Why Professional Wrestling Should Be in the Theater Conversation

Why not? After all, writers create the narratives and matches have predetermined outcomes.

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professional wrestling
A scene from WrestleMania 33, held in Orlando on April 2, 2017.

A performer stands out in front of an audience, delivering a monologue about how much he is used by his bosses, how much work he gives his company and how undervalued he is. The crowd is behind him, agreeing with him and feeling the emotions he feels. This could be a scene in any theater, but it also a scene from sports entertainment, also known as professional wrestling. Professional wrestling, in its current form as sports entertainment, has been around since the 1970s, though it can trace its roots to earlier carnival spectacles. Sports entertainment doesn’t have hard-and-fast rules as sports do, and everything is done with entertainment in mind.

You may ask why I am writing about a sport on a website dedicated to arts and politics. The answer is that professional wrestling has more in common with theater than with sports. Additionally, the biggest name in sports entertainment, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), is forever linked to politics, thanks to the relationship between WWE owners, the McMahon family, and President Trump (who is in the WWE Hall of Fame…not kidding). Wrestling also showcases some of the immortal mythic stories that we see in multiple mediums — stories like David and Goliath, or the everyman standing up to a corrupt leader. We’re finally seeing more diverse wrestlers as well, which answers a challenge that all arts forms are being asked to meet.

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It’s no secret that wrestling is predetermined. Storylines are written in advance; winners of matches are decided by a team of writers. One former writer mentioned that around 25% have a hand in writing the storylines, which encompass roughly eight hours of scripted TV per week, not counting monthly special events (still called pay-per-views, though one can buy a subscription to WWE’s network for $9.99 a month and watch each event multiple times). Each wrestler portrays a character, some of which have been around for decades. Some of the storylines might even span generations, the way a soap opera might. There are big companies (WWE being the biggest) and local independent promotions where wrestlers can cut their teeth, much as an might start at a local theater before moving to a bigger company.

Michael T. Weiss and Terence Archie in the 2010 Off-Broadway run of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” Photo: Joan Marcus.

There is even a play by Kristoffer Diaz called The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity that ran Off-Broadway and explored the world of professional wrestling through the eyes of an everyman named Macedonio Guerra. The play’s existence blurs the lines between theater and wrestling even more: In the play, Guerra is a huge fan of professional wrestling, but is taken advantage of by his boss and bigger stars. It’s a story for fans and non-fans of professional wrestling alike. Pure Theatre, in Charleston, SC, even rented a wrestling ring when they produced The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity in their 2012-13 season. Audience members were encouraged to boo and cheer, like they would at an actual wrestling event.

Like more traditional theater roles, wrestlers often have monologues, called “promos” in wrestling parlance. Wrestlers will “cut” — that is, perform — promos to one another, either in backstage segments or in front of the live audience. The promos range from being fully scripted to mostly improvised. When they are improvised, the creative staff will tell a wrestler what the gist of the promo should be, and let the wrestler go from there. These promos often elicit a response from the audience, who participate in the theatrics by booing and cheering, depending on whether they like the wrestler or not.

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Professional Wrestling
The Undertaker makes his way to the ring at Wrestlemania.

Also like theater, there can be breaks in the fourth wall — in fact, these are seen a lot more often in professional wrestling, where the fourth wall is called “kayfabe” — it’s suspension of disbelief in the wrestling ring. Fans believe that characters like The Undertaker can control lightning, even though in real life that is impossible. Wrestlers will often speak to the audience, responding to the boos and cheers.

Wrestlers will often also break the kayfabe on social media, playing with the line between what is real and what is staged. In wrestling, performers are given stage names, which are linked to their characters. Sometimes these names can be fantastical (like the aforementioned Undertaker), while some sound like “normal” names. This is helpful for copyright purposes — WWE can file a trademark on a made-up name, but not on someone’s real name. Sometimes wrestlers use their real names on their social media profiles, as opposed to their stage names, which can be considered a fourth wall break as well.

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But the biggest part of professional wrestling also has its roots in theater — the fighting. Professional wrestling is stage combat on steroids. The wrestlers work day in and day out to make sure their moves not only look good, but protect their ring partners. Shows like WWE’s Breaking Ground and Total Bellas showcase the hard work these athletes put in to be safe in the ring.

Those ring partners are, yes, like scene partners — people they work with in front of live audiences. A lot of the basics in wrestling — punching, kicking, and smaller moves — are taught much as stage combat is taught in theater. In fact, there is often a crossover in teachers. In a show put on by NYC-based Uncanny Theatrical Productions called I Killed Batman: A Superhero Parody, one of the actors who led the stage combat training is a professional wrestler.

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The final aspect of professional wrestling linked to theater and performance is storylines and arcs. As mentioned earlier, there is a team of writers for WWE who work to write the multiple storylines for shows. And those storylines that span decades? Today, with the rise of second- and third-generation wrestlers, some storylines are told across families, such as the Flairs, the Harts, and the Anoa’i, who all have had multiple members in the world of professional wrestling. The Anoa’i are the best known: that’s the family Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Storylines range from brother-versus-brother issues to fighting over who gets to lead a group to fighting a best-of-seven series to prove who is the better wrestler.

Next month I’ll break down some of these storylines, and all the drama that you can see in professional wrestling. In April, you can expect a survey of the characters and the wrestlers that play them. There is a rich history of professional wrestling, one that cannot be ignored when talking about arts that showcase drama, and mythic stories like the age-old David and Goliath match-up.