Until the Lights Go Out
We’re introducing sports people to theatre, and theatre people to sports—and then there’s people like us, who are in between, who can understand both worlds and love it.
On a summer night in 2008, at the corner of Queens Quay West and Bathurst in Toronto, six figures meet to play basketball. It’s a weekly tradition: every Monday night at 10 pm, they meet here and shoot hoops until the lights at the court go out. The instigator was Richard Lee, who sent an email to fellow actors with an offer of a weekly game, held on Mondays—the night the theatre is dark. Now, 12 years later, the tradition lives on through an innovative stage production: Monday Nights.
Monday Nights was developed as part of the Theatre Centre Residency Program and saw its world premiere in Toronto in 2014, with subsequent runs in 2015 (to coincide with Toronto hosting the Pan American Games), 2017 and 2019. Most recently, it was mounted in New Westminster, BC, as part of the 2020 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
“As you grow up, you stop playing and you do adult things. You’re working, you’re paying bills, you’re starting a career, you’re trying to find love,” says Byron Abalos. He and the other members of the 6th Man Collective—veterans of the Monday night games—hoped to put that conundrum to bed by adapting their weekly tradition to the stage.
What does a pick-up basketball game look like as a piece of theatre? Upon entering the theatre, retrofitted into a makeshift basketball court, audience members are instructed by a “referee” (a performer in the production who acts as a guide of sorts) to choose from among the four sports bags. Each bag represents a “team captain,” whose journey they’ll follow through the rest of Monday Nights. For the first half of the show, they listen to audio on headsets about their captain’s personal story, as the performers run through basketball drills to teach them the rules of the game. Each captain’s story is autobiographical, based on the performers in the collective; Abalos’s story reflects his and his wife’s attempts to conceive a child via in-vitro fertilization, for example.
Around half-time, audience members join performers for a game of three-on-three. The stakes are unspeakably high: “The captain of the team with the fewest points has to do the laundry of the other captains,” after the show, Abalos admits. The show ends with performers and audience members continuing the Monday night tradition: sinking baskets until the lights go out.
“It’s a journey from individual to community,” Abalos explains. Audience members start as individuals, before coming together as competing teams, before ultimately forming a larger group. This unification is evident in the disparate audience members who come out to experience Monday Nights. “It’s often people who are not sports people, who hated gym in high school, who leave saying, ‘Wow, that moved me and I understand sport in a different way than I did before.’”
Similarly, he says, the show has attracted athletes who aren’t necessarily predisposed to a night at the theatre. “We had a father who brought his son, a teenager. This was the first piece of theatre they’d ever seen. There’s something about the appeal of the sports part of it that made them curious enough to come on down. We’re introducing sports people to theatre, and theatre people to sports—and then there’s people like us, who are in between, who can understand both worlds and love it.”
What are the commonalities between art and sport that makes the fusion so uplifting? “Camaraderie, being in our bodies, competition, a chance to connect with each other as people,” Abalos says. “[Both art and sport] connect us to each other and help us to put ourselves in situations, to build empathy, to create community and to leave us better.”
Monday Nights recently finished its West Coast dates, and life is back to normal. The sporting spirit remains high in Toronto with the Raptors as sitting NBA champs. Byron and his wife dote on their baby, now seven months old. And, 12 years later, the Monday night gang still gets together to play basketball. The only difference? “We play on Saturday mornings… because we’re all older and it works better for our schedules.”
This article is part of a special blog series featuring writers and creatives from across Canada with stories that both highlight and celebrate Culture Days’ 2020 theme of Unexpected Intersections. Explore more intersections below: