The interdisciplinary world of performance art
Broadway musicals and professional wrestling have more in common than you’d think
By Colin Macgillivray, Arts Editor
I had the pleasure to visit New York City over the holiday season and was finally given the opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do my entire life. See a Broadway production. For someone who has been so enamoured with acting and performance from a young age, it was a delight to finally see some of the best actors in the world perform. It is more clear to me than ever after watching Oscar-winner Mark Rylance in the incredibly entertaining Farinelli and the King that the amount of work and dedication these actors put into their performances is nothing to scoff at. Being a performer, especially one who generally hone their craft in front of live audiences is no easy feat.
From tears of joy during the genius musical Come From Away, to bursts of laughter during The Band’s Visit, audiences play a huge part in any theatre performance. No, they are not a major player, nor should they make the show about themselves, but they do play a pivotal role in the success of any major theatre production. Although plays will remain largely the same during their respective runs, performers will play to the mood of a crowd. Some nights will have massive comedic moments, while others will be more subdued. It’s the beauty of live performance and there is an art to performing in front of hordes of people day in and day out. It’s what sets apart actors like Kenneth Branagh, an absolute master of performance and someone like Tom Cruise, who insisted on filming an action sequence for The Mummy over 60 times to ensure it looked as realistic as possible.
But what if your job is to make action sequences look as realistic as possible on the first try, in front of mobs of fans that will crucify your every move if you make one error? What if you were tasked to craft a compelling, yet simple narrative for millions of people to follow day in and day out? What if you were performing stunts so dangerous that your career could end in a split-second? That my friends, is how the wild world of professional wrestling and performance art meet.
Professional wrestling is one of the most unique, if not the most unique form of performance art. In a way, they mimic Broadway actors, with both parties donning costumes and learning their own form of stage direction all in the hopes of entertaining a live crowd. They are artists, as they combine the athletic grace you would see at a Cirque du Soleil show with the same fundamental theatrical elements that would fit right in at any theatre. There is pageantry, showmanship, performance and athleticism all wrapped into a neat little bouquet and it’s not surprising that it has permeated into the mainstream numerous times throughout history.
Just as actors portray characters, professional wrestlers craft their characters and gimmicks as well. John Cena plays an amped up version of himself, a hardworking modern day superhero that believes in hustle, loyalty and respect. ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin portrayed an ass-kicking, beer drinking everyman, while Hulk Hogan played an over the top patriot, hellbent on being a “real American”. Yes, it’s absolutely ridiculous that these big, sweaty men are fighting over their nation’s pride in a predetermined wrestling match for fake championships, but it’s absolutely fascinating how professional wrestling resonates with millions of people worldwide despite being laughable most of the time.
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), for example, is ludicrous. Each week, professional wrestlers are forced to spew cringeworthy dialogue that resembles some sort of serialized soap-opera that also happens to involves dropkicks and pile-drivers. Some noteworthy storylines include a wrestler named the Big Boss Man, chaining up the remains of another wrestler’s deceased father and dragging it around a cemetery. Another being the time when two wrestlers fought in a ‘Kennel from Hell’ match, in which the wrestling ring was surrounded by ‘ravenous’ dogs that were supposed to torment the performers but decided to do dog-like things instead. WWE is absolutely ridiculous, but boasts some of the best performers in the world when it comes to this over-the-top, theatrical style that so many people love. It really is no surprise that Dwayne Johnson has become one of the most sought after Hollywood stars and that John Cena has a budding career as an actor as well. These guys know how to perform.
Both Lucha Libre, the form of wrestling that is most prominent in Mexico and Puroresu, Japan’s most popular type of wrestling, are far more subtle in the way they present this unique mashup of art and sport. While there are still ridiculous moments, such as a gaggle of masked clowns that run rampant as the major villains of Mexican promotion AAA Worldwide, there is a certain amount of nuance to the performances that is simply not shown in the WWE. New Japan Pro Wrestling, the most popular promotion in Japan, has showcased some of the most ingenious approaches in terms of performance, storytelling and narrative, with some storylines going along for years until they finally culminate in a rewarding conclusion. It’s refreshing to see professional wrestlers taking their jobs as seriously as stage actors, as it will hopefully help shake the stigma that they often face due to their career choice.
Is it weird to compare professional wrestling and stage plays? Maybe, but the two do share plenty of similarities when it comes to the way they entertain. So, next time you’re watching Chicago in New York with your mom and wish there was just a little bit more predetermined violence, maybe give professional wrestling a shot.