Claire Warden, who once upon a time thought professional wrestling “was quite silly,” has had quite an unconventional path to the world of wrestling. An academic, writer, and researcher whose work has been based in the arts, predominantly theatre, began exploring professional wrestling in a theoretical way almost seven years ago, which culminated with the book, Performance and Professional Wrestling in 2016, which she co-edited. Although she's broken down professional wrestling in many unique, and perhaps previously unheard-of ways, she's arguably best known to professional wrestling fans for helping commentate the outstanding Iron Woman match between Kanji and Charli Evans at Wrestling Resurgence's Iron Woman show last August.
In early July, SteelChair Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Claire about her incredibly diverse work, and how and when her fascination with professional wrestling began, which ultimately ended up paving the way for the creation of Wrestling Resurgence. In part one of our interview with Claire, which is arguably our most intellectual interview to date (thanks to Claire), SteelChair takes a deep dive into Claire's career history, how she became a wrestling fan, the various ways she breaks down professional wrestling, and much more in this unique look at the surreal world of wrestling.
It would be unfair of me to label you with one title, as you do a host of different things. You're a teacher, researcher, and obviously, it's all rooted in theatre, but could you breakdown that part of your career for our readers?
“Yeah, sure. So my background is, I did a little bit of theatre work as a young person, and also did a lot of singing. So my performance background is actually in music, not in acting as such. Although I come from a family of actors, so I think that is probably where I get it from. My first degree was in English Literature, and then I did a degree in philosophy, a master's in philosophy, and while I was doing that, I got particularly interested in the intersections of politics and art. So I'm always interested in what art says about the world. That was in Edinburgh, and I then went on to do a PhD there. Coming from that, I kind of fell back into theatre in some ways, in that I discovered a magister based theatre maker. I'm a magister originally myself, so I really connected with that.
He really hadn't been studied before. So I started to look at his work and read a lot of his plays. So, yeah, I did my PhD basically in Theatre Studies, Theatre History Studies. So that kind of theatrical way of understanding the world has always been there since the start of my academic career. Then I spent a number of years working almost entirely in kind of early 20th-century performance. Particularly in Britain, but also I've done a lot of work in Russia and on Russian theatre, which continues to inspire me. People have often asked me what's the connection between Chekhov and wrestling (laughs), and I have some odd answers to that question. So I particularly got interested in that period, which is still a period that I work in. So with my other hat on, I'm also like the vice-chair of the British Association for Modernist Studies, which has nothing necessarily to do with wrestling, but more to do with that early 20th-century culture, which is what I'm particularly interested in.
So theatre has always kind of been there since the start of my career. So I've always approached the cultures or the art that I've been looking at through, I guess, a performance lens. Like, I've always imagined the real bodies behind the artwork. I've always imagined the way that people perform in everyday life, so I guess I look at the world in a theatrical way is how I would put it.”
Of course, as you've said, you transfer a lot of your knowledge back to theatre, and you've also applied the theatre work to wrestling. Did your research generate your love for wrestling, or were you a fan who grew up watching Hulk Hogan, etc.?
“Yeah, strangely enough, the former, so I was not a wrestling fan growing up at all really. I didn't know anything about wrestling at all. My knowledge of wrestling was that it slightly freaked my mum out when kids would tombstone each other in playgrounds, and that was literally my knowledge of wrestling at that stage. I met my now-husband, and he is a big wrestling fan and does have that history that you're talking about of I watched it when I was a kid and those sorts of things. When I first started to watch a bit of wrestling, which is now probably about fifteen years ago, I guess. I kind of thought it was quite silly, I have to say, which probably isn't the thing to say to you (laughs). I couldn't understand it, and I speak to a lot of people who can't understand it because they miss categorise it.
So they categorise it as a sport and go, “It's silly. It's pretend sport.” Whereas if you categorise it as a kind of theatre sport, I'm not suggesting it's not a sport. In some ways, it is a sport actually. But if you read it through the kind of theatre lens that I've been reading the other things in, it suddenly makes sense. It was like a light bulb moment for me really, that this form that I had previously dismissed as being rather silly and pretend and kind of duping in the sense that it's duping its watchers. I suddenly realised that there was way more to it than that. That if I read it through the same eyes that I read theatre, it made sense to me, and as I speak to other theatre people, I think it makes sense to them as well. I think it's kind of a different way into the wrestling world, I guess. To start with the academics and go into it that way.”
