Ahead of their next event entitled ‘Spandex Ballet’, Peter Barnes sat down to talk with one of the people behind Wrestling Resurgence, Sam West to talk about his love for wrestling, how the promotion came to be and wrestling’s comparison to art.
What first attracted you to wrestling – was there a particular moment that got you hooked?
Sam West: I’ve been hooked since I was 4 – 5 years old. Earliest memories are of playing with the Hasbro action figures, watching WWF VHS and watching WCW on ITV. Whilst I can’t pinpoint an exact moment, Ron Simmons defeating Big Van Vader for the world title is one of the most vivid memories I have from that early period of watching wrestling.
How did Wrestling Resurgence come to be?
SW: Wrestling Resurgence started as a collaboration between people that work in the arts (myself and John Kirby) and a group of academics that study and write about professional wrestling (Dr Claire Warden, Dr Ben Litherland, and Dr Tom Phillips).
We started in 2017 with a one off, free event, funded by Being Human Festival 2017, which is festival that funds public engagement with academic research within arts and humanities. The event was called ‘British Wrestling: History & Resurgence’ it took place at Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester, where I work as a curator and John as a theatre programmer.
Following the first show, everyone involved, but particularly John and myself, agreed that we didn’t want it to be a one-off. We wanted to do it again as soon as possible, because as It turns out, wrestling promotion is very addictive.
We had our second free show in May this year at Attenborough Arts Centre and Spandex Ballet this September in Nottingham will be our first fully ticketed event.
I saw your video on YouTube and I especially enjoyed the cameos from Chakara and the lovely Jack Sexsmith. What would you say makes your company different from others? What’s your philosophy on wrestling?
SW: Our philosophy is based on wrestling as art. So we are particularly interested its capacity to tell stories, engage audiences in unique ways, and to present creative characters that reflect the world around us.
The only thing that perhaps makes us different from other companies, is that we draw from our experience of working in the arts, rather than wrestling. We are very new to running wrestling shows, but we have a lot of experience running, funding, and programming artistic activities. Perhaps this brings something new to the table in terms of presentation, income streams and venue types, but the form is still fundamentally independent British wrestling.
For those who haven’t heard of your company before, what can they expect if they come to one of your shows?
SW: Great venues and lots of fun! We are firmly within the wrestling as variety show camp. So you can expect to see a diverse range of performers, lots of comedy, plenty of serious hard-hitting wrestling, and hopefully some engaging storytelling. A wrestling show with some arty twists and embellishments. We aim to provide something for everyone and to attract new audiences to wrestling, particularly from within the art and theatre worlds.
I love the comparison of wrestling to sport-art, it’s a neat way of defining it, is that what sets wrestling apart from other sports?
SW: Yes absolutely. Wrestling is a form that always exists somewhere between these two disciplines, drawing and subverting the conventions and traditions of both. This is why it’s so interesting to study. Often wrestling fluctuates between sport and art. Throughout the course of a match or show it will move from reasonably plausible physical confrontation and competition to extravagant showmanship and dramatics. In a way all sports do this, it’s just that wrestling takes it to an extreme.
The sport/art opposition is actually an interesting topic to explore within a match, two performers that perhaps represent opposing views of what wrestling is or can be. The sports person versus the performer. This is a narrative that we are aiming to explore in the match between Dave Mastiff and Cara Noir at Spandex Ballet in September. It’s an idea that we will likely return to in the future in different ways and formats.
Which type of theatre would you most closely link wrestling to? I would presume some sort of dramatic theatre rather than epic theatre.
SW: Definitely traditional pantomime in terms of the interaction with the audiences and the role of recurring performance conventions, such as “they’re behind you” which in wrestling is equivalent to set pieces such as the ridiculous tendency for referees to get distracted in tag team matches.
It terms of the performance of wrestling itself, partnered dance, such as ballroom or tango, is very similar. You have two dancers work together through choreographed steps and sequences to tell a story.
On the theme of theatre, how do you see the relationship between the performers and the audience?
SW: A very democratic one. The audience becomes a third character within the performance, influencing the direction the wrestlers take. Matches can change course based on the reaction (or non-reaction) of the live audience. I think this is one of the really unique parts of wrestling that differentiates it from other performance forms.
What do you think the appeal of wrestling is for audiences in today’s technological age?
SW: Nostalgia is a big part of wrestlings contemporary appeal. This arguably coincides with a generation of people that grew up with wrestling in the 1990’s reaching a stage in their lives where they have the means and the desire to invest in both creating and supporting something they enjoyed at a younger age. This applies to promoters, performers and fans.
