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Rob Drummond - Wrestling

‘Wrestling. Is. Real.’

When playwright Rob Drummond forwards the e-mail above, the statement’s
bold sentiments come from painful experience. As a lifelong pro
wrestling fan, Drummond was writing while laying flat on his back after
taking a nasty tumble during his first week of rehearsals for his show,
Rob Drummond: Wrestling, which opens at Glasgow’s multi-purpose Arches
space in February.

Rehearsal room accidents happen, and are invariably the result of some
over-zealous piece of movement that goes slightly too far. In
Drummond’s case, however, his injury is down to being thrown around the
wrestling ring himself in impressively athletic style by seasoned
professionals on the circuit. If this is taking dedication to the
artistic cause to a Jim’ll Fix It style level, it should perhaps be
borne in mind that Jimmy Saville himself was a popular draw in this
much derided brand of sports entertainment.

“I like to think of wrestling as theatre,” says a fully recovered
Drummond a couple of weeks later over a bowl of chicken. “But sports
organisations won’t take it seriously as a sport, so it can’t get
funding from there, and it isn’t regarded as an artform, so it can’t
get arts funding either. But it is movement based theatre, and it is an
artform, so what this show is really is a wrestling promo in theatrical
form.”

Rob Drummond: Wrestling is one of the first winners of Creative
Scotland’s Vital Spark Awards, designed to marry seemingly disparate
artists from a multitude of backgrounds, to go public. The show will be
made up of theatrical monologue, film footage of Drummond made by
documentary maker Lindsay Goodall alongside other elements still to be
confirmed. Part of the film will show Drummond’s experience visiting a
small wrestling outfit in Orlando, Florida. This is a world apart from
the glamour and glitz of the high-profile TV events produced by WWE,
the promoters who revived an ailing and seemingly anachronistic form of
blue-collar entertainment by adding plotlines that could match Greek
tragedy in terms of epic scale.

For now, an unmarked lock-up on an industrial estate in Linwood with a
full-size ring squeezed into a room so cold you can see your breath is
the place the Scottish Wrestling Alliance call home. On a freezing
December morning, Drummond and his training partner James Tyler are
taking the bus out there to be put through their paces by Belfast-born
trainer ‘Damo’ Damien O’Connor. In the meantime, the pair try out a few
holds in the bus station to illustrate a new training regime they’ve
been using.

Tyler used to be the Nightcrawler, but has recently become Helo, named
after a character from Battlestar Gallactica. Significantly, Tyler is a
huge fan of science-fiction, a place where parallel universes are
peopled with larger-than-life heroes and villains battling for
supremacy using what looks like physically impossible feats of strength
and cunning. Sometimes Tyler takes on the role of James St James, a
wrestling manager who enters the ring with various SWA stars. Tyler
traditionally plays the ‘Heel’, or the villain of the piece. Drummond,
who’s grown his hair and a beard to make him look tougher, will be the
‘Face’ or the hero. His wrestling name? The Realist.

In the ring, Tyler/Helo sports a black My Chemical Romance hoodie with
the word ‘Rage’ emblazoned across the back. A leaner if not necessarily
meaner Drummond wears a red National Theatre of Scotland top with a
cartoon monkey on the chest. As the pair leap into action, they
immediately fall into the hold they demonstrated at the bus station,
before going into an already well-practiced routine involving much
leaping, bumping and bouncing off the ropes at speed as the clatter of
metal and wood under strain heightens the drama.

“They have to know what they’re doing in the ring”, says O’Connor,
who’s been wrestling for seven years. “It is reality-based in terms of
the storyline, so you have to put the reality into it just as you would
with a piece of theatre.”

The language O’Connor uses with Drummond is surprising. Rather than
peppering his speech with macho sports TV clichés, O’Connor talks about
logic and ‘selling’ things to the audience. He encourages both men to
stay close to the centre of the ring so they’ll be seen on all four
sides. He demonstrates how to take big steps full of purpose as they
go, rather than small baby ones, the noise of which only act as a
focus-breaking distraction for the crowd. Effectively, O’Connor is
choreographing his performers the way a theatre director would, mixing
practical tips about sightlines, projection and such like in among all
the creative rough and tumble.