Actually, I wouldn't have guessed that you were not a fan having listened to the Grappling Arts podcast and reading some of your work.
“(Laughs) Oh, I spent quite a lot of time trying to fill in the gaps, you know what I mean? Because now, I would call myself a fan and a proper fan of wrestling. I love a lot of what wrestling is, not all of it, but I love a lot of what wrestling is. So I, sort of, transitioned into a fan, but my transition into a fan started with the academics as opposed to the child, which is kind of unusual, I guess.”
I've actually, unofficially, I guess, looked at kind of the evolution of wrestling through film, and how the perception of wrestling has changed a little, particularly in Hollywood where it had and does have a stigma attached to it. So what was the reaction like from your fellow theatre people when you said you're going to look at professional wrestling through a theatre lens?
“That's a great question. I think to start off with, I'm talking about a good seven years ago when I started to kind of think about this seriously. When I started to think about it, I think people thought I was a bit mad, to be totally honest with you. I actually approached it thinking, I'm doing all of this modernist work, I'm sitting in libraries, and it's this intense, scholarly work. And I was by now a wrestling fan, and I was a wrestling fan because I was understanding its theatricality, and I thought, “How fun would it be to write something about wrestling, in my spare time.” I thought it would be great.
So to start off with, it was a kind of side product really, something to do when I wanted to write something but didn't want to write about Stanislavski, for example. Then gradually, it became bigger, and it gained legitimacy. There is a kind of trajectory, which is around kind of popular culture studies more generally in academic work, which means that now the study of popular culture isn't quite as niche as it used to be in academic work, and I think wrestling is part of that transition. But yeah, I think, when I started, people kind of looked at me and thought it was mad, especially when you think about the way that research in universities is now assessed. You know, can you spread yourself that thin? I was an early career researcher trying to establish my career, and here I was like faffing about with wrestling.
But I think, gradually, people began to understand what I was trying to do, and I think the publication of the book, Performance and Professional Wrestling, in 2016 made a massive difference. I think that with Routledge coming on board with that and being so incredibly supportive of that project and realising its importance, I think that was a big shift in people's thinking about it. And everyone I've introduced to wrestling, my theatre and academic friends, have loved it. I've not had anyone go, “Oh, no, it really is silly, isn't it? I was right all along.” Everyone's gone, “I had a brilliant night out. I really enjoyed it.”
Oh, you actually took them to shows?
“Yeah, well, they predominantly come to Resurgence shows. Often at Resurgence shows, we will invite, because we're all theatre-makers and artists in the Resurgence collective, we know a lot of people who are also artists, so we invite them all and see what they think. It's good fun. We've had some really funny experiences. This is a total aside, but I'll tell you because I think you might appreciate it. Last year, we did a show at Loughborough, a sell-out and a really good show, and I had the Dean of our faculty sitting on the front row, who's never watched wrestling before at all. I was like, “I'll get you front row seats. It's going to be great. You'll have a lovely time.” He was there with his wife, daughter, and it's all great.
We were doing this silly Art-core match with fruit and all sorts of other things, and Chris Brookes lands in my Dean's lap. It looks like, from my angle sitting on commentary, that he literally takes the guy out, and I'm sitting there thinking, “This is terrible, he's taken our Dean out.” I saw him at half-time, and he was like, “It was amazing. It was like being stroked. He just had such control over his body.” Of course, he's from a theatrical background. He understands performance, understands performance bodies, and appreciated the way that Chris had that kind of connection with his own kind of physical practise. So that was a relief to me, but that was one example of one person who's come along to a show. There's lots of other academics who have been along and really enjoyed it. So we've been kind of introducing academic friends and theatre people to wrestling over the past few years.”
So he kind of appreciated not being killed by Chris Brookes (laughs)?
“Well, yeah, that's right. From my angle, it looked like he killed him, so I was glad that he hadn't done that. I'm not sure how that would have gone down and how safe my job would have been (laughs).”
Did you feel any pressure? Of course, there was a part of you that thought he was going to enjoy it, but was there a part of you that thought this could go really bad?
