Earning your stripes

14 April 2017

The reality of onstage pain, by Oliver Strong


Because just acting doesn’t hurt enough.

Professional wrestling is a strange combination of melodrama, mythology, physical theatre and circus style cinematic acrobatics. Between close to the moment action shot camera cuts and firework furnished flamboyant production values; the bare bones of "Sports Entertainment" is people, in a ring, shouting each other down and punching eachother's faces.

Of course, these "punches" are performative, pulled at the last moment but sold by the victim like several strong lightning strikes from Thor's hammer. The fact remains however, that when you fall off a ladder, or are thrown from the top turnbuckle, or come crashing down 30 feet through a table, you’re going to hurt yourself. Welts, bruises and blood come part and parcel of Vince Mcmahon’s troupe of performers. Not to mention the hours of time they spend travelling each and every day to a new city to perform for a new set of fans. The toll taken on the bodies of these incredibly resilient men and women is exceptional, and it is necessary.

The art form (and it is an art form) of Professional Wrestling lives and dies on the ability for an audience to suspend their disbelief. If the action in the ring doesn’t feel painful, or impactful, then why are we watching? Possibly for the melodrama, but the whole point of these story lines is that they are resolved, inevitably, by the two performers slamming each other into the mat over and over until one of them can’t get up again.

Well that’s all well and good Oli but why are you telling me this? I hear you ask.

Well, I would like to discuss a phenomenon which exists in Pro wrestling, that I believe also exists on stage. This phenomenon is called Bumping. The term simply means; “To fall on the mat or ground”. This definition has, over time, has evolved. "Taking a bump" can also be applied to when a performer takes a particularly strong fall or painful hit, often resulting in bruises, welts and even more serious injuries. (Dean Ambrose once had his head stapled back together at ringside and continued his match.) While these more serious injuries are obviously regrettable and should be avoided at all costs, these bumps do increase the sense of the "real".

It is this bumping approach that I believe is the most effective way to demonstrate pain, loss, fatigue or even joyousness when on stage. I fully believe that if falling, striking, or some other impactful moment occurs, that in order for a performer to fully appreciate and understand that moment, that it should be as close to a real "bump" as possible.

Now I know what you’re thinking; Oli you stupid bastard, why don’t you just.. you know… act?

Well yeah maybe that is true, and in terms of longevity, if you’re doing a six month run of a show, it’s probably not healthy to destroy your body every night. However, my argument is this:

You cannot convince an audience member that they are not sat in an auditorium. Realistically this knowledge is imprinted into an audience members understanding of theatre. All you can hope to do as a performer or theatre maker is to show as much truth on stage so that the audience member doesn’t have to suspend their disbelief so much. If you can get them 85 per cent of the way there, then they will feel more immersed, engaged and otherwise entertained by the work on stage. I believe that by truthfully putting your body "on the line" as it were, that you give a piece of yourself, and a stronger sense of reality to an audience. This means they don’t have to work as hard to suspend their disbelief.

Also, as a performer, the real pain really helps my face make horrible shapes.

I would love to discuss this topic as my ideas on it aren’t fully formed yet. Do you think I’m mad? Is it reasonable to expect actors to hurt for their art? Get at me. Let’s talk.


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Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca