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Dinking, Stage Right: Actor Jeff Daniels Writes Pickleball Live-Theater Comedy

Strategy & Technique Frank Cerabino 08-22-2022

It’s not unreasonable that pickleball would one day get its debut as material for live theater.

After all, other established sports have already proven to be fitting backdrops for American theater. Damn Yankees, a musical comedy centered on baseball, ran for more than a thousand performances on Broadway after it opened in 1955.

In 2007, famed playwright Terrence McNally debuted Deuce on Broadway starring Angela Lansbury as a former tennis star who joins her doubles partner to watch a women’s quarterfinals match at the U.S. Open.

Three years later, Lombardi, a play that followed Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi through a week of the 1965 NFL season, was a Tony-nominated play on Broadway. 

Now, here comes Pickleball, an original comedy that puts America’s fastest-growing sport on stage in a regional theater in Chelsea, Michigan.

The Purple Rose Theatre, built on what used to be a pizza parlor and garage, was started in 1991 by stage and screen actor, Jeff Daniels. Its name comes from the Woody Allen movie, The Purple Rose of Cairo, a movie in which Daniels had starred in. 

Dinking, Stage Right: Actor Jeff Daniels Writes Pickleball Live-Theater Comedy | Pickler Pickleball

Dinking, Stage Right: Actor Jeff Daniels Writes Pickleball Live-Theater Comedy | Pickler Pickleball

The actor’s stage credits include playing opposite James Gandolfini in The God of Carnage on Broadway, and starring as Atticus Finch in the recent Aaron Sorkin adaptation of the Harper Lee classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Daniels, a prolific writer, had been asked by the theater’s artistic management team to come up with a new play – the theater’s mission is to develop new theater – to launch the upcoming season.

The surprising thing is that Daniels would choose pickleball, a sport he avoids playing and has gone out of his way to mock.

During a guest appearance last year on the Live with Kelly and Ryan talk show, Daniels spoke at length about pickleball with the hosts Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest. 

Daniels complained that his wife, Kathleen, after 42 years of marriage and raising three children together, seemed to be only able to talk about pickleball during the phone conversations they have while he’s away shooting a movie.

“I’m shooting and I get a phone call from my wife, going ‘pickleball,” Daniels said. 

“Forty two years, I have never heard her say that word, ‘pickleball’. She’s saying it like, ‘I’m playing pickleball and I’m getting lessons and I’m getting dink drills. We’re doing dink drills tomorrow at the pickleball place and I have a coach.”

Daniels, 67, said he doesn’t understand the fascination with the game.

“To me, it’s like I’m drinking paint,” he said. “I played, and it’s like half-court basketball for elderly people.”

But his son, Lucas, 35, an actor and a part of the creative team at the theater, told The Pickler that his father’s digs at pickleball are mostly due to his fear of getting injured.

“He’s not into it because if he blows a knee, then he has to call a producer and say he can’t do a movie,” the younger Daniels said. “He doesn’t want to hurt himself until he doesn’t have to do any more movies.”

Part of Daniels’ fear, said the son, is due to an orthopedic surgeon who told the actor that he loves pickleball because treating injured players is paying for his boat.

But that doesn’t mean that Daniels isn’t getting valuable comedic fodder for his play from his wife and her devotion to the game.

The younger Daniels said his mother not only plays all the time when she’s home, but when she travels with her actor husband, she sets up games for herself in the cities they visit.

“That’s all she talks about now,” the son said. “They’re doing an extension on their driveway at home to do a pickleball court.”

Rhiannon Ragland, the upcoming play’s director, put it this way about Jeff Daniels deciding to write a play about pickleball:

“He’s not embracing pickleball,” she said. “Pickleball is embracing him.”

Dinking, Stage Right: Actor Jeff Daniels Writes Pickleball Live-Theater Comedy | Pickler Pickleball

The structure of the play revolves around four men, described as below-average players, who have their regular pickleball social world upended by a “mysterious woman” who joins them for games.

“The four friends who share the commonality that is the game, are faced with a new challenge that can break up their friendships or make them closer,” Ragland said.

There won’t be any bouncing balls on the stage in the 168-seat theater, but the play does call for some simulated court action.

To make sure the actors appear to resemble convincing pickleball players, the theater is reaching out to some local recreational players to serve as consultants. The cast also will be getting some real pickleball playing experience at Wolverine Pickleball, an 8-court indoor facility in Ann Arbor, about 11 miles away.

(Jeff Daniels is writing the script, but is not performing in his play.)

“I feel like we’re riding this pickleball wave,” said Ragland, the director. “It’s funny just how in the past few months, since we started this, that pickleball has grown.

“I feel like there are millennials who are getting into it now,” she said. “But I’m not sure you should be allowed to compete if you don’t have a sense of your own mortality.”

Pickleball is certainly a target-rich environment for humor, and that will be explored in the play: From neighborhood noise complaints to paddle-rack disputes to petty squabbles over rules. 

“What looks to be a liberalist game has turned elitist in so many ways,” Ragland said. 

The tone of the play is striving to be “smart funny”, and one in which pickleball players in the audience will enjoy the show through the recognition of familiar situations.

“Part of the fun of comedy is that we enjoy poking fun at ourselves,” Ragland said.

The play opens for previews on September 30 and runs through mid-December. 

Dinking, Stage Right: Actor Jeff Daniels Writes Pickleball Live-Theater Comedy | Pickler Pickleball

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