“Oh, yeah, totally, and I feel like that almost every time I invite someone along to a show. Especially an academic colleague or kind of a theatre friend, and I think actually it's a really important part of what I do, which is around taking risks. And I am aware that the wrestlers that we work with take risk all the time, and one of the things wrestling has taught me is how to take risk. Because I think as academics, we're really risk-averse, in almost every area of academic life is risk-averse. You are trying to make sure that you don't say anything that could be misconstrued. You're trying to make sure that every class you teach is amazing because your students are going to be assessing you. You're trying to make sure that everything you write is fantastic, and on and on and on.
You become really risk-averse, and I think wrestling has taught me a lot of things, but I think one of the things that it's taught me is to gently take more risk in my career, and therefore to invite people along and be like, “You should come, you'd have a great night.” By in large, it's worked really well. People have had a really good time, and as I more and more kind of lay that out, people have responded in kind, so that's been really encouraging.”
That's good to know, coming from both sides of me, the academic side and the wrestling fan in me. I've often used the theatre analogy for wrestling, especially when explaining it to teaching colleagues of mine who have either a theatre or film background. I say it's like theatre in the sense that performers have one take to nail it, but they still can't seem to understand it, which I can't understand because we come from a similar background.
“Yeah, some people have a real block on it, I think. But by in large, my experience has been that people have kind of begun to understand it. I think, sometimes, it's worth pushing that analogy a bit because I think, sometimes when people say, “Wrestling is like theatre,” and I'm like, “Well, it's kind of like theatre.” But if you went to the National Theatre and stood up on the front row and held up a placard and drank beer and booed, you'd get thrown out. So it's sort of like theatre, and it's sort of not like theatre at all. So, in essence, it's a bit more akin to Shakespeare theatre than it is to how we understand the contemporary theatre to be, depending on your view of contemporary theatre, of course.
If your understanding of contemporary theatre is sitting in a dark room next to lots of people all in silence, then wrestling is nothing like theatre. But it is a bit like theatre if you think about it in relation to like Shakespeare and Pit and that kind of globe set up, it's very much like theatre then. Or if you think about it in reference to kind of music-halls or something like that, those sorts of theatrical events. Then it's really like theatre. So it's both like theatre and not like theatre all at the same time, which is wrestling all in really. In my scholarship and in my discussions with other scholars, we'll go, “It's like this, and it's not like this.” That's kind of it's like sport, but it's not like sport. You know, it's like, but it's not is kind of a regular refrain, I think, in the way that we understand wrestling.”
Yes, because for me, I kind of press that theatre analogy to try and get people to understand it in one way. But, of course, if I go into those other elements, it's likely going to be quite confusing (laughs).
“Yeah. One of the things that we've explored, especially over the past year is around contact improvisation. In some ways, there is even stronger similarities with kind of contemporary physical theatre performance practise or dance even. In the way that wrestlers use, to what really is contact improvisation. So what is really like learning through touch, and speaking through touch, and understanding the person you're working with through touch. I think one of the things that people will often respond to when I talk to them about wrestling, like theatre people, is that these are not two people against each other, these two people are working together to create the appearance of being against each other. That's sometimes a good way in as well. To be like, they are having to collaborate in a way that actors have to collaborate. In fact, in an even closer way than that. In a way that contact improvisers have to collaborate, and that's sometimes quite a good way of trying to get theatre people to understand it better.”
Yeah, it's almost like Bret Hart said, it's like dancing.
“Yes, it's very much like dancing. So people will often make that boxing comparison, “Is it like boxing?” and I'm like, “It's actually the opposite of boxing. It looks like boxing, but it's nothing like boxing. It's like ballroom dancing,” and they're like, “Oh, right, okay,” (laughs). I stick by that. I think that is also quite helpful when people watch it, especially if the thing that is putting them off wrestling is the violence, which I think is something that can put people off. I think if they don't like boxing or MMA because they don't like the violence, then, the same isn't true for wrestling. It's not violent in the same way as boxing.”
How or has your modernism work ever affected your work on wrestling?
“Yes, definitely. I released a paper a couple of months ago now around wrestling's emergence from kind of modernist music-hall, which is where it started, and sort of 1930's wrestling in Britain, and its relation to modernist fakery. So modernism is often regarded as kind of the high point of scientific endeavour and truth and all that sort of thing, but actually, there is a lot of fakery going on, and wrestling is an interesting part of that, I think. The clearer answer to that question, I think, is that I became particularly interested in my modernist work on the body and performance. We mentioned Stanislavski, but I'm actually even more interested in Vsevolod Meyerhold and his biomechanics, which is really interesting. In my mind, there is some really interesting connections between Meyerhold and wrestling, which I haven't managed to write about yet (laughs), but one day.
