TCWNN #38: Whose Line Is It Anyway?

I was listening to Bryan Alvarez’s interview with the always entertaining Dutch Mantell over at Figure Four Online yesterday morning, and he (Dutch) said something that struck a chord with me. While on the subject of developmental and the nurturing of young wrestlers, he said the following:

“Here’s the writers saying “read this”… he’s reading it without any passion, see these wrestlers aren’t actors. It’s like trying to make an actor a wrestler, he can’t do it. These aren’t trained actors. He can recite it verbatim but he’d have no emotion in it say 90% of the time. Some of them can do it, some of them are great at it, but that’s what you’re runnin’ into.”

That wrestlers aren’t actors is something we’ve heard many times. And as anyone who has ever suffered through Santa With Muscles knows, this is the truth. And yet at the same time, it’s not. Allow me to explain.

Professional wrestling is an entertainment anomaly. It is the square peg in the round hole, part sporting event and part live theatre. You can succeed in it without being Joe Namath, and you can succeed in it without being Lawrence Olivier. But you have to have a little bit from column a, and a little bit from column b.

In its quest to become an accepted form of mainstream entertainment, the WWE positions it’s wrestlers as television actors, with scripted lines and a show geared toward the home viewing audience. By that I mean, Monday Night Raw or Smackdown don’t simply show the audience what goes on in the arena or build to a match; they provide a plethora of backstage cut scenes that tell an ongoing, pre-scripted story that the live crowd gets to watch on the Titantron. Which is well and good, but like the man said, that’s work for actors, not wrestlers. But that’s the path that company has chosen to tread. At this point, there’s nothing we can do about it, certainly not for the guys that are already brought up. But what can be done for the next generation of guys being home grown by the company?

Well, one would think that, since being a soap opera is the WWE’s chosen path, that they’d actively encourage their new talent to improve their acting skills, because as the greenness and over all booking of the NXT rookies has shown us, they don’t seem all that interested in improving their athletic skills. But much like pro wrestling itself, acting doesn’t come naturally to the vast majority, and takes a ridiculous amount of training and mental preparation. The WWE simply is not going to take the time to have their wrestlers master the Stanislavski method or learn the nuances required to perform in a play by Pinter, nor should the wrestlers have to learn it in order to be professional wrestlers. But that doesn’t mean either paty can’t draw on lessons from the live theatre world in order to improve their talent. It’s as simple as taking an improv class.

Full disclosure: I have a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Acting, and have done live theatre. And you know what helped me more than anything else? Learning improvisation. The best actors don’t act, they react, and learning to improv does wonders for that. So what better way to get a guy who is simply reciting lines verbatim to improve than to help him learn how to go with the flow? The best promo men in the business worked without a script. Your Arn Andersons, your Ric Flairs, your Mick Foley, your Steve Austins, etc. Master improvisers, all of them, and I’m sure that the ones like AA who still are with the company are sharing their wisdom with the guys that have been brought up already. These guys knew how to combine a nugget of truth and the emotion of the crowd, and play the two like a violin, because they knew how to improvise.

Look at the casts both past and present of what for a time seemed like the WWE’s main source of inspiration for the past two years: Saturday Night Live. While the sketches are scripted, and while they don’t always fire on all cylinders, if you look at the talent, it’s almost entirely composed of people with backgrounds in improv. Are they great actors? Not really. But even the worst of them has character and charisma and wit; all things that can be found and shaped via improv. That’s part of why a wrestler like the Rock, who came up in an era when wrestlers were still improvisers (and who, while naturally charismatic, would arguably never had a chance to shape it and break out of the vanilla Rocky Maivia shell had he started out in today’s WWE) shined when placed in that world. Now imagine Michael McGillicutty placed in that position. Even if you give him another 2 years to even it up (Rock had been in the business only 5 years when he hosted SNL), it still makes one shudder.

Now, a couple of classes won’t make a wrestler a trained actor, and it’s not going to suddenly put anyone up for Emmy consideration. And yes, for guys who are just naturally wooden, it might not do anything more than help them react better to the lines coming at them. But for the guys who actually have that potential, who aren’t getting the chance to learn to read the crowd and react accordingly or who just plain need to find themselves, it could do a great deal. And the better they get at, then that lessens the need to hold their hand every step of the way in their promos. Having an improv coach pop into FCW every couple of weeks or once a month isn’t going to hurt anything; it won’t detract from the actual in ring training, and it probably wouldn’t be all that expensive.

If the WWE wants to be sports entertainment, fine. If they want to act like they’re a soap opera or a sitcom instead of a scripted sports show, fine. But at least take the minimal steps to help your upcoming talent “act” in a manner that’s less wooden and uncomfortable. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. It’s not like I’m saying they should get a continuity editor…

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