Interview with Jillian Wallis

Jillian Wallis, Drama Lecturer at University of Greenwich, London, has worked in theatre as a performer, director and teacher since 1987. She has produced and toured theatre all over the United Kingdom and in Europe with her own companies, as well as working freelance. She has mostly worked on new plays and theatre with particular physical and visual styles. This has included devising with writers, ensemble physical theatre and site-specific performance. She runs drama workshops and most recently directed an Irish play for the London fringe.

Wallis completed her BA Hons in Theatre at Darlington College of Arts in 1987 and her MA in Media Arts Philosophy & Practice at University of Greenwich in 2007.

Interview conducted in February 2012

Ultimate Warrior’s “Crash the plane” promo –
JW: It’s semi-improvised, obviously, it’s a soliloquy, obviously, but it’s also, to me, it’s like a prologue because it’s before, you know… how a prologue works in theatre, in that it’s to the audience before the main play, it’s like a little introduction, but it’s also a kind of direct address to the audience, although he’s talking to another character. It definitely feels to me like a prologue, which I think is why it works as a sort of theatre because the next thing is going to be very different. I mean, maybe there isn’t going to be a next thing because the plane’s going to crash… It’s not, but it kind of makes us sit up because it’s a preamble or like a prologue…
It also has this sense of ritualistic performance in it… in that… the movement of him being with his back to us and then turning kind of semi-ritualistically and then at moments when he really squares up, like a haka in rugby or something, it has that kind of, sort of ritualised movement thing, which I think is completely deliberate.
LZK: He’s trying to be very imposing and to scare us.
JW: Yeah, and trying to manipulate our reading of him… with his mask (face paint) and his posture. He does those kind of animalistic rasping noises, which also makes me find it very ritualised. He starts with his back and then he does the whole thing where he really squares up to us and then turns away again very slowly. It’s like a ritual prologue thing, is how I’d define it if it was a genre or some kind of form.
It’s interesting in that it’s also semi-improvised and he’s kind of building up to this thing of he’s not the one and his opponent is gonna die. So it has this real kind of line through and build…
It’s quite scary… It is a bit god-like as well, this kind of control thing.

Ric Flair challenging Hulk Hogan –
JW: To me it’s more like a political rally. It’s very much like those (sic) American Republican rallying of the voters… It’s rhetoric, obviously, in that it’s an argument that’s structured and built and built and built, and basically you can’t argue with it. So in the same way ‘Look Back in Anger’ Jimmy Porter -rhetorician, Shakespeare – certain monologues have rhetoric. It seems to be borrowing that kind of politician thing, to me, anyway.
Also there’s a kind of evangelical sense. “We’re gettin’ higher and we’re gettin’ higher and we’re gettin’ higher” and I think he even said ‘we’re gonna go to heaven’ at one point. And the way that he plays the crowd.
LZK: Well, the fact is, that’s his home town, so they’re all with him anyway, which you’ll find at political rallies, it’ll be almost hand selected (audience) or people will come there for that purpose because they like that politician. And then he’s naming the famous sport stars. I think Chapel Hill must have been a reference to where they were at the time – maybe Michael Jordan had scored or he’d played basketball there or something (in fact Chapel Hill is the University of North Carolina campus where Jordan played for three years in the 1980s).
JW: That’s also the evangelical thing, they refer… “as it said in the Bible and Judgment Day, this happened and this happened.” It’s like that – “as it was and it will be again.” To me it’s that in terms of the speech, and that he’s using imagery of past events in a kind of semi-biblical style. He’s placing those moments in the listener’s mind. Going back to then and making us think that that’s gonna happen again, revisiting it.
One thing that’s quite interesting as well is the interviewer (‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund); he’s certainly playing off of him.
Yeah, well, at the beginning it was more like they were doing this kind of double act. I was thinking (of)… the dramatic form. It’s more like a double act. They’re going “we’re here, we’re here, and da-da and da-da.” And in the double act you always get a contrast… the traditional one is the straight guy and the funny guy… but it can be any kind of contrast. In that one the interviewer to me is more the kind of solid level – “and this and this” kind of tone in terms of the rhythm. And he starts and then he gets bigger and then he gets bigger and then (the interviewer) kind of builds him. You could talk about a double act ‘cause (the interviewer)’s still in the screen… even though the camera zoomed in really well on Flair… We saw the interviewer guy coming in from out of the shot… so to me it also has double act because it wouldn’t work as well without the other guy…
LZK: No, delivering just a plain monologue in the middle of the ring would seem somewhat out of place at the very least.
JW: He sets him up by saying… something about “are you gonna tell us about this” and he says “I’m gonna ride that one, I’m gonna wait.” They both are in that together, there’s a complicity between them. So in terms of performance there’s that complicity of the double act. You have us and then you have the audience as well as you me in the audience and you in the audience, you also have us and the audience.
LZK: What about the interaction with the crowd, he gives them time to finish, (etc). Does this happen in theatre sometimes?
JW: Well… it’s direct address, basically. It’s called direct address, where you talk to the audience as the audience. So you’re not in character kind of looking over the top of their head, you’re actually talking to them as yourself. I’ll be looking at you and fifty other people and so I’ll speak to you and I’ll let you respond and I see you respond. And so you kind of ride the moment together, which you do anyway even if you’re playing a character, but it’s different because you actually play off of that more. In the same way like a music hall. It is quite music-hally actually.
LZK: Well, his theme song’s playing at the beginning and the end.
JW: It has that sort of slightly music hall feel. I’m just trying to think of someone who’s like that… I can’t think of anyone who’s more like a politician than a music hall player… Music hall – so you talk to the audience, you say “hello everybody, how are you tonight? I can’t hear you” – this kind of thing. And then different acts come on, variety acts. But you have this figure who’s the host… MC kind of character. In a way (Flair)’s doing that as much as he’s doing anything else, I would say. In that he’s being himself, but he’s kind of bigger than himself. You get that sometimes within a play, you’ll get a person who speaks directly to the audience, you can mix in one play… those genres. It’s direct address.
LZK: He’s repeating “woo” over and over again, he’s done this through his whole career…
JW: It’s just repeated phrases… to create rhythm and build up what you’re doing… it’s like a catchphrase, I would say it’s his catchphrase. If it’s a variety music hall person or if it’s a character in a play, in order to make us warm towards them they have repeated catchphrases that we associate with them. The more you hear them you get a bit mesmerised by it, but you also know it so you see it a second time and you go ‘oh, I know this’, like… the chicken-walk or the “woo!” thing…
It’s also more like music-hall… it makes me think of Max Wall who’d come up and do this walk. He had a funny walk that everybody thought of as Max Wall’s walk. It’s comedy more than it’s theatre… But also in Britain it’s things like Bruce Forsythe – “nice to see you to see you nice” and all of that elbow on the knee thing and also he does it to the crowd, he goes “do you like it?” – “yeah, we like it.”, all of that stuff. It’s as much about being an entertainer more than a character, rather than in a play, but you get characters in plays like that as well…
Ric Flair, I thought he was quite interesting ‘cause at some point he really lost himself into it… He was really completely going there and transformed. You can talk about transcendence in acting when it’s as if you become someone else, you transcend yourself. And he was going for that at certain times… He was really doing that mixing double act thing then he had that kind of political rally, the evangelical and then he kind of lost himself in the role…

