Everywhere I turn lately, wrestling fans are debating promos: who cuts the best promo, what makes a great promo, and whether or not wrestlers should work from scripts. Each opinion is unique; everyone has a different favorite, a certain preference for one wrestler or manager's style over another. But in all of these discussions, I rarely hear talk of the finer points of the promo, the fundamentals of performance.
After spending my college career studying all aspects of theater, with a heavy focus on performance and playwriting, I find my analysis of pro wrestling has much less to do with the proper execution of wrestling maneuvers (which I have no background in) and much more to do with dialogue delivery and promos in general. Perhaps my background has caused me to turn a hyper-critical eye to the art of the promo, but a lack of theatrical foundation is what is turning fans away from certain performers.
I know it might pain a great deal of wrestling fans to admit it but pro wrestling is theater. One of the definitions listed for "theater" in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary include "entertainment in the form of a dramatic or diverting situation or series of events". Wrestling fits that mold, doesn't it? At its basis, professional wrestling is a physical and athletic form of theatrical entertainment. Therefore, the skillset required to successfully execute the performance aspect of a pro wrestling event should be the same as the skill set required to perform a play, film a movie or TV show, or deliver a speech.
Basics like understanding character and plot seem obvious. If a wrestler doesn't understand his or her character, how are they going to communicate with the audience? There's going to be an obvious sense of disconnect. The first person to buy a gimmick has to be the wrestler, even on a superficial level. If they don't believe in themselves portraying their particular character, how can they expect anyone else to? The same goes for story lines: if a wrestler doesn't believe in a story line or can't bring themselves to sell the story, nobody watching is going to believe it either.
Once the character and story lines are established, translating those two components to the audience is the core of pro wrestling. The two main methods to tell the story in pro wrestling are the matches and the promos, whether they be live in-ring or pre-taped. Just as a pro wrestler would never be allowed in the ring without proper training, a promo requires an acute understanding of the key fundamentals of performance: body language, voice, dialogue, and crowd interaction.
If you watch pro wrestling, you already analyze body language without even realizing. The way people enter the ring is crucial, and fans will read a great deal into a wrestler's physical behaviors. Remember when Miss Elizabeth and Randy Savage reunited at WrestleMania 7 and he held the ropes for her? What a poignant moment that was, after years of her holding the ropes for him, it was so touching for the viewers to see him finally return the gesture.
That kind of deliberate physical action should also carry through to how a performer behaves with a mic in their hand. A performer's swagger, their stance, the way they hold the microphone, it is all a part of the character. When a performer's actions become disconnected from their character, the audience can sense that.
Nothing is more of a turn-off to me as a viewer than someone who walks around the ring while talking because they don't know how to be still.
There are definitely characters out there that it can work for (Dean Ambrose and Bray Wyatt come to mind) but it's not always a choice. Sometimes that frantic movement is a sign of nerves or even stage fright. Why can't a performer just stand in the ring and command their audience? This lack of physical control makes me particularly nervous when high flyers like Seth Rollins or Cody Rhodes pace the ring during a promo. How can high-flying wrestlers be that unaware of their bodies?
But there are plenty of people right there on your TV every Monday night who know how to use their bodies without seeming erratic. Paul Heyman immediately comes to mind (more on him later), as does AJ Lee. Her movements in particular are usually small (a head tilt or crossed legs) while still being readable. But body language is not just about standing still or pacing. It's also about how you gesture while you speak. A perfect example of this is a promo that included all three members of The Shield on the episode of Main Event that followed WrestleMania 30. The way Roman Reigns was holding on to the collar of his vest was reminiscent of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
Just that small gesture conveys confidence and cockiness perfectly.
On the flip side, when a performer is unaware of their extremities, gestures can become an awkward robotic motion conveying not much more than cluelessness. The biggest offender of this lately has been Lana (also more on her later). She's gotten much better about keeping her left arm down while she holds the mic with her right. But when a match is over and she's standing beside Rusev under the Russian flag, she never knows what to do besides put her left hand on her hip and present him with her right arm. The longer the cameras are on her, the more you see her put her right hand down, bring it up to her hip, then gesture again. On the July 7, 2014 episode of RAW she did this routine three times. (I counted.)
