“Our Uncle Vanya”: Red Ladder’s production of ‘Glory” (April 2019)

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

By Claire Warden

In 1957 Roland Barthes famously said, “The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theatres”. In fact the histories of professional wrestling and theatre are deeply intertwined, from the music hall where wrestling pioneers such as George Hackenschmidt and Eugen Sandow plied their trade to the contemporary showbiz performance of the WWE. 

Nick Ahad’s Glory, produced by Britain’s leading radical theater company Red Ladder in Spring 2019, both builds on this legacy and swerves it.

I caught it in Leeds, Red Ladder’s home city, in a dusty old industrial space, the Albion Electric Warehouse, which had been transformed into a chilly, rundown gym: no “grandiloquence” here! It tells the story of faded wrestling star Jim Glory, a bigoted but not entirely unlovable throwback to the days of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. Under his wing he takes an unlikely trio of Dan (a Chinese British young man, fighting back against the racism he experiences in his father’s chip shop), Ben (an ex-squaddie, traumatized by his experiences in Afghanistan), and Sami (a Syrian refugee, who arrives in the UK having endured an unimaginably horrific journey). The three battle with each other, their desire to be wrestlers and, indeed, their own demons. 

Glory is both all about wrestling and nothing about wrestling.

On the one hand, the actual physical combat in Glory is pretty impressive, orchestrated by fight director and wrestling fan Kevin McCurdy. Indeed, the Albion Electric Warehouse audience (predominantly theater rather than wrestling fans) was visibly shocked at the brutal slams and punches. Glory also confirmed wrestling’s theatricality: its liminal identity as both a sport and not a sport, a theatrical spectacle and not a theatrical spectacle. At one point Jim turns to the predominantly artsy crowd and claims wrestling as “our Uncle Vanya”; the “our” here connotes Northern working class, perhaps male and white. Glory, and I suggest professional wrestling more generally, confronts what we define as art, as theater, as legitimate.

But wrestling also makes for a compelling backdrop for Glory.

During its history, wrestling has both validated offensive racial stereotypes and challenged them. Glory uses this tension. Director Rod Dixon, to whom I chatted before the show, cites the unique actor-audience interaction of professional wrestling, which makes it the perfect “vehicle to challenge the refugee narrative.” An uncomfortable example: Jim grabs the mic and makes up a story about Sami coming to “take your jobs and your women.” He tries to lead the audience in a chant of “Send him back, Send him back.” This deeply provocative moment exploits the fact that there is no fourth wall in wrestling, jolting audience members to have the shock of experiencing narratives currently advocated by mainstream British newspapers. 

When I asked him to define Glory’s genre, Dixon described it as a “State of the Nation comedy,” and certainly in these uncertain times, seemingly defined by discord — particularly racial discord — the tough, challenging Glory stands as both a depressing revelation of Britain’s endemic bigotry and a hopeful beacon of potential friendship.

Watching Glory, it occurred to me afresh that the most beautiful thing about professional wrestling, despite its appearance, is its reliance on cooperation and collaboration. The Squared Circle is a space of learning and meeting. For Ben, Dan and Sami, wrestling provides a forum to overcome xenophobic prejudices and deal with their histories. Watching them celebrate in the ring at the end, I left feeling that wrestling might symbolize some political hope in troubled times. 

For more on the production, including images, visit http://www.redladder.co.uk/whatson/glory

CFP: Sport / Spectacle Conference

Calls
Sport­ / Spectacle: Performing, Labouring, Circulating Bodies Across Sport, Theatre, Dance, and Live Art

Friday 14 and Saturday 15 September 2018, Kings College London, Strand Campus
Day 1, Keynote and Screening with Jennifer Doyle, 14 September, 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM, Nash Lecture Theatre
Day 2, Papers, Workshops, and Performances, 15 September, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM, Anatomy Museum. Reception to follow. 
Organized by Broderick D.V. Chow (Brunel University London), the Dynamic Tensions: A Research Network for Theatre, Performance, Sport, and Physical Culture, and the Kings College London Arts and Humanities Research Institute. Supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Brunel University London.
 
Call for Proposals: Papers, Provocations, Performances, Workshops (Deadline 2 July 2018)
“It is fundamentally wrong to pay more attention to the dead weight lifted, than to the living body that lifts it” — George Hackenschmidt, wrestler, physical culturist, performer and philosopher, Vienna, 1925.

At the centre of both sport and cultural performance are bodies. In the spectacles of professional or amateur sport, plays, musicals, dance, and opera, bodies are made to transcend their fleshly existence by the mise-en-scène and the audience contract. The (sport) spectacle transforms the embodied subject of the athlete/actor into a representation of human potential and possibility. At the same time, bodies are the primary medium, material, tool, and commodity of the spectacle: they are circulated, exploited, bloodied, bruised, and torn apart. This spectacularization/exploitation of the body’s potentiality intersects with other embodied racialized, gendered, and sexual experiences and identities. 