We’re very lucky to have a generation that has a shared vision of what wrestling can be in 21st century Britain. Then due the impact of relatively cheap digital media and technology (social media and streaming services), they have the platform to promote this vision to like-minded people and the next generation of wrestling fans and professionals.
What do you think of the recent Resurgence of British Wrestling? Are there any UK companies that you particularly admire?
SW: This was the starting point for our whole project, where the title for the project and the name company comes from. Where has this renewed interest come, why has it been so successful, and what does it tell us about contemporary culture? These are questions we are really interested in.
In terms of companies we admire, there are quite a few. Artistically speaking, it would have to be companies like ATTACK!, Pro-Wrestling EVE, and Riptide.
There are also a number of companies we haven’t seen yet, but admire from afar, like Good Wrestling and Clash Wrestling in London.
Do you think wrestling can be truly progressive, in light of recent scandals?
SW: Safeguarding is an issue. As wrestling develops and grows, this is something that will need to be addressed and a number of people are already leading the way in respect to making the changes necessary. This is an area where wrestling can learn from other industries, such as the arts and cultural sector where safeguarding policy is generally very robust. Hopefully we can contribute to this in a small way.
Thinking now about your product itself, do you have title(s) and if so who are the holders?
SW: If everything goes to plan, then we hope to crown our first champion in 2019, we have a few ideas about how to do this and it will probably have an art twist to it.
Do you all have a similar role behind-the-scenes, or do you perform separate roles?
SW: We’re still finding our roles. I’ve moved into the tech area so I can be with our technician and oversee things from that perspective, John is a natural stage/production manager and he’s great at talking to performers, Pete has joined our team and he will be running things on the floor/ringside area, coordinating ring crew etc. and Claire (also WR onscreen commissioner) hosts the post-show Q&A part of the show, something that is very much her area of expertise. This may change and evolve over time.
How far ahead do you plan each show? How do the booking meetings go?
SW: Spandex Ballet in September has taken the most planning. We started contacting talent as early as March and we’ve had various booking meetings since then.
Often a lot of the booking is debated through a Whatsapp group. We had a few ideas that we knew we wanted to include early on, but then others are more spontaneous. A good example of this is the ‘Artcore: fans bring the crayons’ that we just announced a few days ago. That was developing in a day and announced the following day!
What was the biggest lesson you learnt from your first show?
SW: So many… It’s been a really steep learning curve. Going from free, grant funded shows, to a fully commercial show like Spandex Ballet in Nottingham this September, has been a really tough transition. Whilst we all have event management and producer type experience, we don’t have specialised marketing expertise.
What was the biggest setback you’ve encountered so far?
SW: We’ve had a few people drop out injured prior to shows, which is inevitable in wrestling, but nothing major and we were able to find solutions to those problems.
Now to plans going forward – will you always be in the Midlands in cities, or will you be performing in towns or outside of the region?
SW: Building on our arts experience, we are definitely very interested in developing a wrestling touring show that could travel around the UK, that’s certainly a long term goal. Short term, we just want to establish ourselves in Leicester and Nottingham, both cities have fantastic transport links and moving forward we are going to make an effort to try and draw people from cities that have big wrestling scenes such as London, Birmingham and Manchester.
What’s the dream scenario for your company, and if you could book any match what would the match be, and what story would you use it to tell?
SW: Dream scenario is to simply be able to keep doing what we are doing on a regular basis and have lots of fun doing it! We are having so much fun and we don’t want to stop anytime soon. Dream matches, this is a tough one. One idea we are very interested in is contrasting characters, cultures, and styles. So without revealing too much, we would love to work with performers like Zack Sabre Jr, Spike Trivet, Jinny, and Session Moth Martina. I think with the incredible range of performers we have in the UK, wrestling as a performance form can address the wider cultural and political challenges we face as a society in a fun and engaging way. That’s an idea we think is really exciting.
Speaking of the future, what would you say is the biggest reason to come to Nottingham Contemporary Gallery on Saturday 8th September?
SW: The biggest reason, probably to come and be part of something new and bit different! Have you ever seen a wrestling show in a contemporary art gallery?Have you ever seen artcore match? It’s going to be a fantastic night.
I would like to thank Sam for taking the time to answer these questions and if that has piqued your interest for their show on September 8th, tickets are available here!
They have also offered readers a 10% discount! The code is LTG10