In TYSON vs. ALI, live performers in a real boxing ring will be combined with video clips of the boxers’ matches. The Brooklyn Rail interviews Reid Farrington (director), Frank Boudreaux (script), Laura K. Nicoll (choreographer), and Dennis Allen (actor).
Gary Winter (Rail): Reid, talk about your process in creating TYSON vs. ALI.
Reid Farrington: In TYSON vs. ALI, there are multiple organizing principles at play. The first being that our scene structure follows the structure of a fight. Three minutes of action followed by a minute of rest. Each round has a theme and each transition has a theme.
As far as perspectives go, we play on the “versus” idea. It’s not just versus in the ring, but it’s also on work and action. There is a call and response sort of thing, one idea from Tyson, then an answer to that from Ali. Also, in the design of our set. Our audience will be seated on two of the four sides of the boxing ring. Each side will certainly experience a very different show, like when seeing a boxing match.
Then we have a structure of knockouts. In the first four rounds of our fight we highlight what I imagine to be the most exciting or devastating moment for a boxer in the ring, the knockout. We created video mash-ups, which became the landmarks that Laura used to organize our fight choreography, by compressing all the knockouts in these men’s lives into the specific round and second of that round.
Rail: How do you use technology to tell the story you want to tell?
Farrington: Video mash-up has always been the beginning of every process. Getting the materials in the computer so I can manipulate them is how I best see the work before I can get people in a room to work. My dyslexia, or whatever, keeps me from reading the written word and seeing it come to life; I need to hear it. So, I construct time lines in Final Cut Pro that allow me to construct a script of sorts.
Rail: I’m curious about your research and editing process. Did you have the clips you wanted to use first, and then create the script? Or did you have an idea of the story you wanted to tell, and then find footage to tell that story? You must have gone through a ton of footage, no?
Farrington: Yes, yes, yes, a ton of footage. The first thing I did was order DVDs of every Tyson and Ali fight. It’s there I began, then all the documentaries I could get my hands on, then books, then YouTube. We took all the fights and organized them by round using Final Cut Pro.
I’ve worked very closely with Frank on this project. Like Laura, he’s an essential collaborator and voice in this project.
I rarely have an idea of a story before I embark on a project. It’s a discovery process. As I discover my subjects through research and manipulation of media in the computer, the story reveals itself. It’s important to have strong organizing principles that can generate content based on the structure. If I have that, then I can work from an emotional place versus an intellectual place, and respond to the material versus try to construct.
It’s also important to note that this is the same way I work in the room with performers. Dennis, Jon, Roger, and Femi have been essential in the development of our script and story. I’m always asking them what they are interested in.
I’ve really pushed the fighters to the front of this work. I spent two months with [the actors] going to Gleason’s three days a week to train. I really became enamored with each of them, their personalities and their connection to the material.
Rail: Dennis, what is the training like?
Dennis Allen: Intense, painful, fun, and humbling. There’s a big difference between being “in shape” and being in “fighting shape” and there is no faking it. Punching and trying not to get hit for three minutes is hard work; now try doing it for 12 rounds (Ali did it for 15) and you’ll get an idea of how hard we needed to train.
Both Tyson and Ali have stated that they hated training. Hated it. But in spite of that hate they persevered and endured it because they both were committed to the goal of being the greatest. That kind of tenacity is rare, admirable, inspiring, and damn intimidating.
Rail: Frank, I know it was a collaborative process, so tell me about the challenges of what it means to write a script in this way.
Frank Boudreaux: After our workshop rehearsal in August at Abrons Arts Center, it became clear that what we all needed (me, Reid, Laura, the actors, the video team, the sound team, etc.) was, what I call, an “expressive” script—that gives us the meaning and/or the feeling of the action.
The writerly challenge of this project was to find the theatrically compelling through-line or journey inside the structure of a boxing match, and the comparison of these transcendent icons—theatrically compelling thematically, but also, formally—helping shape the forms that Reid and company have devised into a consistently surprising and revelatory experience.
But what I have written is not the whole of our text. Reid has created a coordinate “video score,” round by round, with visuals that represent every screen and clip and stat, etc. Laura and Reid have drawn out the moves of the boxers, the ref., and the screens for catching the projections in every round, too.
Rail: The play explores issues of race and intelligence. Seeing the boxers juxtaposed in this way, I saw more similarities between them than I had been aware of.
Allen: In regards to Tyson, the effects of White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy is a bit more covert than when Ali was growing up, but no less relevant. When I think of the two I think about how Ali had support: support from both parents, support from friends and family, and eventually a support system from Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. That kind of constant support system is essential when you grow up in a country that basically tells you that “You ain’t shit.” Tyson never had that support system, so the tragedy of his career was inevitable. Both men are self-educated, boxing historians, and possessed introspective minds that are off the charts staggering.
BoudReaux: Ali played the role for white America that Tyson actually lived. Tyson’s struggles always seem to be personal, even as he is acutely perceptive and reflective about his role/place in the public, racial narrative of America.
Rail: Tyson always gets the rap of being the dumb bruiser, while Ali is known for his witty banter and boxing smarts. I think the play gives a better insight into Tyson’s intelligence.
Allen: I think the humanization of an icon will always reveal tons of new information that gets lost once a person reaches iconic status. I also personally believe that another level of dehumanization occurs in the mind because of a stigma that comes with choosing boxing as a profession, combined with the stigma that comes with being a black man in America.
Boudreaux: Tyson’s boxing IQ is under-reported because most people don’t know much about boxing. Tyson was a fabulous strategist—inside and outside of the ring.
Rail: Laura, I wanted to ask you about the challenges of choreographing this show.
Laura K. Nicoll: There are four big challenges that I face daily in my work on this project:
First is the balance of translating to the performers what it’s like to perform inside Reid’s work, and giving them all the tools I can for them to do their jobs, while simultaneously keeping an eye on what the piece looks like from the outside.
Second is that I’m very conscious of asking people to do something that I physically can’t do and communicating about content that I have very little experience with.
The third challenge is also about a balance. The precision and attention that is required of performers in Reid’s work opens up this beautiful freedom. There can be hundreds of cues, timing has to be perfectly in sync with the intricate technical elements, and yet there’s room to play. As the choreographer, I’m compelled by the idea that Jon, Roger, Dennis, Femi, and Dave are very much creators of the piece, tuning into those moments to play within the structure and making their own choices about what to do with them.
The last big challenge that I’m facing is mediating between the speed and athleticism of boxing, and the reality of what we’re making being a performance. Boxing, although it’s a sport, is something one doesn’t “play,” and yet we need our performers to not get hurt so that they can do this show night after night.
The audience is coming to see a “play” and I think that one of the best things we can do is present some perspectives that they might not have considered before by blurring a line of reality and playing in that space that is real and not real.
TYSON vs. ALI is co-presented by PS122 and 3-Legged Dog. Directed by Reid Farrington, written by Frank Boudreaux, choreographed by Laura K. Nicoll, performed by Roger Casey, Femi Olagoke, Dennis A. Allen, Jon Swain, and Dave Shelley. The show will be performed January 3 - 19 at 3-LD Art & Technology Center (80 Greenwich Street, Manhattan). For tickets ($20) and further info, visit www.ps122.org/tyson-vs-ali/.
Gary Winter was a member of 13P. His play Barge will be performed as part of Actors Theater of Louisville’s Apprentice Company production The Tens, a series of ten-minute plays, in January.