What is at stake in spectacularising bodies? What are the consequences of the body’s participation in a spectacular regime of labour, circulation, and performance? How might the body resist its spectacularization through gesture, movement, or stillness? 

This interdisciplinary conference aims to work with existing and potential intersections in theatre, performance, and sport research to explore these questions of the body in the spectacle of sport, athletics, and performance. Previous events and networks have begun to mine this rich seam of interdisciplinary research, including the Fields of Vision research network on sport and the arts (https://artsinsport.wordpress.com/), At Leisure: Amateur Sport and Performance (QMUL, 2014), and the theme for the North American Society for Sociology of Sport’s upcoming 2018 annual conference: Sport Soundtrack: Sport, Music, and Culture. In theatre and performance studies, sport has long been influential to theory and practice; and a number of contemporary live artists and theatre makers have built on this history by drawing on athletic practices in their work (Cassils’ Becoming an Image, PanicLab’s Rite of Spring, Amber Hawk Swanson’s Online Comments + CrossFit). Sport / Spectacle aims to build upon this fertile ground by interdisciplinary and collaborative research in performance and sport. In particular, it aims to encourage innovative and especially embodied research methods (such as autoethnography and artistic Practice-as-Research). 

We welcome proposals for traditional (15-20 minute) papers, shorter (5-10 minute) provocations, workshop activities, lecture-demonstrations, performances, and other presentation forms that may not necessarily fit into the categories above. Possible themes and topics might include (but are not limited to): 
  • The economies of spectacularised bodies: how do bodies circulate, labour, reproduce? 
  • Professional, trained, and amateur bodies
  • Gendered, racialised, queer identities in the sport-spectacle
  • The mise-en-scène of sport
  • Athletic practices in theatre, live art, dance, and other cultural performance
  • Mass spectacles of bodies; mass sporting events
  • Embodied labour across sport, theatre, dance, and performance: how is human labour highlighted or hidden? 
  • Embodied activism and performance; gestures of resistance
  • Everyday spectacle in sport: training, gyms, etc 
  • Aesthetic sports: gymnastics, bodybuilding, figure skating
  • Professional wrestling and liminal spaces between sport and theatricality
  • Theatricality and performance as critical lenses for sport research
The conference will open on the evening of Friday, 14 September 2018 with a keynote presentation from Jennifer Doyle, Professor of English, University of California, Riverside, followed by a programme of video art that Professor Doyle has curated. In 2013, Jennifer Doyle started research into the “Athletic Turn”, which explores the recent and extensive turn toward sports in contemporary art and performance. She is the author of Campus Sex/Campus SecurityHold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art and Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire. She was the 2013-2014 Fulbright Distinguished Chair at the Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation at the University of the Arts, London, and editor of The Athletic Issue, a special issue of the journal GLQ.  In 2010, she co-hosted The People’s Game, a World Cup daily podcast for KPFK in Los Angeles; in 2011 she wrote a series of articles on women’s soccer for Fox Soccer’s website. 

Please send 300-word proposals for 20-minute papers or alternative proposals, along with a short biography, to the conference convenors at the following address: dynamictensions@gmail.com. Deadline: 2 July 2018. We will notify authors of abstract acceptance by 20 July 2018. 

Eight travel bursaries of £50 are available for post-graduate students, adjunct/temporary faculty, and independent scholars and artists to aid participation in the conference. Please indicate on your proposal whether you would like to be considered for the bursary, and under which category you are applying.
Broderick D.V. Chow, PhD, FHEA
Senior Lecturer in Theatre
AHRC Leadership Fellow 2016-2018
Department of Arts and Humanities
T +44 (0) 1895 265493
 
Office GASK111
Follow @bruneltheatre on Twitter
Follow @broderickchow on Twitter

Brunel University London
College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences
Brunel University London, Uxbridge, UB8 3PH, United Kingdom
T +44 (0) 1895 274000 | F +44 (0) 1895 232806

The Fourth Wall and Professional Wrestling

Audience Studies, Works-In-Process

In this brief essay, I want to share an idea I have had about how the concept of audience interaction helps to define sports entertainment as existing at the intersection of sports and entertainment. Audience interaction with content (what I have written about here as content interactivity) is the idea that the audience member (either individually or as an aggregate) can in some way engage with the text to the extent that they can influence the progression of the text’s content.

A video game like The Legend of Zelda, for example, responds to the individual’s decisions and actions to determine how the game unfolds for the player. A call-in contest reality show like American Idol responds to the aggregate of the masses voting for who succeeds and who doesn’t. If we look at professional wrestling from this perspective of audience interactivity, then I think we can notice something happening that helps define what it is while also demonstrating a convergence of identities as the lines between audience and producer blur.