On the wall above us is a huge, colorful mural depicting two boxers going at it in the ring. Next to it, hand-painted cursive script reads:
I’ve been to a lot of raw spaces. But not this kind of raw. It’s a huge meat locker of metal, concrete, and muscles. There’s sweat everywhere. I’ve never heard more grunting in my life. Because real work is being done. Real training is happening. And I’m getting into the ring with four other women. Crawling through the nylon covered ropes. Stepping past the giant spit buckets in the corners. Reaching back to drag in folding chairs and purses. Facing off in the middle of the ring to talk about a very risky sport: theater.
I chose to meet the women of Vertigo Theater Company “on stage” at Gleason’s Gym where they’ll be mounting their next production, The Living Room Series 2015: Bareknuckle, beginning February 20th. The historic boxing gym is located a couple of blocks away from the Dumbo waterfront in Brooklyn. It has been around since 1937, a training mecca for heavy hitters like Benny “Kid” Paret, Mike Tyson, and Cassius Clay a.k.a. Muhammad Ali. The walls are plastered with ancient, neon bumper stickers promoting positive slogans like “Wish it. Dream It. Do it.” and next—
Yikes! The loudest bell I’ve ever heard has just gone off. The ring timer. It will continue to sound throughout our conversation, shocking my nerves every three minutes.
Next to the mural are hundreds, maybe thousands, of framed fighter cards: small black and white headshot/résumés listing the stats and accomplishments of young up-and-comers from years past. “Snagged the Junior Metros twice”, “Ranked 6th nationally”, “Junior Olympic champ.” I ask for Vertigo Theater Company’s stats. Born in New York City. Two and a half years old. Led by co-artistic directors Pia Scala-Zankel and Tara Ricasa, along with artistic associate Alexandra Renzo. Completing the Bareknuckle team is actor/producer Nicol Moeller.
Pia, Tara, and Alexandra met as actors at Labyrinth Theater Company’s Master Class program. Encouraged to wear all different hats in the work they were making together in the Lab, the trio adopted the Lab’s “If you want to do it, just go out and do it” doctrine and decided to form a company of their own with their fellow graduates upon completing the program. They quickly grew to an ensemble of 12, and almost as quickly learned that that wasn’t going to work: an early meeting yielded 12 different mission statements. There were simply too many people, at too many different stages of life, with too much variety in the time they were able to commit. So, through trial and error, over the course of two years, Vertigo worked its way down to a leaner, meaner fighting weight: a nimble production company made up of the original threesome that can scale up to a higher weight class whenever necessary thanks to a posse of likeminded collaborators in its corner. This extended artistic family is what allows Vertigo to execute its game plan: producing unconventional works by emerging artists that reflect the urban landscape they inhabit.
Which brings us back to—
Across the gym, past a sea of bowling ball shoulders, an 11ish-year-old boy shadow boxes, skinny arms churning the air in a gangly blur.
Pia, Brooklyn born and bred, had been searching for a site-specific space to produce Vertigo’s next Living Room Series, the company’s showcase for works-in-progress. She looked out her apartment window and there it was across the street: Gleason’s.
World famous for training amateur fighters (male and female) for the Golden Gloves and pros for bouts at Madison Square Garden and beyond, there’s also a smaller contingent of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters, WWE wrestlers, and kickboxers honing their craft in the gym. Adding playwrights, choreographers, and actors to the mix might have been a challenge, but owner Bruce Silverglade welcomed the troupe into his gym with the open arms of a warm neighbor, allowing the women to write, rehearse, perform—whatever they needed. If the gym is open, it’s theirs to use.
Gleason’s affords a new opportunity for The Living Room Series. Last year’s inaugural Living Room Series, co-created by Moeller and Renzo, was presented in a Chinatown art gallery and consisted of three unproduced works by a single playwright. This time around, the producers decided to maintain the intimacy but heighten the stakes by commissioning new works by three playwrights created specifically in and for Gleason’s Gym. And so The Living Room Series 2015: Bareknuckle was born. “But we didn’t want to come in here like, ‘We’re gonna take over and this has nothing to do with you,’” Pia explains. “We wanted to involve the boxing community.”
As the run approaches, Vertigo has been working with Bruce to brainstorm more ways to involve the boxing community in the event. A portion of ticket sales are going to Give A Kid A Dream, Bruce’s charity that provides mentorship to disadvantaged youths through the sport of boxing. And Bruce is helping coordinate real three-minute warm up fights with female boxers from the gym to set the tone and lead into the plays. The women are particularly excited to see four-time Golden Gloves champion and two-time amateur World Champion Keisher “Fire” Mcleod-Wells in action.
In the ring next to us, a short, husky man is doing some kind of MMA move. He is thrusting his pelvis back and forth. It looks like an acting warm-up designed to release tension, but much more violent.
Upon the invitation of Vertigo, playwrights Lindsay Joy and Obie Award-winner Lucy Thurber were introduced to Gleason’s last July at one of Bruce’s charity boxing exhibitions. The company’s own Pia Scala-Zankel rounded out the team of writers, who were given full access to the gym and no parameters other than to conceive the play for the space, keep it around 30 minutes, and have at least two characters. Ideas for the plays were pitched, feedback was given, and then the writers were off.
Long-time Vertigo target Laura Savia was brought in to direct and has shepherded the plays through the process of workshopping. As we chat on this early January afternoon, the scripts are in the final days of polishing and the company is gearing up for rehearsals to start in a matter of days.
The more time we spend in here, the more my eye gets drawn to different areas of the gym. I can’t help but think about the potential for theatricalizing every nook and cranny. The rings themselves are the most obvious place to stage something, but every corner of the gym looks like a set: the locker rooms, the forest of different sized and colored punching bags, the snack shop displaying peanuts, Cheez-Its, and hundreds of VHS tapes of old tournaments, the ancient, not-so ancient, and kind of new exercise machines lined up against the wall. I mention this, and the women smile and point, setting up imaginary scenarios of where and how the night could unfold.
When I ask if the plays will have actual punching in them, I’m surprised to see the women dance around the question like new foes feeling each other out at the beginning of a match. They’re being coy about spoilers and it’s working. These ladies have some Don King in them. They concede some kind of sparring is at the core of all of their stories, and that the plays are all snapshots of the inner struggles of ordinary people. And that Lucy Thurber’s play The Sentinels will involve actual fighters. But is real blood going to be spilled? Gonna have to be at ringside to find out.
A man to our right just bodyslammed the shit out of his partner.
There’s definitely a buzz in here. Rehearsals are about to start and the Bareknuckle performance schedule coincides with the boxers’ build-up to the National Golden Gloves tournament, the most important time of the year for amateur boxing. It feels pretty real in here. Whatever that means in life. Whatever that means in fighting. Whatever that means in theater.
We finish our chat and shake hands like good sports. As I pick up my bag and fold up my chair, I notice the speckles of brown everywhere around me on the floor of the ring. Dried blood. Layers and layers of little droplets.
Now that’s pretty real.
Clinch by Lindsay Joy
On their wedding day, a couple goes head-to-head, exchanging blows and exposing years of dirty laundry, unearthing truths that force them both to confront whether they can walk down the aisle.
Lights Out by Pia Scala-Zankel
In the wake of his father’s death, a “prodigal son” returns home to forever alter the fate of his family’s once venerable gym. Reuniting with his sisters and latch-key daughter, this ne’er-do-well is determined to win at all costs.
The Sentinels by Lucy Thurber
Struggling to convey her true desires, a woman combats her turbulent past, which is manifested in ferocious ancient warriors who attempt to stifle her good intentions at every turn.