Q&A with Mat Smart

Mat Smart Headshot

Mat Smart is a New York-based playwright, Cubs fan, and Chicago native. He is the recipient of the 2014 Otis Guernsey New Voices Award from the William Inge Center for the Arts, two Jerome Fellowships, and a McKnight Advancement Grant.

What’s the best thing about being a Cubs fan?

There’s a lot of things! They play in one of the best two ballparks (the other one being Fenway of course). They have a rich, wonderful/terrible history.

And now, we’re finally good again. Theo Epstein has built a team full of stud young players that are under contract for a long time. For Cubs fans, there’s a perennial feeling of this could be the year. But for real this time, this really could be the year.

What’s the hardest thing about being a Cubs fan?

Learning how to not get too depressed when they lose. But it teaches you to love the game for the game, and not get too caught up in the outcome—which is ultimately a good thing. Because you know they’re gonna break your heart. They haven’t won since 1908.  You learn to draw value from the game itself, and the experience, and the excitement of being outside in a beautiful ballpark with friends or family.

Mat w family
Mat at a Cubs game, with mom Mary and sister Tifanie

Where did this play, Tinker to Evers to Chance, come from?

The play came out of three of my great loves, which are theatre, baseball, and my mother. In a way, it’s a play to honor those three things in my life.

Right–in one respect, it’s this great conversation about what happens when children grow up and move out…

One of the actresses that did an early reading was Scottish. She knew nothing about baseball (and trying to get her to pronounce “Aramis Ramirez” was impossible.) But she really connected with the play, because she was in New York being an actress, and her mom was in Scotland, so she understood what that distance was about.

It also uses a “play-within-a-play” device pretty ingeniously, which you might not expect in a baseball story…

When I write a play, I’m writing it to try and figure out a question I don’t know the answer to. And for Nessa, the mother in the story… she’s writing her own play to try and figure out her own questions.

Do you see theatre and baseball as being connected?

Mat Hall of Fame
Mat with the John Joseph Evers hall of fame plaque, 2012.

One of the things I love about baseball is… I mean you sit there for three hours, and it really could be just one moment that determines the outcome of the entire game. And you really have to pay attention to every pitch if you want to see that one thing that could change everything.

I feel like a lot of our lives are like that: We have a routine, and often each day is like the next. But there are those moments in our lives where things tangibly change. You could ask someone, “what are those five moments in your life that made you who you are?”, and they can answer. And a play is really about those moments in someone’s life–the ones that change everything.

Anything you found unexpected in developing the play, or hearing audience reactions?

There’s this one sequence where we just listen, on the radio, to the 2003 NLCS Game 6: the Cubs against the Marlins. It’s a 3- or 4- minute segment with no actors  onstage; just audio. Originally, I had wanted a clip from the actual broadcast of that game. But when we went to Major League Baseball for the rights, we found out just how much that was gonna cost–and it was gonna cost that much every time we did the show.

So Sean encouraged me to write my own version of it, where I write the play-by-play of that moment, and then we record it. And that was really exciting for me, because it let me tell the history of that game myself. The biggest surprise, though, was how much the audience enjoyed it and stayed with it. Nobody was like, “Why are there no actors onstage?” It really held people’s attention.  Philip Hersh once said, “Baseball is the only game you can see on the radio.” I think that’s very true.

Why do you write for the stage?

It’s about the communal experience. So many people do everything on a screen now. Theatre is an art form that’s like people around a campfire, coming together to understand why someone tells a story. You can really ask the big questions about life and being a person in the theatre, and have people be open and listen.

Tinker to Evers to Chance runs February 10 – March 6 at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre





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