Circles Rule: an interview with Greg Manley
So I haven’t been much good at updating this recently. I’ve been busy writing stuff elsewhere and making stuff too. More on the latter shortly but, before I get on to that, I wanted to post up an interview I did with Greg Manley, the creator of Circle Rules Football and the Commissioner of the Circle Rules Federation. If you don’t know what Circle Rules is, I’m posting a video above. Basically there’s a circular pitch, a massive ball (the size of a yoga ball but lighter), two teams and the goal is in the middle of a circle at the centre of the pitch. You can use any part of your body to touch the ball but you can’t hold on to you. Complete rules are here. It’s one of the most successful new sport in terms of numbers of active players and it’s also one of the most theatrical and playful. Fire Hazard sometimes run Circle Rules sessions in London and you’ll see it cropping up at a lot of various games festivals. I highly recommend giving it a try. There’s even a “gamefinder” here. This is what Greg had to say just before going off on tour with Warhorse (!).
WD: When you first made Circle Rules, it was a university project in an experimental theatre department, is that right?
GM: Yes. The Experimental Theater Wing of New York University’s undergraduate drama department encourages its senior students to do what’s called an “independent project” Typically these are original one-act plays. Deciding that a sport is just as much theater as any play, I made an original sport instead. And I got an A grade.
WD: How important was the performative element from the start?
GM: Performance is the whole thesis of the thing! Any football match is a two hour long performance that needs to be costumed, scripted, and rehearsed like any other play. Once you start thinking of the rulebook as the script, and the team managers as the directors, all sorts of similarity pop up. The less philisophical answer is that I love all the absurd characters players assume when they compete. I wanted to build a structure (the game) where players could feel that superhuman feeling.
WD: Were you thinking of it more as an experience for the player or a spectacle to be observed in the way theatre usually is?
GM: I developed it with two original aesthetic elements: the big ball and the circular field with a central goal. After that, I focused entirely on developing a well balanced game for the player. If I’d built it with the spectator in mind first, the game wouldn’t stand the test of competition and it could only go so far. This way, I can walk away from the game for a while (as I have done this past year) and rest assured that the game is good and people will play whether they have spectators or not.
WD: What do you feel is missing from other sports and sports culture that a new sport like Circle Rules provides?
GM: I think sports culture is awfully narrow minded. Many teenage athletes don’t realize how much they have in common with young artists. Sports and artwork require exceptional creativity, and I hope building a new sports culture offers an opportunity for surprising collaborations. I get so excited when the Olympics come around. They are such an ideal combination of the best artists and architects in the world collaborating with the best athletes in the world. Hopefully, with Circle Rules and similar new sports, we won’t have to wait two years for that spirit to come around again.
WD: How important is competition for you in Circle Rules?
GM: Competition is the test for the legitimacy of the game. If the rules can sustain all the wild emotional and physical outbursts of a talented competitive athlete, the game is airtight. I don’t always enjoy playing competitively, but I feel very strongly that the game needs to support all levels of competition. Some detractors may feel that extreme competition discourages cooperation and respect. I think teaching somebody healthy competition relies heavily on cooperation with your team and respect for your opponent and the game.
WD: Because the game references existing sports (e.g. soccer, basketball, handball) but with an extreme difference in the scale of the ball, do you feel that there’s a level of irony or satire in that referencing but also distancing mechanism?
GM: I’ll admit the game looks silly or at least irreverent. (Our irreverence is intentional; it clears the way for a new sports culture). But I’ve tried to keep irony out of the game as much as possible. The only exception to that is when we sing the national anthem at the beginning of our games. (we measure our equipment with the metric system, so we can’t be that patirotic). But honestly, other than the national anthem, there is no irony in circle rules football. Being truthfully convicted to winning keeps many of our players coming back.
WD: Do ever think that players are playing sports ironically (though perhaps not playing Circle Rules ironically, if that makes sense)?
GM: Maybe some people join social Dodgeball leagues or Kickball leagues to play ironically, but I think many of the players quickly realize that it’s more fun to care genuinely. I can’t speak to other people’s intentions, but I can imagine myself joining a kickball league because “hey this is something I did in elementary school. Wouldn’t it be silly if I joined a league again and went out to a bar with friends afterwards”. There’s some irony in that. But mostly, it’s about feeling like a kid again.
WD: As the game gets more successful and some players get better and better at it, do you think there is a danger that this puts barriers to entry and makes the game less accessible to everyone? Or do you think that is something that will self-regulate as people divide themselves up according to abilities?
GM: This has already happened with circle rules football in New York City. Our casual Sunday pickup games have lost a lot of their energy to the NYC league. The league is very competitive, and therefore more dangerous than the casual games. In trying to focus our efforts on developing the league, we may have lost our primary means of recruiting… So we’re recalibrating. A couple years ago, I asked a group of team managers and devoted players “As circle rules moves forward in NYC, we need to ask ourselves a question for the sake of the game’s spirit: Are we Wednesday night (the league night), or are we Sunday afternoon (the casual pickup games). What I didn’t realize at the time is we need to be both.
WD: What’s next for Circle Rules as a sport?
GM: So we are thinking about where to make the next push for the sport. The league in New York is barely sustaining itself with the volunteering of its players, but it is not growing quickly enough. It isn’t making any money, so there’s no extra capital for outreach. We’ve got players and teachers who have introduced the game all over the world, but we need to come up with some kind of incentive for them to: A) keep in touch with the Federation. And B) transition from casual play to competitive play with regional affiliation. Once both those things happen, we could make the next crucial step towards regional competition. We could keep each other playing. The sky’s the limit with a developing sport, but it’s a long way up.