Putting Butts in the Seats:
How Theatre Can Take Pro Wrestling Techniques to Increase Audience and Relevance
*** Note: This Tuesday Thoughts was written on Friday, April 1st without any knowledge of the amazing results of NXT Dallas, the crappy results of Wrestlemania 32, nor the slightly better results of Monday Night Raw***
There is this moment from television and pro wrestling history that I’ve always found particularly fascinating. It was Monday, January 4th, 1999, the turning point in the Monday Night War.
(It’s funny to think of two wrestling promotions running weekly programming at the same time slot as a war, but you have to remember that this was when pro wrestling was at its highest in terms of popularity, mainstream relevance, and kids wearing horribly inappropriate shirts at school)
Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling had been winning the ratings war against Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (THIS… not this) for 87 straight weeks. WCW’s flagship show, Nitro, was live every week, while WWF’s Raw would tape two shows per week, with only one being live. WCW cashed in on this by getting on the air two minutes early and spoiling all the results of the WWF’s show.
On that night, January 4th, longtime “supporting player” Mick Foley would win the WWF Championship. Mick was not a conventional looking superstar, and WCW would highlight when color commentator Tony Schiavone started the Nitro broadcast with this spoiler:
“Fans, as Hollywood Hogan walks away and you look at this 40,000 plus on hand, if you’re even thinking about changing the channel to our competition, fans, do not, because we understand that Mick Foley, who wrestled here one time as Cactus Jack, is going to win their world title. Ha! That’s gonna put some butts in the seats, heh.”
And in that moment, a tactic that had worked so many times in the past for WCW backfired with extreme consequences (not that kind of extreme). Almost instantly, droves of fans switched the channel to see fan-favorite Mick Foley finally get his due, and those fans never came back.
There was an arrogance present. A feeling of, “we’re on top, let’s enjoy it” rather than “let’s try and get even better.” I see this same arrogance in the world of commercial theatre, and it saddens me. Theatre has been a love of mine for as long as I remember. The feeling of being live, the storytelling, the entrances, the piledrivers… wait, sorry I crossed over into wrestling, but I assure you that I love theatre with all my heart. But I’m afraid it’s becoming a dead art.
Dead? But Hamilton is a national phenomenon!
Yes it is! Yes! And we will get into that, but that is one show in a world of openings and closings. The success of Hamilton has led some people to believe that theatre is back, and it might be, but the buzz this show creates will not be enough to sustain the success of an art industry. Things need to change. Theatre still has an unfortunate elitist stink to it. I don’t mean to shit on the positivity of the Vulture piece, but more than a few of their positives are alarming to me.
Old playwrights are still good! Sondheim is still alive!
Sure, but going old instead of young is not how to stay on top
Offspring of famous broadway people are producing work!
Yeah, but even in the article you point out that the work hasn’t been successful. Let’s not cheer for nepotism
Movie Stars bring in audiences and non-movie stars are better actors who we don’t have to pay much for!
This is the most disheartening to me. There can be no theatre scene if the theatre scene isn’t making their own stars instead of relying on established stars. And if someone is talented, you should pay them.
Again, this not a piece about bashing Vulture. I don’t want to kill the optimism.
What is this piece really about then Andrew? we’re like 600 words in already!
I’m getting to it. ***This week WWE presents Wrestlemania 32, and this event has been unavoidable if only because of how it was marketed and how much content is available related to it.
The golden age of wrestling is long and dead, BUT the powers that be in Stamford, Connecticut have turned the audience back on their side. With the advent of the WWE Network, ratings are stable, but merchandise, live attendance, and general interest are up.
Wrestling is indeed a niche market, somewhere between a cartoony show for kids to watch with their parents and a hot-blooded male soap opera with sports thrown in there. It’s got much more in common with theatre than the theatre crowd might want to admit, mainly, that it is bringing an audience in that views weekly rather than once in a while.
I want to bring you through some of the tactics that have led to this revival of wrestling (no, not that revival) and how theatre can use those techniques to broaden up the appeal and put some butts in the seats.
