relationship to the game changed over the course of working on this play?
Jenny: It’s definitely changed for me. I do still watch the game and I do enjoy the game very much, but once you’ve invested in the human side of these stories, it’s hard to shut that part of your brain off when you watch. It’s complicated.
KJ: Yeah and it has changed for me too. I can’t watch it with the same glee I used to, but also at the same time, I watch it with more appreciation. I really had no idea how hard it is to train to be a professional football player. I knew it was hard, but I like to live in a fantasy world where people are born with gifts and all they have to do is use the gifts they are given. But that’s so not true. The number of hours they take to study the game plans, the amount of training, the level of practice, and the need to commit to that level—I mean, I look at my own life, and I’m pretty much a workaholic; I would consider myself a hard worker—but now that I really understand what it takes to prepare and play at that level, I don’t know if I have the tenacity to work as hard as they do. So I have a newfound respect for the players, and I can’t watch the game in the same way, and I can’t see big hits without worrying who that person’s going to be in 20 years.
Jenny: You know by the same token, I’m suffering heartbreak today because almost all of my family is together at the Yale-Princeton game and they’re honoring my dad, and I would give anything right now to be at that football game. Whether it’s in front of a TV watching as a family or going to a Friday-night high school game or tailgating before a big game—I think that sense of being part of a community I will always love and I will always want to participate in.
In light of all of the research that’s being done right now about traumatic brain injuries, and given that love we have for the game, what do you think is going to happen to it in the next 10, 15 years?
KJ: That’s a big question. I don’t think anyone really knows, but there are some camps that say it is not going to be as exciting of a game; there are some camps that say that the demographics will change, and its cultural impact will change. There are some people who say it’s not going to change at all, though it’s definitely already changing just because the basic rules and equipment are changing. But that’s the million-dollar question. And there are some fans that have just stopped watching. It’s not a million-dollar question, it’s a nine-billion-dollar question. If football as an industry is going to continue to be as large as it is.
Jenny: I would say a goal of this piece is for our audience to leave the play asking those questions and thinking deeply about those questions, but we don’t have a crystal ball. We can’t prognosticate, and we don’t know. I can speak personally and say that I can’t imagine a world without football. I can’t imagine fall weather without football; I can’t imagine a time when there wouldn’t be that background hum on a Sunday of the TV playing the game. But it’s changing. It’s already changed, and it will continue to change and evolve. Historically football has evolved. And so I think that it’s a big question.
KJ: I think it’s something that we have to decide as a community. As a society we need to decide what happens to football. Because even if you don’t watch it on TV anymore, everyone is tied to football, whether it’s the fact that cities pay for stadiums and stadiums bring jobs to a city or whether it’s workers’ compensation issues when players have injuries. You can pick any person in America and you can play the seven degrees of separation game and see how a big portion of our society is in some way connected to this issue.
But we don’t intend to say in any way that the stories the audience hears are everyone’s experience. It was more important to us to focus on fewer people and go deeper with the characters than try to cover everything that this issue involves. There are certain issues that are really hot topics right now in the newspaper that we felt just couldn’t fit in one play. A lot of these subjects deserve their own plays, so hopefully, X’s and O’s will encourage more playwrights to tell more stories about the issue—I feel like ours can be one of a constellation of plays about football. Our job is to take photographs of a moment in time and frame them in a way that hopefully ignites more conversation and thought after the play.
See former 49er Dwight Hicks talk about his second career as an actor, and get a glimpse of X’s and O’s rehearsals.
Got 15 seconds?
See the X’s and O’s TV spot airing on CBS!
Introducing X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)
Get the scoop about the latest play to come up from The Ground Floor: Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work.
Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com
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Learn more about the history of football and dive into the controversy surrounding concussions with this list of in-depth resources courtesy of our literary department.
- The NFL has compiled this comprehensive list of major events in its history, beginning with the first college football game between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869. Though the timeline only goes as far as 2006, this list gives a particularly detailed look at the early evolution of the game and of the league.