CM Punk’s worked shoot –
JW: He’s saying he’s breaking the fourth wall… for the stage it’s an invisible wall between you and the audience and if you break it then you’re coming out of character and losing your suspension of disbelief. When he’s doing this character it’s semi-meant to be natural anyway… it’s not meant to be a big character performance so it’s quite weird that he goes “breaking the fourth wall” to the camera.
LZK: Even sitting down on the stage, nobody does that. You can also tell that he’s very comfortable on the microphone anyway.
JW: Yeah!
LZK: He mentioned there that “I’m the best wrestler” and the WWE try to emphasize that they’re not (just) wrestling, they’re entertainers. They try to not say on television (the term) ‘wrestling’ or ‘wrestler’ so he’s breaking that law by referring to himself as the best wrestler.
JW: He’s actually got three points of focus; he’s got his opponent and then he’s got the crowd and then that little bit to the camera so that’s quite interesting.
It’s also very much like rappers.
LZK: Yeah, boastful.
JW: Yep.
They’re booing him, sort of.
An aside is in Elizabethan Shakespearean theatre, it’s… so we’re talking as characters and then I say “thank goodness you didn’t hear me say that” to audience and then I come back to you. So that little deliberate ‘hiya-ha’ and then back is an aside and he’s doing that, which is different to when it’s all to the audience. What an aside does is it makes the relationship between the character and audience complicit in that ‘we know something that you don’t know’, it’s like a little secret thingy between us although you can hear. It’s quite clever in this situation because it’s shutting (the main addressee, John Cena) out when he does that. So it’s a power thing. But then he goes all kind of vague. It’s also lots of insults so that’s very theatrical, the use of insults.
LZK: That’s a traditional thing within promos to insult.
JW: Clever and witty put-downs. Look at the restoration theatre for that. It’s like Blackadder kind of time, after Shakespeare time.
It’s very different – all of that. The one thing that stood out for people is that he’s naming rival organisations, wrestlers who’ve left the company on bad terms that you can’t mention ever. It happens a little bit now like Eastenders mentioning Coronation Street and whatnot, but that’s really, really taboo… So it was a worked shoot, but to the nth degree.
He’s mixing lots of different things there. I think the interesting thing is that some of it is directly to (Cena) and then some of it is to the crowd and then he’s also aware of the camera. He’s getting the crowd on his side.
He kind of is, but what he did before that, was, I think he was in New York and he’s from Chicago, and in order to get heat (negative audible reaction) he sung ‘Chicago’ (to the crowd) to kind of antagonize them. So he didn’t want them on his side, but then he addressed (them), he said “those who are booing me and those who are cheering me – I’m in this position because of management, how I’ve been managed.”…
Like in the beginning of the play The Libertine, it’s also a film with Johnnie Depp where he does this direct address to camera and says “you will not like me, I don’t want you to like me, but you will love me and you will want me, all of you” and you’re meant to love him and hate him and it’s very insulting… (Depp’s character) has that (similar) kind of confidence of wanting to be a baddie.

