When actor Ryan Carlson paged through a script of a play named “Pickleball” in August, he was dropping into a new world.
“I had no idea what pickleball was. I had never even heard of it,” Carlson, 46, said. “When I read the script, I didn’t understand the references.”
He understands now. Carlson decided to audition, and eventually was selected for a role in this comedic stage play about pickleball. This world-premiere production of “Pickleball” was written by renowned stage and screen actor Jeff Daniels and slated for a run at his 168-seat Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Michigan.
That seven-shows-per-week, three-month run ended on Friday, Dec. 23, after being extended due to the play’s popularity – so popular, that the play earned the distinction of becoming the best-selling show in the theater’s 31-year history.
It turns out people don’t just like to play pickleball, but they also like to watch actors pretend to play pickleball while telling a story full of familiar themes.
“There would be groups of pickleball players who would see the play together,” Carlson said. “Sometimes, they’d even dress up.
“You’d be acting on stage, and you’d hear people in the audience saying to each other, ‘That sounds like something you’d say.’”
Daniels, a prolific writer, came to pickleball reluctantly through his wife, Kathleen, who became so addicted to the game, that she had a court installed in the driveway of the couple’s home.
Daniels didn’t share his wife’s zeal, at least not at first, and instead, famously mocked her and the game during a guest appearance last year on the Live with Kelly and Ryan talk show with Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest.
On that show, Daniels likened pickleball to “half-court basketball for elderly people” and said he was mystified by his wife’s fascination with the game.
“To me, it’s like I’m drinking paint,” Daniels said.
But it didn’t take long for Daniels to piece together fragments from this strange new world into a storyline full of recognizable characters who play a game that serves as an easy launching pad for deeper themes.
“In a wild comedy about America’s fastest growing sport, four below average players must overcome their own limitations in order to achieve greatness in a game that has nothing to do with pickles,” is the official pitch by the theater.
The actors found their own way to put it.
“This is about friendship, redemption and how crazy we are about sports as human beings, and how absurd some of it is, and how rewarding it can be,” said Lynch Travis, a 66-year-old actor who plays the character Sheldon.
Lynch’s character pulls some muscles in his rear end during the play and blames it on his poaching partner. His painful waddling on stage provides some of the show’s physical comedy.
Carlson describes his character, Larry, as “a two-point-fiver whose main struggle is that he has an old way of thinking and figuring out how to talk to and meet women.”
In the play, his life is upended by a new pickleball teacher named Perfect, who is played by actress Kate Thomsen.
There are no bouncing balls or nets on the bare stage, but the actors are required to simulate games that have a soundtrack of pre-recorded paddle strikes collected by the production’s sound designer, Robert Hubbard.
To bring some authenticity to their movements, the cast’s rehearsal period included getting instruction while playing pickleball together at Wolverine Pickleball, an 8-court indoor facility in nearby Ann Arbor.
“When we walked into the pickleball facility, everybody around us just seemed to be joyful just to be playing,” Carlson said. “You don’t see that with all sports.”
“Even if you’re striving to get better on the pickleball court, you’re not beating yourself up as much as on a golf course.”
Travis considers himself a lifelong jock, and in his younger days an obsessed basketball player. He found his introduction to pickleball a little surprising.
“The rules are easy to understand, but difficult to execute,” he said. “I couldn’t get my butt out of the kitchen.”
But now that the play is done, it doesn’t mean that pickleball is done for Travis.
“I think I’m going to play,” he said. “I have a buddy from Chicago who is a former racketball player and he took his first lesson. So who knows?”
“I’ve become obsessed before.”