- This photo collection from Sports Illustrated captures nearly 50 years’ worth of incredible athleticism, elation, and despair at the most important game of the season.
- SportingNews.com has compiled a slideshow of photographs depicting game watchers going to some pretty impressive lengths to show their team spirit.
- This interactive map from the New York Times shows how the country’s loyalty to college football teams is divided based on Facebook “likes.”
Head injuries in football
- CNN has compiled a timeline of major events in the NFL’s recent history with the issue of concussions that shows the chronology of lawsuits, medical discoveries, CTE-related suicides by NFL players, and the actions taken by the league in the midst of this controversy.
- In this seminal 2009 article published a few years after Michael Vick’s involvement with dog fighting surfaced, Malcolm Gladwell compared the NFL’s treatment of players to the inhumane use of canines in horrific dogfighting rings. It’s a brutal analysis, but one that has served as a touchstone in the conversation of head injuries in the NFL.
- Pennington elucidates today’s NFL protocol for assessing and addressing head injuries during a game.
- This 2011 Fresh Air broadcast includes an interview with Chris Nowinski, a former football player and wrestler and founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit that raises awareness of concussions in sports. As the author of Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis from the NFL to Youth Leagues and an athlete whose own head injuries cut his career short, Nowinski has vast insight that he shares on this program.
- This article from September 2014 reviews the NFL’s response to the class-action brain damage lawsuit filed against the league. Hruby brings readers through a quick and simple history of the lawsuits, then zooms in on the proposed settlement that the NFL has agreed to today.
Controversy and opinions
Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game by Mark Edmundson
- Spurred by his son’s involvement and success in high school football, author Mark Edmundson meditates on the values that the sport instills as well as its costs. Edmundson reflects on the lessons he learned as a high school football player and examines his hesitance to let his own son play the game.
Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto by Steve Almond
- After 40 years as a football fan, author Steve Almond has found himself unable to watch the game. He provides a cultural critique of the U.S.’s obsession with football, questioning the practices supported not only by the NFL but also by fans.
League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru
- This book’s back cover says it best: In a fast-paced narrative that moves between the NFL trenches, America’s research labs and the boardrooms where the NFL went to war against science, League of Denial examines how the league used its power and resources to attack independent scientists and elevate its own flawed research.
- Listen to an NPR interview with the authors.
- Frustrated by academic dissections of football, self-identified intellectual Hampton Stevens meditates on the beauty of violence in football that makes the game so viscerally satisfying.
- In recent years, female fans have been one of the NFL’s most rapidly growing demographics, and women now make up 45 percent of the NFL’s fanbase. After the NFL’s handling of Ray Rice’s domestic violence crimes this year, however, many female football fans are finding their loyalty to the game deeply challenged.
- A poll taken in December 2014 revealed that 50 percent of subjects polled would not let their sons play the game. This piece expounds upon that statistic, exploring some of the recent controversies that may have pushed public opinion in this direction.
Docent talks and discussions
Pre-show docent talks
Meet us in the Theatre an hour before the show on Tuesdays and Thursdays for an engrossing presentation about your subscription-season play. Hear about the playwright’s perspective, dive into the historical context, and discover why the script is relevant right now. Each 30-minute talk includes plenty of time for your questions.
Post-show docent-led discussions
Join your fellow audience members after all matinees and share your thoughts on the show.
Our docents also offer talks off-site
- Thursday, January 22 · 1pm—Moraga Library
- Sunday, January 25 · 2pm—Berkeley Public Library
Teen Night gives local teens the opportunity to meet for dinner and a behind-the-scenes discussion with a member of the artistic team before attending each subscription-season production at an extremely discounted price.
- Friday, January 16, 2015
Past Teen Night guests have included: Tony Taccone, Berkeley Rep’s Michael Leibert Artistic Director; Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, dancers in Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup; and Michael Suenkel, Berkeley Rep’s production stage manager.
Stick around after select performances for lively Q&A sessions with our artists on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday nights.
- Thursday, February 5, 2015
- Tuesday, February 10, 2015
- Friday, February 20, 2015