A lot of that early 20th-century theatre practise work is really embodied, and I mean that in the proper sense of that word, so like they're interested in bodies on the stage. They're interested in street performance, the training of the body, and the ways that the bodies can be changed or made strange. Like these amazing costumes that make strange the body, and makes you go, “Huh, I never thought about the body like that,” and I think that “Huh, I never thought about the body like that” is something that, for me, connects my modernist work with my wrestling work. Kind of like what bodies can do and the amazing things that bodies can do, and the sometimes shocking, sometimes disturbing things that bodies can do both in the wrestling ring, and in this early 20th-century experimental pushing of the boundaries of what performance is.
So I see really strong connections between those things, I think. Particularly around pushing what it is our bodies can do, taking risk. Risk again is one of my connecting points. Risk in early 20th-century work. A lot of it went wrong. A lot of it was booed off the stage. A lot of it was not popular in the sense that we might understand popular. But they were constantly trying to push what it was that they were doing. Constantly trying to kind of push to the next level in what they were doing, and challenge what we understand by art, and I think that for me, wrestling also challenges what we understand by art. In a different way probably, but it still pushes the boundaries. It makes the boundaries of art porous and allows new practices to kind of intercept what we might understand by art. For me, that's very exciting. It's exciting in my early 20th-century work, and it's exciting in my wrestling work.”
That's fascinating, and to be fair, for whatever reason, one person kept popping in my mind when you spoke about the bodies and the costumes, and that was The Undertaker. Of course, you spoke about the disturbing things, and he does the rolling of the eyes, etc.
“No, you're absolutely right, and I think that Undertaker gimmick, the gothic and interest in death, this is very modernist actually. He probably doesn't appreciate it. He probably doesn't sit there going, “Yeah, this is really like early 20th-century theatre” (laughs). But actually, that sense of kind of creepiness about his performance practise, you could read that in some of the plays of the early 20th-century quite straightforwardly. And the rolling of the eyes, there's always something about the grotesque body in wrestling, I think, which I find kind of fascinating, and it's there in the early 20th-century thing as well.
There is a lot of reference to blood, pulling bodies apart, and this is, of course, coming out of the First World War, so there are clear reasons for this. But actually, you can see a strange lineage if you wanted to, between that sort of work with heads rolling around the stage and that sort of stuff, in that early 20th-century expressionist work, and kind of contemporary wrestling, which also has some really interesting things to say about blood and its reality in performance work. I'm probably pushing it a bit far, but I think there are these tropes that come back that you can read analogously in kind of interesting ways.”
No, that's true. More recently, we've seen a lot of cinematic matches in wrestling. So if this continues, it almost takes away a lot of the theatre elements that we've been discussing, especially the audience dynamic.
“Yes, yes, it does. Yeah, I've been kind of fascinated with them. The WrestleMania matches particularly. That Undertaker/AJ Styles match was – I kind of loved it. I was quite surprised that I did because I was not looking forward to that WrestleMania at all (laughs), and I was like, “Man, this is so great.” The cinematography of that was so good, and there was one thing that I was thinking about afterwards, and I think one of the reasons that I enjoyed it is the kind of counter reason to why I enjoy the theatricality of wrestling. So I knew in that segment, there was nothing that would go wrong. Like, no one would land on their head. There was no danger that there will be an injury or anything like that because it was pre-recorded. So I knew that it was going to be fine.
Of course, in live wrestling, one of the kinds of frissons underneath live wrestling is the danger, and that you're not quite sure what's going to happen next. Of course, as an audience, I wasn't sure what was going to happen next with the AJ/Taker segment, but there is something about the liveness of wrestling that is lost in those segments. It is interesting, and it's interesting if read through a lot of other wrestling at the time, which has kind of imported back its audience in, in slightly awkward ways to be fair. But interestingly, football has done that as well (laughs). So football has now turned into wrestling, and now we pipe our crowd noises into the stadium. I think that shows that there is an awareness that there is something about the liveness of these events that connects with us, which I don't think is going to be lost during this period.
