It must have been slightly off-putting for members of the National Theatre of Scotland, in town in 2008 to perform their critically praised Iraq war piece Black Watch at DUMBO’s renowned St. Ann’s Warehouse, to learn that the venue lacked a certain basic amenity: showers. The performers had to go up the hill and around the corner to use the showers at Gleason’s, the storied boxing gym. Soon after, a St. Ann’s staffer showed Black Watch’s associate director and choreographer, Steven Hoggett, the place where the actors were going for their nightly clean-up.
From that first visit, Hoggett recalls, even though his time there was short—15 minutes tops—the focus, energy, commitment, and intensity of the gym and its denizens made an indelible impression. The little he knew about boxing had led him to think of it as a violent sport, but this was a welcoming place, where men and women of diverse backgrounds were training hard at a challenging and demanding sport. Those few moments allowed him to see that the discipline required to box could work positively on any number of different levels, not the least of which was to provide an outlet for kids whose choices are otherwise restricted by harsh socio-economic realities.
Back in the U.K., Hoggett—more than fascinated with what he’d seen—shared his experience with Scott Graham, his co-founder and co-director at Frantic Assembly. (The two met at Swansea University, and have since steered the company to become one of Britain’s most original and acclaimed producers of physical theater.) Unbeknownst to Hoggett, Graham was a life-long devotee of boxing. As the two men talked, they realized that Hoggett’s new-found fascination and Graham’s lasting obsession with the “sweet science” would inspire a new performance piece.
As the burgeoning team moved forward with the project, they joined forces with the National Theatre of Scotland, with whom Hoggett had collaborated on Black Watch. Though Frantic Assembly creates collaborative, devised pieces, they believe strongly in grounding their work in a script. They both also shared the same instinct about the best playwright for the project: Bryony Lavery, best known here for her 2004 Tony award-nominated play Frozen and a recent Frantic Assembly collaborator with an intimate two-hander called Stockholm. Speaking by phone from her home in England, Lavery told me that the very fact the subject matter was so far from anything she’d ever choose for herself made it immediately attractive to her.
That boxing, with all its precise choreography, its vivid socio-cultural history, its moral ambiguities, could inspire an original work of theater was never in doubt; so the next question was whether or not a true-to-life, authentic boxing match could be made for the stage. Indeed, as Hoggett points out, it was not so strange that he and Graham should try to do this: anyone who works in the intensely physical way they do is “going to be fascinated by two people duetting,” as they face each other in a high-stakes confrontation. Even how the boxing world presents itself seeks to enhance that inherent dramatic quality: there are aerial cameras so that the fighters’ moves can be traced as in a dance sequence, with reliance on slow-motion effects to heighten the tension. Boxing as an institution presents a wealth of moral and ethical questions. If the stage is a place where the kind of problems are represented and explored by a society, then it makes more than perfect sense that boxing would be a fruitful subject for the theater.
All three collaborators—Graham, Hoggett, and Lavery—have cited the same word, damage, as the heart of the moral dilemma they wanted to explore. For Lavery, this dilemma was made poignant by the fact that, through their research, she had come to feel that these gyms—at least the ones they visited in Scotland—were in fact the safest place for many of the local young men to be. They were off the streets, subject to tough discipline, with older (and hopefully wiser) men mentoring and training them, but, as she thought to herself, they’re being made safe—for what? To then get in a ring and throw punches and have punches thrown at them, to try to inflict a knock-out on someone, to avoid having the same done to them, to have their knees buckle and their bodies fall down afterwards, to not be able to rise again? In fact, the boxing industry likes to boast of its safety record, publishing statistical tables showing that injury and even death happen much more frequently in other sports (rather like how single-engine aircraft pilots cite the relative danger of driving cars).
But, as Graham says, it’s a game of odds: the serious injuries might be few and far between, but when they come, they are potentially permanently damaging to the brain, if not life itself. Both he and Hoggett were profoundly affected by a documentary piece on Gerald McClellan, an American fighter who sustained severe brain damage in a 1995 fight with British fighter Tony Benn: McClellan, the favorite to win, ended up suffering injuries that left him blind and 80 percent deaf, and thereafter had no visits from his fellow boxers. In one clip, Roy Jones (the only boxer, incidentally, to contribute to McClellan’s health care bills until recently, the insurance money from the Benn fight having long since run out) is asked why he won’t go see his injured friend, and he replies he wouldn’t go until he himself has retired. Teddy Blackburn, who makes a living photographing bouts, is also interviewed, and says that he thinks Jones—and others—fear seeing themselves in McLellan’s damaged body: “It’s a cold, cruel, killer sport,” is Blackburn’s final judgment.