How you use your voice has little to do with what you're saying. It's about how you're saying it. A performer's voice is made up of rhythm, pace, pitch, and volume. The volume part must come first because, if no one can hear you, nothing else matters.
This ties back into gestures, as a performer's volume can be assisted by an amplification system. However, having such a system is only helpful if you know how to use it. Many performers hold the mic too far away from their face. It can also become a problem when you have an interviewer who is significantly shorter than the interviewee, like Renee Young, who is a foot or more shorter than the wrestlers she interviews. That height difference means she's often not getting the mic close enough to the wrestler's face.
(Photo via WWE.com)
If you're properly utilizing your mic, you also need to control your own volume. One of my personal favorites when it comes to promos is Jake "The Snake" Roberts, who always spoke in a low growl. Even at a quieter volume, you could understand him and you almost wanted to lean in to hear more. He made a choice not to shout above the crowds, but rather to force them to quiet down in order to hear his expertly delivered promos.
Sometimes a softer voice can be detrimental, though. This past Monday night's episode of RAW included a segment where Fandango was featured on commentary during a Dolph Ziggler vs. Alberto Del Rio match. Fandango's choice to speak in a soft, seductive, almost ethereal whisper does nothing to help the audience connect with him. It's hard to connect with someone you can't understand. In terms of character, Fandango is most comparable to Tyler Breeze down in NXT, who manages to get his self-obsessed, sexy man-beast type of character across while still speaking audibly.
Of course, there are times you just have to be loud. Two of the most famous talkers of all time, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, both spoke louder than most of the other wrestlers on the roster. Their own volume was matched by that of the crowd, and there was no where to go but up as the chants and screams in the arena reached a fever pitch. But that choice to be loud, to be bigger, also worked well for the characters. It would make sense for a cocky or attention seeking-character to be the loudest person in the room. They also weren't hurting themselves in the process. Just as their body is their instrument, so is a wrestler's voice. When someone is constantly putting an unnecessary strain on that instrument, there will be repercussions.
If Alicia Fox thinks she can keep screaming at the crowd to the point that her voice squeaks, she's going to be sorry when she discovers her voice has been reduced to a rasp in 10 years.
I've read a ton of theories on the argument of scripted vs. unscripted dialogue lately. The most important thing to consider with dialogue is the individual's abilities - is a person capable of speaking off the top of their head while maintaining their body language and their voice? When they do go off-book, are they suddenly talking a mile a minute? Do they pace while they think of what to say? Does it come across to the audience as disingenuous?
If the answer to these questions is "yes", they need help, and that's what writers are for.
Have many of the best promos come off-the-cuff? Sure. But that doesn't mean those wrestlers or managers didn't consult a writer first. As a playwright, I've written scripts and then had actors come to me and say "I really think my character would never say this." Then we work together on why they feel that way and how to perfect the dialogue. Any good wrestler should be going to the ring, or an interview, with a clear idea of who his or her character is and what their current situation and objective are.
You know why Paul Heyman is my (and many other people's) favorite talker? Because he has the mind of a writer.
He's not just looking for the biggest pop in the moment. He sees the big picture and he knows how to use one promo to set up other opportunities down the line. Currently, the character Paul Heyman is really enjoying gloating about Brock Lesnar's win over the Undertaker at WrestleMania 30. But the writer Paul Heyman knows that he doesn't need to keep repeating his "one in 21 and one" shtick for us to remember what happened. It's a set-up. He's creating a feeling within his audience that he can utilize later. His use of dialogue not only solidifies his character as a heel, but serves to establish a basis for future situations.
Now, not everyone can do this. Some people just work better from a script because they're not confident enough in their own freestyle abilities to shoot from the hip. I would say the majority of the current WWE roster actually falls into a middle group of individuals who can't go completely unscripted, but who stumble over scripted lines because they're trying too hard to remember the exact wording or sequence.