This attitude isn’t anything new. In the UK at least, pro wrestlers
have long held Equity cards, albeit as ‘circus entertainers.’ Even so,
this allowed them to work on TV as extras, usually playing tough guys
involved in fight scenes. Jackie Pallo appeared in The Avengers in the
1960s, while ‘Bomber’ Pat Roach broke through as a lead character actor
in Auf Wiedersehn, Pet. Playwright and actor Brian Glover, who became
famous following his turn playing the sports master in Ken Loach’s
film, Kes, wrestled under the name Leon Arras after taking the place of
a French star who was indisposed.

Glover sometimes featured the grunt and grapple game in his writing.
One TV play focused on a black teenager forced to choose between
football and forming a wrestling Tag team with his mother’s partner.
Another, The Wild Bunch, formed part of a 1977 series called Send in
the Girls, set among a group of promotions girls led by Scots actress
Annie Ross. The Wild Bunch featured masked mystery man Kendo Nagasaki
leading a cast of TV wrestling favourites in a story that looked at the
bond formed between the masked wrestler and a black member of the
promotions team.

Also in the 1970s, Claire Luckham wrote Trafford Tanzi, a stage play
that used the structure of a wrestling bout to look at the battle of
the sexes as a young woman faced up to prejudice after becoming a
female wrestler. Originally known as Tuebrook Tanzi and the Venus
Flytap after a district of Liverpool, the Everyman Theatre production
toured working men’s clubs, and was filmed for the BBC before a regular
wrestling audience. Since real life female wrestler Mitzi Mueller first
trained the Everyman cast, Luckham’s play has been seen all over the
world, with the likes of Toyah Wilcox and Blondie singer Debbie Harry
taking on the lead role. Comedian Andy Kauffman, who fought with
wrestlers as part of his act, appeared in a Broadway production as the
referee. A poster for a Traverse Theatre production in Edinburgh is a
mock-up of an old wrestling poster, and now hangs in the theatre’s bar.

They were British wrestling’s golden days, however, an era documented
in Simon Garfield’s oral history, The Wrestling, when as many as
fourteen million TV viewers tuned into watch Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks
and co on Saturday afternoons at four o’clock. Then Greg Dyke took it
off-screen, and it’s live shows died a death.

More recently, the parlous state of sports entertainment was seen on
the big-screen in Mickey Rourke vehicle, The Wrestler, which saw Rourke
playing a heel down on his luck in a film with a plot sentimental
enough to have come straight off the WWE conveyor-belt. The Wrestler
too was similar to a more conventional narrative play Drummond had
already written prior to the film’s release. His experiential approach
with Rob Drummond: Wrestling is more in keeping with recent work such
as his interactive play for young people, Mr Write. As for the sport
itself, the SWA played to 2000 people at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall earlier
this year.

“This is the best time for wrestling in Scotland there’s been for
years”, O’Connor says while The Realist and Helo catch their breath.
“There are something like ten or eleven small promoters here, and we
have a roster of something like thirty-seven wrestlers on our books as
well as a lot of trainees coming through. Things are definitely looking
up.”

Not for Drummond they’re not. At some point in the blur of the action
once he and Tyler start trading blows again, something goes wrong, and
Drummond is writhing on the floor with what turns out to be an
unscripted dislocated elbow. Such injuries go with the territory, and
it’s nobody’s fault, but for a rookie like Drummond, it might end up a
whole lot more serious. Presuming he’s match fit for the Arches,
whatever happens when The Realist squares up to Helo, it might well be
a grudge match to end them all. For Drummond, it seems, wrestling is
getting more real by the day.

Rob Drummond: Wrestling, The Arches, Glasgow, February 9-13
www.thearches.co.uk
www.scottishwrestling.co.uk

The Herald, December 21st 2010

ends

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