One of the tasks Frantic Assembly set themselves in making Beautiful Burnout was to address how this usually close-knit and supportive community reacts—as Graham puts it—when that bomb goes off, when they can’t face the damage that happens to their peers. The directors concluded that fighters play the odds, and they wanted to capture that tension in the stories they crafted with Lavery and the actors.
As with all Frantic Assembly productions, the process was rooted in intensive research and development. This included trips to the gyms in Scotland, and for Graham, attendance at his first live matches. He’d never been to one, fearing that he’d somehow become complicit in a dehumanizing process—the televised events had allowed him an emotional remove. So it was with relief that he saw that the crowds were passionate but not bloodthirsty. Like the liveness of theater, the physical and emotional realities of these matches introduced new perspectives to Graham, confirming that the pleasure of being a spectator was in seeing the fighters’ prowess and finesse in three dimensions, not in rooting for thuggery.
For Hoggett, his newfound fascination could be articulated in questions he noted are applicable to any dramatic situation: what is it that brought these two people face to face, as he puts it, “what circumstance, ambition, drive, events lead to this?” Hoggett came to think that the “here and now is never more pure” than in boxing, because the opponents have an intention—to achieve a knockout—but they have no idea how they’re going to do it, and that mystery allows for as suspenseful a moment as any onstage.
Capturing this moment of authenticity drove the process for all the artists; the highest praise they cite is that which hails the authenticity of the piece. But this makes for an interesting conundrum, because of course the fights are not real, can’t be real, at the very least because the actors perform them multiple times per week and would be injured or worse within short order. The affinities between theater and boxing, then, start to fade away in this moment, for the call to authenticity can only be sounded so often (and no more) in the theater: we know it’s illusion we’re watching, no matter how well choreographed, but boxing is only ever about the moment a real hit, or better yet a knockout, can occur.
Yet the company wanted, as best as possible, to recreate the physical life of the boxing ring onstage, and were prepared to go as far with that as they could. Knowing the big fight would be choreographed to the utmost, Graham and Hoggett took their time with it, working on it through the six-week rehearsal period. In essence, they needed to plot out the mechanics of the fight so carefully so that it would look authentic—and hold the audience in true suspense—while at the same time keeping the actors safe (lose the discipline of choreography, they said, and people could get hurt).
The move towards authenticity could be effected in other ways as well, through the story. The actors helped develop the characters, devising ideas, actions, and storylines in tandem with the playwrights’ and the directors.’ Graham, Hoggett, and Lavery had agreed from the beginning that they did not want to repeat the various boxing story clichés. One way to keep the focus on boxing, and boxing alone, was to set all scenes in the ring, and to sever all ties to the outside world. (There are story lines that deal with the outside world, but these serve the boxing story and not the other way around.) Lavery was integral here, creating scenes out of the copious research materials and scenarios. Watching the company “making shapes” in the rehearsal’s physical exercises filled her head with stories about the characters and their world. The mutual respect and easy flow between playwright and directors is clear: the latter usually do not ask writers to script physical actions, but they did so with Lavery, while she had no problem jettisoning large sections of text if the moment was better served by any other media, be it video, movement, or music. Beautiful Burnout being a Frantic Assembly piece, these elements are deeply embedded—particularly the music of Underworld; not only did one of its tracks provide the show’s title, but the music also served as a high standard towards which to aspire. Hoggett feels that in this show he and his collaborators have finally made something that can stand up to the music’s forcefulness, by duplicating the force and energy of the world he encountered in that first visit to Gleason’s.
I asked Steven Hoggett: now that NTS and Frantic Assembly have delved into the world of boxing, what did he want or expect by way of reciprocal participation? He explained that it had always been the intention of the theater to invite members of the boxing community, and in the U.K. the feedback from these groups was very positive. Here in Brooklyn, some boxers will take part in post-show talks and Gleason’s will host the opening night party. While there, theater-maker and boxer alike can see a Virgil quote printed on a large banner, one frequently used as paean to boxers and, perhaps now, to the artists of Frantic Assembly and the National Theatre of Scotland: “Now whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.”
St. Ann’s Warehouse presents the American Premiere of Frantic Assembly and National Theatre of Scotland’s BEAUTIFUL BURNOUT written by Bryony Lavery, directed and choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, featuring the music of Underworld. The show runs Feb 25 – March 27 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water Street, Brooklyn. For tickets and further info, call 718.254.8779 or visit www.stannswarehouse.org.