Extending the Meaning of “Live Theatre”
The single greatest feature of theatre versus movies, TV, etc. is that it is LIVE. Anything can happen and it’s never the same twice. You can see wrestling live because they tour almost endlessly. If you live in the US, eventually they will come to your town, and even if you’re over seas you’ll probably get a chance too! The epicenter of Broadway is in New York. You have to come there to see the best plays live. The theatre world combats this disadvantage by touring the most popular shows, but knowing that it’s not the original cast always dampens the mood. So how do you make the live feeling of theatre more accessible? The answer is in Pay-Per-View.
The wrestling calendar is built around the same month to month plan; weekly televised (and free) shows that build that month’s storylines. Then, a premium event at the end of the month where the storylines come to their climax. It’s like is season finales of Breaking Bad cost you $25 to view. This has been the tried and true way to garner interest in wrestling for over 20 years.
Theatre can learn to adapt to this. Shows have already been taped, and while that changes the medium, it does increase the number of eyeballs on the product, and for a much cheaper price than a ticket.
Just look at the success of the recent string of live musicals performed on TV. While the quality of that product has ranged, the audience and social buzz for each of those productions has been fantastical. It has grabbed attention and showed that theatre on film can work.
This will also encourage casual fans to make the trek to New York. Essentially, this is what the Tony Award show does now. It’s less about the awards and more about free advertising for the plays nominated. If you view a play at home and become a fan, you might decide to go see it live because “it’s never the same thing twice.”
These PPVs can be monthly, on demand, played in movie theatres, there are a lot of options. They can be taped previously, or broadcasted live. They can even be on their own streaming service… which leads me to….
Creating A Home Network
The WWE Network has changed the viewing model for wrestling. The network carries all monthly pay-per-views, various original shows, the weekly wrestling hit NXT (more on that later), and a TON of old wrestling content from various promotions that WWE bought up in their world conquest. Netflix changed how we watch things, and theatre needs to follow suit.
Now, there is the issue of each show/location having different producers, different money behind them, but if someone can get everybody on the same team it will mean lots of green for everyone.
Imagine a Broadway Network where different plays broadcast live performances combined with original content and (the big kicker) old productions. This would be a list of epic proportions and would accomplish the big goal of getting new eyeballs. If you can get the app included on Roku or Smart TVs, then people who would never know anything about theatre will be aware of it, and you can’t become a new audience member of something that you’re not aware of.
The original programming is what these kinds of networks need, and there are a few different kinds of audience members you can aim for…
Most theatergoers are older simply because they remember a golden age, and the audience etiquette required to attend a show. So the goal should be to remind the older generation why they love theatre so that they feel that they need to bring the younger impressionable minds along for the ride.
WWE capitalizes on this with the Network. Most of their programming recalls the Monday Night Wars and Attitude era of the 90s. It presents it in ways that both reflect and explain why it was important.
This is where the library of old shows is essential. Performances, documentaries, anything you can get your hands on will educate an audience about the niche bits of the industry, and give them ownership.
If an audience feels like they own the product, then they will fight to defend it and tell other people why they should watch it.
Embrace the Niche
Wrestling has always struggled with their attempt to appeal to the whole family. This makes the most sense for business, but it alienates a small yet loud portion of fans that love ass-kicking blood-filled wrestling. With the advent of a network, you can appeal to them all under one roof.
Maybe you like plays, maybe you like musicals, but with a network you pay for it all. But what about the fans of indie theatre? Well, this is how the WWE dealt with that…
NXT. A promotion owned by WWE but with it’s own identity. It’s part wrestling finishing school, part hard-hitting alternative to the main product, and a weekly broadcast show only on available on the WWE Network.
Independent promotions have been running opposite WWE for years and have built their own stars who normally are too aggressive, too dangerous, too bloody, too small, too fat, too different and frankly, too cool for the family friendly WWE. Rather than ignoring them, WWE created NXT as a place to bring in these indy stars and have them train the new young stars while becoming bigger stars themselves. The result has been a product that has been able to tour, move merchandise, and create a huge following, all on it’s own.
A theatre network could easily create content cheaply by turning to off broadway and off-off broadway plays. This will be a win-win for all, because it will give a greater audience to these productions, it would give the big theatre streaming service most artistic credit, and it would give back to other local independent theatre elsewhere by encouraging more people to give them a shot.
