When I describe wrestling to people, I say it’s a combination of sports and theatre. How it plays out as a sport is obvious, but as theatre, many of the different companies have different ideas as to how it should work. Which is best? Well, it’s not quite that simple.
I’ve been through some shit in the past fifteen years of so. I won’t go into details, because frankly, I don’t want to depress you, but there’s been some pretty heavy stuff, and as such, I have PTSD. This can be triggered by certain acts, movements, words and situations, and as such, is complicated to avoid. It makes engaging in media complicated; tv, film, even books can upset my sense of balance, because all of these want you to engage emotionally, and make it hard to disengage.
Now, wrestling triggers my PTSD a little less than other media, maybe because of the death of kayfabe. With tv shows and films, the characters never step outside of themselves, and so I become wrapped up in the storyline, emoting with it, and thus being triggered by it. With wrestling, I can step outside of that space if I need to, and there’s a silliness, even in the most serious of situations, that says it knows that, that wrestling can mock itself. The short span of a match and resulting segment probably helps, as the emotional tone tends to skip around during a show. But I think the biggest part of not getting upset by simulated violence is finding the beauty in it – like going to the theatre to study, and checking the lighting rig before you start, cataloguing the entrances and exits, or watching a stage fight and deliberately looking for how they aren’t making contact.
There’s something Brechtian about wrestling, the way the ring can be a thousand stages, but is always a ring, and the time can be a million different times, but is always now. It’s the way the performers behave and act that changes to context, rather than staging or props. The performers add colours, or masks, or different slogans to their shirts, but the costume is minimal. The main part of Brechtian theatre is that you never forget you’re watching a play, and that’s true of modern wrestling – you don’t forget you’re watching a show. You don’t get too caught up, because the setting is there to remind you that suspending your belief is unnecessary. You follow the stories, you follow emotional arcs and you watch characters change, but you never deny the fact that they’re characters. Wrestling doesn’t care if you believe it’s real – it just wants you to care who wins, and the face/heel dynamic could be seen as a modern reinterpretation of a moral tale.
When looking at wrestling as theatre, there are a number of different styles. Impact takes Artaudian levels of theatre; known as Theatre of Cruelty, the idea was that anything could happen, to aim to trap the audience inside of the drama that is being created on stage. In this place, all is real, but also, we are asked to suspend our belief to such a level that we feel emotional release when the show is over, and we are returned to reality. Accused of being too theatrical, the NJPW Best of the Super Juniors 2016 match between Will Ospreay and Ricochet could also be said to follow Artaudian methods – ritualistic movement, signs and symbols rather than words, a non-verbal language that tells a story with more sound than word. Artaud can also be found where the audience are drawn into the bout, where wrestlers are flung into the audience, or fight into the crowd.
WWE perhaps owes the most to Stanislavskian theatre, with a little brought in – especially when we look at NXT – from musicals. Everyone has their own entrance theme, and everyone knows who that music belongs to, pausing the action and their words to await the next entrance, before moving into a match – which could be read as a choreographed dance scene from musical theatre. WWE has different sets – offices, locker rooms, backstage hallways, commentary, as well as the ring. It could be said that the commentary team fills the role of a Greek chorus, in their directing and discussing of the actions taking place. WWE enjoys the cheap pop, the melodrama, the creation of short, emotion-fuelled pieces that are easily forgotten. Before kayfabe was broken, the illusion was complete, as we were absorbed in the world that played out in front of us. Now, WWE isn’t sure how it wants to play things, and the method acting style doesn’t quite ring true anymore.
As I get deeper into Progress, I’m sure I’ll find that they move away from the Brechtian direction, how things become less plain and clearly-stated – and I think I’ll probably miss that. There’s something to be said for the bare bones of something where, after a match, the combatants hug it out to the cheers of an audience who knows everyone’s getting a beer together later. There’s a certain shine to that – the audience are in on the joke, commentary exists as a surrealist, Stoppard-like alternate universe, outside that of the ring, and the performers hold their roles only as long as they need to make the scene work, before breaking, and once more becoming people. Brecht wanted to treat each scene as a play to itself, and that’s exactly what these early chapters of Progress do – they create small, short plays, and outside of that, let the actors mingle with the crowd, have drinks bought for them, trade friendly hugs with other combatants. I’m not sure I’d say it’s a revolutionary way to show wrestling as theatre – but I can’t argue that it’s incredibly compelling.