Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How is playwriting like ping-pong?

with 5 comments

My best friend, Jonathan Katz, was for a number of years the kid Ping-Pong champion of New York State. And when he was twelve or thirteen he wandered into Marty Reisman’s Ping-Pong parlor in New York City. Reisman was then the U.S. champion in table tennis and a genius, an absolute genius. Jonathan asked him, “What do I have to do to play table tennis like you?”

Reisman said, “First, drop out of school.”

That would be my advice to aspiring playwrights.

David Mamet, to Playboy

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2011 at 7:55 am

5 Responses

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  1. Love this quote. Not particularly inspirational for the younger generations but funny for the rest of us :D

    Erin Ryan

    March 24, 2011 at 12:32 pm

  2. Frankly, I’d be thrilled if the younger generation were more inspired by Marty Reisman. (Or Jonathan Katz, for that matter!)


    March 24, 2011 at 2:09 pm

  3. Although my original advice given more than 50 years ago still stands, I would now like to elaborate a bit more from the prospective of a published author, The Money Player, as well as the soon-to-be published, my 2nd autobiography, The Ping Pong Hustler.

    The playwright requires above all conflict. The writer has no play without a clash between some central figure, the protagonist, and an adversary. A play is boring without conflict, and so is a table tennis game. In both, the ending is everything. In a play, a happy ending defines it as a comedy. An unhappy ending for the protagonist defines the play as a tragedy. The same is true for table tennis from the protagonist’s point of view. The more pitched the clash, the more formidable the adversary, the greater the challenge, the better the play and the game

    The “plot thickens,” both in the well wrought play and the exceptional table tennis game when crisis arises, a moment when the tide turns. The well plotted story holds true for an ideal classical table tennis game as well, both hold the audience through a growing tension which finds release and decisiveness at the end. Most importantly each has a beginning, a middle and a resolution without which, either is an incomplete work of art.

    marty reisman

    marty reisman

    March 25, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    marty reisman

    March 25, 2011 at 3:21 pm

  4. It’s funny how the most satisfying narratives in life, whether in sports or fiction or theater, tend to fall naturally into three acts. Mamet says something very similar in Three Uses of the Knife:

    “What do we wish for in the perfect game? Do we wish for Our Team to take the field and thrash the opposition from the First Moment, rolling up a walkover score at the final gun? No. We wish for a closely fought match that contains many satisfying reversals, but which can be seen, retroactively, to have always tended toward a satisfying and inevitable conclusion. We wish, in effect, for a three-act structure.”

    Glad that you found this post!


    March 25, 2011 at 3:33 pm

  5. or it could just be a meditation on beauty.

    The protagonist has to want something, be deprived of something and then get it.

    Inner conflict?


    April 8, 2011 at 8:35 pm

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