The adrenaline filled, rough & tumble world of professional wrestling wouldn’t typically by the first thing to spring to to mind when you think musical theatre. However, according to the creators of Dubbo Championship Wrestling at the Hayes Theatre there are far more similarities than you may realise.
Speaking to City Hub recently writer Daniel Cullen & dramaturg Sheridan Harbridge talked us through how this unique rock musical came to fruition.
For Daniel, a long time wrestling fan & lover of musical theatre, this show is the culmination of his two passions & years of dedicated effort.
“I’ve been a wrestling fan all of my life,” said Daniel before recalling his live wrestling experience. “The first show I went to was at the Manly Leagues Club when I was 13. I remember at that show one of the wrestlers got smacked over the head with computer keyboard, so the letters went flying everywhere & we all got to take home a letter as a souvenir.”
With his love for wrestling cemented in him early on in life he said it was an obvious choice as a topic when he began to explore his other passion for musical theatre. “When it comes to writing musicals they take so long to write that you have choose something that you don’t mind spending 5 years with & still enjoy it. For me that thing was wrestling.”
On the flip side Sheridan Harbridge was a complete newbie to the world of wrestling when she was first introduced to Daniel as a mentor & dramturg to help develop Dubbo Championship Wrestling.
“I knew nothing about wrestling but what I do know is musicals & country towns because I’m from a town just like Dubbo,” explained Sheridan. “So we were a good fit because Dan had the wrestling knowledge, I had the bogan town knowledge & together we both had a great love of Australian musicals.”
After being introduced to the wacky world of wrestling by Daniel & Dubbo Championship Wrestling Sheridan says laughingly that she has “gone down such a weird rabbit hole” & grown into a big fan of the medium.
“I’ll text Dan at 1am about the things I’m watching, it’s crazy,” Sheridan said. “I wish now that I had wrestling in my childhood. I had never seen anything quite like it. I was originally quite a naysayer. I thought it was quite silly. Now I still think it’s quite silly but I love that about it.”
When it comes to the similarities between wrestling & musical theatre both Daniel & Sheridan believe they are two forms of entertainment which are intrinsically linked.
“At the beginning of this adventure I wouldn’t have thought wrestling & musical theatre would blend together,” said Sheridan. “But now I would say they are actually so close to each other. Both mediums have big storylines, big costumes, big characters & big dreams. Once I started to dive in I couldn’t believe that a wrestling musical hadn’t been done before.”
Daniel was then quick to add, “I would say that there’s a lot of overlap that you wouldn’t necessarily think in the first place… Wrestling fans & musical theatre fans are very well practiced as suspending their disbelief. For example, the idea that someone is going to break into song or the idea that someone is going to run back at you after you’ve thrown them into the ropes is one in the same.
“Wrestling is also such a musical art form already. You’ve got the chants & the entrance music. Even though it’s not something you would initially think would go together it’s been quite an easy fit when writing this show.”
In regards to what audiences can expect from Dubbo Championship Wrestling both Daniel & Sheridan say this is a story much in the vein of Australian classic, The Castle.
“This show is built around big stakes in a small stakes world,” explained Daniel. “This is not a life or death story. It’s not about the end of the world. It’s about the fight for survival of a way off life in the little blip of a town. In the broader context of the universe these event might not mean much, but for the characters involved it means the world to them.”
Sheridan then added, “The Castle is absolutely a big reference. It’s all about people with really big passions & a simple way of life.”
On the production side of things Daniel & Sheridan haven’t just taken a professional wrestling themed story & placed it in a traditional theatre. Instead they are bringing a full sized ring into the Hayes Theatre & attempting to create a fusion between the two worlds.
“Dubbo Championship Wrestling shows have 1 foot in the world of wrestling & the other at the Hayes Theatre in Potts Point,” explained Sheridan. “We’re really trying to teach the audience that this is a live event… This show is a real attempt at loosing the buttons of the theatre audience to get them to experience what a live wrestling show is.”
Daniel then added, “the first act is closer to traditional theatre but by the second act you are in the ‘Dubbo Dome’ at ‘DubboMania’. The forth wall is gone & the audience becomes a full-on wrestling crowd.”
On that story front Sheridan said, “Dan has been really clever in trying to fulfil the 2 parts of his love of musical & love of wrestling. He’s tried to leave Easter eggs for both camps.”
A statement to which Dan responded to by saying, “Wrestling fans coming to this show will see that the characters are amalgamations of a bunch of different wrestlers. I don’t like shows that exclude a part of the audience with in jokes or anything but there are Easter eggs that wrestling fans will pick up on.”
With Dubbo Championship Wrestling blending the world of musical theatre with the world of wrestling & incorporating a wrestling ring a special type of performer was needed.
“We need the quadruple threat for this show,” said Sheridan. “We need performers who can sing, dance, act, and wrestle. Finding them has been a big challenge but we’ve got an amazing group of people.”
When the cast was told exactly what they were getting into Sheridan was shocked to see just how eager everyone was.
“Any actor I approached was so excited to do wrestling. Some of our actors even started training with some of the wrestlers from PWA prior to beginning on the show,” said Sheridan before Daniel butted in to add, “It wasn’t just some people from PWA that helped us. It was Robbie Eagles, arguably the best wrestler Australia has ever produced.”
The major difficult that Daniel & Sheridan then had with their eager cast was actually pulling back on the reigns to ensure the cast didn’t get hurt.
“When we started testing we found that the actors really wanted to smash each other around & we couldn’t stop them,” recalled Sheridan. “That meant we went all in for full wrestling whereas I thought we’d have a lighter version.”
During their time developing the show Sheridan said the process also brought out the “secret wrestling fans” among the cast.
“I’ll often catch them talking about moments with the Undertaker or others. That is the thing with wrestling, there is this deep embedded knowledge. I think people secretly know more about wrestling than they do any football code.”
Obviously by blending two art forms into one Dubbo Championship Wrestling ran the risk of appealing to everyone & no-one at the same time. However, as Daniel & Sheridan explained they have a clear goal in mind with the show – they want to introduce fans of both genres to a new art form that they very easily could come to love.
“These are 2 crowds who want very different things from a live experience,” explained Sheridan.
For Sheridan her hope to bring wrestling fans into musical theatre spaces came about through a slight pang of jealousy.
“I am jealous of the wrestling scene. The wrestling fans are what a theatre maker fantasises about for a theatre crowd. The fans know all of these characters & have been following them for years, they know all the chants & all of the history. The fans are there for a live show, they are yelling & screaming, they get mad if it’s not how the story goes in their head. There is this incredible relationship between performer & audience. I am furiously jealous that that isn’t how theatre works.
“In the theatre world we’re so much more conservative. There are these secret rules when you enter a theatre about when to clap or cheer. In wrestling though that’s all thrown out the window so I wish theatre was more like wrestling.”
In closing Daniel expanded on the vision for Dubbo Championship Wrestling,
“Our hope with this show is that instead of turning away both fan bases we want to bring them together. We think this show would be a great way to hit a new demographic & open the eyes of people in both camps to a new world that they might enjoy. At the end of the day musical theatre fans & wrestling fans just want to be told a really good story, which I feel is exactly what Dubbo Championship Wrestling is.”