features + interviews

How a Tennis Match Changed the Conversation

image 1 (Russ Rowland)

Ellen Tamaki as Billie Jean King and Donald Corren as Bobby Riggs in Balls. Photo: Russ Rowland

[Full article published in TDF Stages, January 25, 2018.]

Balls uses a legendary game to examine gender inequality


It’s fitting that a coed creative team decided to theatricalize the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between 29-year-old women’s champion Billie Jean King and misogynistic 55-year-old huckster Bobby Riggs. Cowritten and codirected by two male-female pairings, Balls is a circus sideshow take on an iconic event that sparked gender debates that are still going today.

Currently running at 59E59 Theaters, the show is the brainchild of One Year Lease, a physical theatre company known for off-kilter ensemble works such as Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, which was told from the perspective of a cell phone. During one of OYL’s annual retreats, performer Richard Saudek and playwright Kevin Armento began discussing which sports they could put onstage. Saudek had been a competitive tennis player in high school and soon the conversation turned to the King-Riggs bout.

Armento, who is 31, had dim memories of “some famous match between a man and a woman.” Once he started researching, he marveled that he hadn’t known more about it. He saw possibilities for a play and thought a female writing partner would be a swell idea. Enter Bryony Lavery, the 70-year-old British playwright of the Tony-nominated Frozen (no, not the Disney musical; this was a drama about pedophilia). Balls is the pair’s first joint venture and offers a rich, multilayered view of the subject thanks to their differences in gender, age, and style.

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