I'm looking at you, Randy Orton.
These people need structure and guidance, which there is absolutely no shame in. Being the kind of writer who wants to build a relationship with my actors, I would encourage anyone who is going to have time on the mic to evaluate themselves; find out where their strengths and weaknesses are. Then, align themselves with a writer who can give them what they need to be successful. Just as every talker is different, every writer is as well. Somewhere out there is the perfect writer fit for every type of talker.
There is also that small group (currently populated most notably by Brock Lesnar) who simply cannot speak on the mic. They have no confidence in their abilities, they're unable to create dialogue in the moment, and they can't seem to retain pre-written lines.
I hope you're feeling the feelings here.
But that's why people like Paul Heyman exist. Some people are blessed with unparalleled wrestling abilities, but not the gift of gab. Let's not make those people rise to unattainable goals. Instead, give them what they need to be successful - a mouthpiece.
This seems to be the most overlooked skill needed for a solid performance, and yet it is the skill most likely to destroy a performer if they have not mastered it. If you are not in a dance with your crowd, giving them what they want and feeding off their energy, you're dead in the water. An ability to tune the crowd out is a valuable trait to have when you're mid-match and trying to focus, but not during a live promo. During interviews and pre-taped promos, you have the luxury of screwing up and going to take 2. When you're live, it's sink-or-swim time.
Over the past year, we have seen the entire spectrum of individuals who can and can't deal with the crowds. The individual I love-to-hate the most in WWE right now is Stephanie McMahon. Every time she comes out to the ring to deliver a promo, the crowd reaches a fever pitch.
I saw her live at the Barclay's Center for an episode of RAW. Daniel Bryan was injured and not in the building that night, so when Stephanie came out, the place went absolutely berserk. I've never heard a crowd that loud in-person before. But even from my seat half-way up the arena, surrounded by crazed super-fans, I was listening to Stephanie McMahon. She has created an artform in "misinterpreting" crowd chants, twisting them to her own meaning. But she never, ever ignores a crowd. She knows there's no point. They will be heard, so she might as well answer them.
Notice Bryan's reaction here. He stops, his eyes flicker, and he's clearly searching for the proper way to respond. Stephanie steps in for him and completely owns the audience. That was the last "CM Punk" chant during this segment.
Bray Wyatt, too, is a master of crowd interaction. His character demands that he know how to draw in each and every person in that audience. He is comfortable in his body language, his voice, and his dialogue. He even knows how to take a pause when the crowd has gotten too loud to hear him. His slow drawl delivery gives ample time to build a promo to a peak.
But not everyone plays at Bray or Stephanie's level. Before leaving The Shield, Seth Rollins was delivering long-winded promos that had no real rhythm. His dialogue would often disappear into the noise of the crowd before abruptly ending in a hand-off to one of his brothers. Since his heel turn, he has improved immensely but he's still not great. He's learned to interact with the crowd, instead of letting their volume overwhelm him. He stays fairly calm, too, which just furthers his slimey, rat bastard character.
Finally, and not to beat a dead horse but, this is another place where Lana fails. As soon as the crowd gets louder, she starts to fumble her lines, sometimes even awkwardly glaring into the crowd while she tries to recover before she ends up screaming for everyone to shut up. Her relationship with the audience reminds me somewhat of Vickie Guerrero's, but at least Vickie embraced her character enough to keep the story moving along, no matter how much they screamed and booed her. Lana just shuts down like a toy with no battery.
In those moments, when a performer gives in to their audience, they have failed. The crowd is not there to hear one another. They have attended this event for the performance, and to be unable to deliver because the crowd is overwhelming is simply a failure of the performer.
Assisting talent in reaching their fullest potential should be the priority of everyone who works in the creative department of pro wrestling. Figuring out what someone's strengths are and amplifying them, or downplaying their weaknesses, is the key. Not everyone is going to cut promos like Paul Heyman or Stone Cold. But figuring out where on the spectrum they fall and exploring all of the aspects of good performance could absolutely revolutionize the quality of the product we as fans get each night.