Staging Balls' World Premiere

(Os Galindo)

Balls, a co-production between Stages Repertory Theatre and One Year Lease Theater Company, recreates the 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between women’s tennis star and ultimate winner Billie Jean King and 55-year-old former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs. Co-written by Tony Award nominee Bryony Lavery and Stage Edinburgh Award winner Kevin Armento, and co-directed by One Year Lease’s co-artistic directors Ianthe Demos and Nick Flint, Balls launched its world premiere for the month of October at Stages in Houston, Texas, with sets by Kristen Robinson, lighting by Mike Riggs, sound design by Brendan Aanes, and costumes by Kenisha Kelly. From January 16 to February 25, the play will move to 59E59 Theatre in New York for a six-week Off-Broadway run.

A digital Foley operator triggered sounds in time with every swing on stage for Aanes' complex sound design, and Riggs maintained a 1970s look in his lighting design.

Like every good sports match, a live tracking scoreboard kept time and score throughout the show. Manufactured in-house, the scoreboard comprised 365 Satco S4570 6W Scoreboard Digit Lamps for the digits and 72 1W 12V RGB LEDs for the backlit lettering, all controlled via the ETC Ion console. “[Production manager at Stages Rep] Joel Burkholder spent days wiring that thing!” Riggs comments. The scoreboard was entirely pre-programmed on an ETC Eos Nomad, using a virtual magic sheet. The scoreboard had its own cue list in Eos, and each point in the match was a cue. The match timer was an effect running on each Digit.

Additional staging elements included “an actual tennis net that stays tight, doesn’t fall over, rolls around the stage, and can be easily collapsed by two actors so that a 3' human tennis ball can roll over it,” Burkholder explains. The production manager acknowledges that there were some challenging requests, including a flying bath tub carrying an actor, which never happened, but a glowing tennis ball did fly in. Other requests that did make it to the stage included a single “hacky sack” tennis ball drop, an automated tennis ball launcher, a 3' tennis ball costume, some dog fetch toys turned into “equal rights” tennis ball hand cannons, and “a 350+ tennis ball drop, which had to be quickly and quietly cleaned up during a scene,” the production manager adds.

All of the scenery, props, lighting, and sound was executed by Stages Repertory Theatre staff. Vendors included Bright Star Productions, Techland Houston, 4Wall Entertainment, Sweetwater Sound, B&H Photo Video, and Wiedamark.

The incredibly technical production was created in a relatively narrow timeframe. “We had only a few days of tech rehearsal in the theatre, and just making everything work, both technically and artistically, was time consuming,” Aanes says. “The project was truly a collaborative effort from top to bottom. I don’t think we could have made this happen had we not all brought our creative ideas to the table and been willing to work them out together.”  

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