After twenty-one years of touring the Renaissance Faire circuit as half of the funny-fencing act Dirk and Guido: The Swordsmen and twenty-five teaching students how to do a Hamlet without sustaining injuries, David Woolley is extending his career, this time as the most sought-after ringside coach since Angelo Dundee.
It started in 2009 with a play by Kristoffer Diaz called The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a slyly affectionate look at the world of pro wrestling recounted by characters who reveal the illusion behind this popular entertainment while demonstrating it right before our eyes—not in pre-recorded video-clips, but with their own sweat and muscle. Nor are the fight sequences isolated from the dramatic action as in most plays, but integrated into the very text, making for an overlapping 80 percent fight and 90 percent talk.
What this means for the actors is that they must first become proficient in the bone-crushing acrobatics comprising the physical vocabulary of an athletic spectacle bearing no resemblance to the Olympic variety, then practice addressing their audience in mid-lift. However closely this dynamic may mimic that of actual wrestling ("You can't kick a guy's ass without the co-operation of the guy whose ass you're kicking", Diaz' hero confides), it's a far cry from simply waving a sword in the air.
For Chad Deity's world premiere production by Chicago's Teatro Vista, in partnership with Victory Gardens theater, Woolley rehearsed his fighters for five weeks. When the show moved to New York at Off-Broadway's Second Stage, all but one of the fighters repeated their roles, with Woolley and director Edward Torres also making the transfer. In September of 2011, when Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse hosts Chad Deity's west coast premiere, Torres and Woolley and three of the principal players—Desmin Borges, Usman Ally, and Terence Archie—will repeat their roles, with local actors playing promoter Everett K. "E.K.O." Olson and opponents Billy Heartland, Old Glory and the generic "Bad Guy."
Bringing in the original cast, even with the expense of travel and housing, has its advantages, says Woolley. "It saves time. This play differs from standard theatrical combat in that it demands weeks of training by actors in prime shape. After building themselves up to take the punishment, these lads have kept themselves fit and trim. And they already know their lines!"
Once settled in their new facility, preparations begin immediately. "The Geffen secured us gym time at Equinox, workout equipment in both the rehearsal room and backstage, and GNC is one of our sponsors, so we are well-supplied with healthy proteins and carbs. I meet with the actors—understudies, too—on the first day to begin adapting the fights to our new space at the Geffen, where the ring is bigger than what we've used before. We still start with the basics—climbing in and out of the ring, working the ropes and stanchions, and falling down every-which-way. We also make sure, as we progress, that everyone is comfortable with what they have to do.
That comfort factor is important, too. "The biggest obstacles actors face when learning to wrestle is overcoming the fear and taking the bumps. The playwright specifies genuinely dangerous moves like the 'Powerbomb' [a two-man body slam involving one fighter being dropped to the floor on his back] and the 'superkick' [a martial-arts style kick with a circular wind-up, also called a 'crescent kick']." Woolley shrugs, "In the long run, it's really not dissimilar to learning any other stage combat routine—just bigger and scarier."
How did a fight director whose usual expertise is classical rapier-and-dagger get picked to stage lowbrow hug-and-mug for the first Chad Deity in Chicago? "[Director] Eddie Torres was my student at Roosevelt University back in the 1980s. I've been staging fights for Teatro Vista for ten years, so when this play came up, I was first on the list."
Woolley recently celebrated his 50th birthday. Does his age present problems teaching extreme physical movement to actors in their 20s? His first response is a Swordsmen-like "Piffle, says I!" before answering seriously, "For understudy auditions, my associate fight director Ned [Mochel] spent an afternoon being kicked in the chest. I usually do everything three times and then turn the demonstrations over to the younger folk. We all eat aspirin and come out fine.".
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity runs at the Geffen Playhouse through October 9.
Mary Shen Barnidge