Nobody really knew what to expect going into the world premiere of Flatball Radio, brainchild of Tyler Kinley and Matt “Milkshake” Mastrantuono. I had never paid for a formal, live storytelling event and envisioned it as a step below improv comedy, but just a hair above open-mic night. Why should I pay to see some ultimate players talk about their days on the field when I can buy a six-pack, bring it to a party, and listen to my friends (who also happen to play ultimate) regale their college hey-days or night-time Potlatch shenanigans? Rather than a burning desire to hear new stories, I would hazard to guess that many of the hundred or so people in attendance were, like me, simply curious about Tyler and Milkshake’s latest foray into alternative ultimate media.
We filed into Market Theater in downtown Seattle, passing a promotional sign for the event. Donnie Clark, Dom Fontenette, Tyler Kinley, Alysia Letourneau, Frank Nam, Gina Phillips, Ben Wiggins. The speakers lined up would comprise a formidable co-ed line and be in the highest demand as coaches; however, on this night they succeeded on a new level.
As Milkshake came onstage to say a few words about the event’s sponsors (hat tip to Five, Friction Gloves, and RISE UP), a “this is actually happening” feeling set in and the crowd quieted. He handed the microphone to MC Kinley who spoke briefly before conceding the stage to Donnie Clark, and the stories began. I won’t go far into what the storytellers said because it would do them, the audience, and their stories an injustice to reveal or even attempt to capture the content here. But I will say that what made the event such a resounding success was its intimacy. The familiar faces in the audience complimented the easy-going nature that the speakers carried, making Flatball Radio less of some strange new performance art and more like a handful of close friends lost together in a campfire on a warm summer night.
The seven speakers performed admirably, each picking what seemed like the perfect topic to share with us. Sitting in cushy chairs, we laughed at Donnie’s self-compliments and hushed as he revealed how his upbringing brought him to try ultimate Frisbee a second time. When Dom told us about her most embarrassing moment on the playing field many of us doubled over, but when she spoke in loving memory of a lost friend, the silence was palpable and we hung onto every word. Each speaker had their own unique strengths, but they all blended humor with deeply personal histories seamlessly. This may not have been by accident.
In the weeks leading up to Tuesday, Tyler hosted a handful of dinners in his small Seattle condo to prepare. The speakers would eat to heart’s content before breaking out the night’s homework – anything from a speech idea to a completed draft. They practiced being put on the spot in preparation for standing in front of a crowd such that when it came to the real thing, speaker after speaker wove smooth, intricate tales with the ease of a stage veteran.
Part of this practice played out in the space occupied by the speakers. Ben approached the shortened microphone stand and hunched his back, betraying the swagger of a former Callahan winner and elite club player. Moment for moment, he took us through the vulnerability of an athlete making a crucial mistake on the grandest stage. Later, Tyler used boxed hands and outstretched arms to show how he has reconciled the dissonance between his emotions and his persona. Then Alysia paced back and forth as she talked about the lessons she learned while facing the challenges of love, teammates, and doing the right thing. Instead of looking isolated on an otherwise empty stage, the speakers looked like they belonged there, not on some half-dead expanse of grass with a plastic disc.
As they held the stage, the speakers fed off of their friends in the audience. Despite being set in a cramped, foreign theater whose outside wall is a dull red and yellow with layers of decades-old bubble gum, the ultimate frisbee “community” made Market home for the night. The speakers’ practice paid off, but when Gina’s microphone started to sputter and pop, audience members called for her to toss it aside. It was as if we hoped she would remove that last barrier to what was feeling more and more like one of those deep, spontaneous conversations you have with close friends into the wee hours of the morning.
Finally Frank Nam spoke of when success on the field isn’t always the most important end result to a youth ultimate coach. When he walked off stage, he left the audience humbled and lost in thought. Flatball Radio was over and yet we wanted more. We couldn’t help but ask ourselves: what would I share if Milkshake asked me to stand on that stage? What have I done recently to grow myself or the world around me? When was the last time I sat down with a few friends explicitly to tell them a story? Fortunately, like any good ultimate event, there was an after party where we could explore these thoughts together.
We don’t know right now where Milkshake and Tyler will take Flatball Radio. The night easily exceeded expectations that in hindsight seem insultingly low. It met the human need for intimacy and entertained us at the same time. Was it a one-time thing like “Chasing Sarasota” or will it become an ongoing series that stretches coast-to-coast, continent-to-continent? As we anticipate its next iteration we can continue its practice in day-to-day life. This week, let’s grab a drink with some friends, cherish the stretching circles, and prepare for round two.