It was approaching 6 p.m. My makeup bag was in the passenger seat and a warmup playlist blasted through the speakers as I pulled into the Brian Whalen parking garage on campus, ready for day two of the school musical, “Music Man.”
Opening night had gone reasonably well and I had no reason to suspect the Saturday show would be any different.
I didn’t account for football.
That day, Oct. 22, was the night of the homecoming football game. Instead of the placid parking garage I had expected—a low-stress place to park and listen to my playlist until it was time to head to the Church Fine Arts building for body and vocal warmups—I encountered a nightmare of what seemed like hundreds of people all trying to get to their favorite thing in the world: football.
There are no words for the stress I encountered that day—the honking, the people on the walk from their cars already drinking and the almost rabid devotion to the sport. I ended up parking on the roof, sprinting from my car to the stairwell (narrowly avoiding being hit by a pickup truck) and running into the dressing rooms frazzled, wide-eyed and mad.
How dare these football fans step on the second night of the show? Where would our adoring fans park? These questions ran through my mind as I did angry ballet warmups to upbeat dance music. But most of all, I was jealous.
Why doesn’t theater ever experience rabid fans running over each other in the parking lot to get a spot?
The difference between sports fans and theater fans is marked. Sports are cherished and promoted. The media flock to cover sports stories or to profile famous athletes. Even at the grade-school level, the jocks are considered the heroes of the schools while theater kids are the outcasts.
At a higher level, things begin to even out. Actors actually start to get paid and people tend to get interested. But there is still a divide. According to USA Today, an average of 23.7 million people tuned in to watch Sunday night football each week in 2015. In contrast, an average of 14 million people attended an entire Broadway season, according to statista.com.
In one year in the United States, 45.92 million people attended live theater. It took a whole year for live theater in the United States to double the number of people who watched one single football game.
Why is this? Are sports fans more insane because football, and other sports, are just better?
To those fans, and to the man who almost ran me over an hour and a half before I had to be onstage, I say a fervent “No.”
Theater is a sport in itself, with an entirely different set of rules. There’s a reason the largest Broadway theater seats less than 20 percent as many people as an average football stadium. Audiences don’t come to get drunk and watch specks on a field; an audience comes to a production to see the minute costume choices, the tiny facial expressions and the emotions playing out before them.
Theater isn’t viewed by millions at a time because that would lose the intimacy of the theater. Actors spend months in intense rehearsals and four to five hours at the theater on show days not for cheers but for a quiet laugh in a dark room, or for a tear being shed over a death of a person who never would have existed but for an hour or so of suspended disbelief. We sweat buckets during training, warmups and dance rehearsals not for the hundreds of middle-aged men already three beers deep fighting over a parking spot before a game but for the sweeping applause after a particularly tough dance scene.
The numbers cannot be compared without context. Sports are not all alike. Just as cross-country runners cannot be measured by the amount of people who gather in a stadium to watch them, theater people cannot be measured by the amount of people who go hoarse yelling from the sidelines.
The media and corporations spend all of their time on sports like football because those are the areas that are guaranteed to make the most money. Of course a football game watched by millions of people is going to make more money than a single sold-out show in a theater that holds 250. This is a fact and the reason theater doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.
The mistake would be to assume this makes theater, especially musical theater, any less of a sport. Like football players, we sweat under hot lights, perform exerting routines and put on a show for an audience. Unlike football players, we do it in full makeup, heeled character shoes and with a beaming smile, all while keeping up a convincing pretense of being someone other than ourselves.
On homecoming night, college football fans saw two sets of large men fight over a single ball. Those men did something difficult. But that night I came on stage wearing two skirts, heeled shoes, enough makeup to weigh down an elephant, a wig and a hat laden with feathers and performed a dance routine while looking moderately happy about it. If you don’t think that’s just as difficult, I dare you to do it. And donít forget to smile.