Legacy considering break-up –
JW: It’s just bad acting. There’s also something homoerotic about it. It’s like Neighbours, but very bad… That’s pretty funny, it’s almost laughable, but I don’t think it’s meant to be.
I actually think it’s entertaining because it’s bad scripting as well. And also the physicality is just so funny because they’re meant to be these unstoppable physical forces and then they’re standing around… and when actors don’t know what to do they shuffle so I think there’s a lot of that kind of shuffling acting. You’d say ‘do less’ – ‘oh, okay, I’ll just stand here, oh, I’ll do this’. Also gesture – ‘I will now do this, you see me gesturing?’ It’s really signposted, but quite funny.

Mickie James – Gail Kim backstage cat-fight –
JW: They’re both trying not to laugh. They’re corpsing; corpsing is when you laugh and you don’t mean to laugh.
LZK: It’s almost the way that Jerry Springer guests would react to being grilled.
JW: What noises are they actually making?
LZK: The thing for me is that they actually acknowledge that there’s a camera person there, which for me I can suspend my disbelief a little bit more.
JW: Yeah, it’s more like a documentary-style acting, more like kind of docu-soap, which we see a lot of on TV now – like the Supernanny or all that kind of stuff. These terrible TV shows where they’re aware that they’re being filmed, but they’re still pretending, they’re carrying on as normal. It doesn’t really translate to theatre because theatre doesn’t have that third eye of the camera. So it’s different… it’s just not there. But it still has acting in it so it does relate to theatre that way.
It did seem heavily scripted… It was like ‘pretend you’re being interviewed and then she comes and says I want to talk to you now.’ So it was like a pretend interview. It’s very self-conscious. I would say it’s self-conscious acting in that it’s not naturalistic. The fighting definitely isn’t naturalistic. It’s self-conscious dialogue. It also seems like that kind of teenage crisis script. Everything’s a huge drama, but it’s not really.
They both have this thing with their mouths. (Mickie James) did this kind of kissy gesture to the other woman and there’s a lot of that pouting.
It’s also inexperienced actors in that when you’ve under-rehearsed something it’s like ‘oh, here’s the bit where you say this’ so I’m going ‘I know you’re gonna say that and then I say my line’. So you’re pre-empting it… You’re expecting it and because you heard it in your head what the other person said… you’re pre-empting what’s coming in terms of what you’re giving me, but also you’re pre-empting how you’re gonna say your own line…
I also think that I guess because it’s the glamour thing and it’s partly about the display that they’re playing on, I guess…
They’ve got to stay in character, to an extent
Yeah, but if they were really gonna do it… I am guessing that this is shot by a man… because you could make that quite scary – the fight and the build-up. They could still smile and be horrible to each other, but you could actually have a bit of guts to it and menace and it would be much more effective… I would have directed it like that…
It’s just believability; they haven’t got any believability, really. Or at least if they have they don’t care, they’ve got this kind of shallow believability, which makes us care less about them…. Because actually the script’s quite good!
She smiled then (when she was about to be hit)…
These girls… it’s like Neighbours or something like that.

John Morrison’s ridiculous promo (Smackdown ’09) –
JW: It’s all rhetoric, really, what they’re doing, but they’re kind of messing with the style of it.
It’s quite sacrificial, it’s like it’s the end of everything whenever they speak, like the ultimate sacrifice. Which makes me think it’s the climax of the play, every one seems to be some kind of climactic moment of the show.
It’s the smiling, it’s like someone said smile three times at these points. It’s just very wooden.
LZK: All the promos are written for him, but he was talking about ‘you can celebrate with your freaks on the mountain’ and that has no relevance to anything. That’s another reason why it’s so ridiculous.
JW: Yeah. He’s obviously been told he’s got a winning smile… and so he smiled at all the wrong places somehow. It’s that kind of display acting rather than coming from inside, which… Ultimate Warrior is all about from the inside out. So in terms of acting technique you’d say (Ultimate Warrior)’s naturalism and (Jon Morrison)’s all exterior…
I suppose (wrestlers) need to have something special about them or something different… about them… cheesy… Morrison didn’t seem to have anything about him… he just kept smiling and he looked sweet almost.


About zkthepoet

Sports and comedy writer from London, England
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