Continue the Story Online
Ham4Ham has grown into a show of its own. It has proven that creating extra content beyond the show itself is worth the artist and producers time. This is something that wrestling has understood for a long time, since days of autograph signings and fake talk shows.
One of the smartest things that WWE has done in recent years is get all of their talent on Twitter. When the cameras go off, the wrestlers can tweet in character and keep their storylines going in real time. These tweets even become part of the show themselves. It also allows for a lot of story business. Example, recently on television, new fan favorite AJ Styles has continued to challenge evil veteran Chris Jericho to a match at Wrestlemania, with Jericho constantly rejecting this invitation. While that is the story being told, we all know that the match will eventually happen, so when people tweet Jericho about this, he can answer in character with things like this,
I feel more excitement about @IAmJericho v @AJStylesOrg at #WrestleMania than any other match.
— Oliver Harris (@olivercomedy) March 27, 2016
You shouldn’t. It ain’t happening. https://t.co/Ssmkpf1M6Q
— Chris Jericho (@IAmJericho) March 27, 2016
The theatre world might have trouble tweeting in character for a show where the story doesn’t change week to week, but it can still interact with fans in character. This comes back to ownership. Letting people get a hand on the show will make them care about it even further, as if it were their own.
Twitter can be implemented to keep the show going past the parking lot as well. Theatre loves post show Q&A’s. Why not get some of the questions from twitter? That’s so easy to do and reaches so many people.
When a match ends on television and the wrestlers exit the stage, they do post-match interviews in character that get released online. When a performance ends, you could mimic this and have the actors do a short interview as soon as they walk off stage. You, as an audience member, go find the tweet of the post show for the one you attended, or, if you didn’t see the show, getting a glimpse at these post-show interviews so many times will eventually drive you to the show.
What about new plays we aren’t introduced to yet? Do a vignette! The vignette is a staple of introducing new wrestlers to an audience before they officially go out on stage. If you introduce us with short videos in character, you build interest, and then when we finally get to see the character in action, the audience is already invested and will explode with excitement!
Pulling Back the Curtain
For a long time there was one golden rule in wrestling, never break character! We all know wrestling is fake, but we have to keep up the illusion otherwise what’s the point? The same could be said for theatre, but with wrestling the performers were expected to keep up the play even when they were offstage. This was called keeping “kayfabe” or “protecting your gimmick.”
In recent years, more reality has crept in and this boundary has been completely broken. In that above link, Daniel Bryan retires from the ring and tells the audience the honest truth about why, when back in the day, a departing wrestler would be written off in character. Now, WWE has programming that explores how people train to be wrestlers, including technique. They reveal how the show is produced. They even have podcast interviews where the boss himself talks about why certain wrestlers are featured more than others.
This would be unheard of years ago. But what has happened as a result of breaking down this fourth wall, is a new way of storytelling and an appreciation from the fans.
I’m not suggesting that plays stop mid scene and break the fourth wall, but I think there is value in broadcasting and parading the story of how the show was made.
Things like the reality shows to replace Broadway stars are a bit hackey, but changing the tone to something more dramatic like the NFL Hard Knocks series would work wonders because it would interest both die hard fans, and people who just want to see interworking of big institutions.
The only thing more interesting than a spectacle is the real making of a spectacle. It’s a totally different story that the cast and crew is telling anyway. Just turn on the camera!
People want to know what it’s like to rehearse a big show, to audition for it, to build it! Why not let the audience in?
WHEN I was a teenager, I felt that I needed to hide my love of pro wrestling and my love of theatre. I was told that these were odd things to love, that I was uncool, unmanly. Pro Wrestling in recent years has allowed me to proudly show my love, to make content about it, to go to live shows.
I’m writing this on a Friday, at a family reunion of sorts for my sister’s baby shower. I’m wearing my Roddy Piper shirt (courtesy of Tyler Ward) and when my brother in law first walked in the door he didn’t ask me about family stuff, but rather “you’ve got the network set up so we can watch Wrestlemania, right?”
Wrestling has brought me back in, now I’m just waiting for theatre to do the same.
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