So that's a long answer to the question. I think that the cinematic will continue, and I think that there has been some real interesting innovations around that as well, and I would be really keen to see some more interesting matches around that. But also there is an appreciation that the liveness of wrestling is one of the things that makes wrestling great. The being together, the audience, the interaction with the audience, and the sense that you're not quite sure what's going to happen. The sense of risk that's there. So I wonder if we're going to end up with two different types of wrestling. The more cinematic, and I mean that segment [Undertaker vs. AJ] would not have been out of place in a Hollywood film. It was that sort of cinematic. Then the more week to week, episodic wrestling that we love because we're able to engage with it in some way. For me, the liveness of wrestling is one of the things that makes it great, so I hope we never lose that.”
I think it's interesting if you look at another Undertaker WrestleMania match against Shawn Michaels, that match had that risk element with Undertaker almost breaking his neck diving out of the ring. So, of course, that's an element you would never get in a cinematic match.
“Precisely right, and it goes without saying, you don't ever want anyone to injure themselves, but this is not like, “I want them to be injured,” of course not. My goodness, I care about these guys. But at the same time, the danger that ripples under the surface of it is exciting to audience members and losing that, you would lose something about what wrestling is. Whilst at the same time, I appreciate what they've done cinematically over the past few months, which has been really fascinating.”
You've also explored camps and the effectiveness of camps in your research. Has that crossed over to wrestling in any way?
“So the camp stuff, it's quite funny when I titled this paper because I was like, “Oh, no, the word camp is really loaded” (laughs). So one of the things that I particularly got interested in was kind of Butlin's Holiday Camps. So I'm interested in popular culture actually, and I'm consciously aware that popular culture does not need academics to be so interesting to get analysed. But at the same time, I think I've got something relatively interesting to say about this. So for me, the interesting thing about the Holiday Camp is the way that it sets up this pretend world. This is not a slag by the way, on wrestling or Butlin's, I'm very careful about that in that paper. It's just the kind of working out of a relationship as opposed to like, “Oh, you must be daft to go to Butlin's.” It's none of that at all.
This is a fascinating space, and it's a fascinating space because it creates a different world. Basically, you're in Skegness, and it's the coldest place in the world, and it's hardly like the tropics. But, if you look back over Butlin's history, there is this sort of creation of a different world. They talk about delight. It's a delight. They talk about that quite a lot. Everything is worked in kind of little competitions, so it becomes its own little world. There is some interesting theoretical ways of understanding this if you go to Jean Baudrillard's work. Here's my philosophy hat on for a second.
He [Baudrillard] talks about simulacra that actually there are these worlds that exist as kind of worlds in themselves. Disneyland is a prime example. So it's both real and not real at the same time, and underneath it is kind of a nothing. There is a kind of gap because there isn't anything real there. It's all part of this pretend world. So I was really interested in these ideas of sort of this pretend world. This Butlin's idea of there being almost this magical world where we get sort of whizzed away from our everyday lives, and we become part of something else. So what I was interested in was how wrestling is a part of that world of “delight.” How it's part of this narrative of everything's great here, everything is perfect, and we live in this perfect world that is almost detached from the pretty tough world you might come from.
Wrestling is a really interesting part in this because of the way that Butlin's is slightly different from other wrestling. I start that paper thinking about Daniel Bryan, who said he learned a lot from performing at Holiday Camps in Britain, where he got booed out of the place by the way for being an American, which is interesting. So there is this kind of slight xenophobic thing going on, which is a bit troubling.”
I believe I read that in his book.
“Yeah, I think anybody who can do the Holiday Camp circuit, I have utter respect for them as a wrestler because it is hard work, and you are talking to crowds who aren't wrestling crowds per se but are there because they want to be entertained. And they want to be entertained through certain narratives. So often what will happen is people will come on with flags, and be the goodies because they have the British flag. So I suppose the storylines are simpler, and again, that's not a slag at all. That's just when we read wrestling. We read these storylines. We read the characters in front of us.
So I was interested in the way that chimed with the feeling that the world is cut off, and actually, I think people get that quite a lot from wrestling. They enter the wrestling space, whether that be WWE or a British indie scene or wherever it might be, they enter in, and it becomes like this little community, which is somewhat detached from other things going on around it. Same with film, same with all sorts of different parts of popular culture, that we use them as kind of an escape in some ways from other things. So that's why I was interested in wrestling and the Holiday Camp.”
Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview with Claire Warden