Illustration by Grace Avery-Parkman

Calgary’s Ghost River Theatre begins production on André the Giant biography with unique creativity

By Matty Hume, April 26 2018 —

Stu Hart, the Family Dungeon, Stampede Wrestling and The Hitman himself.

Calgary, Alberta is internationally recognized as hallowed ground for professional wrestling. In the 1950s, the Saskatchewan-born Stu Hart put Cowtown on the professional wrestling map indefinitely with his Calgary-based promotion, Stampede Wrestling. In addition to Stampede wrestling, which was responsible for shaping stars that would later shine in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF — now World Wrestling Entertainment), Stu purchased a mansion in Patterson Heights that became known as the Hart Family Dungeon. The Dungeon was the training grounds for wrestling’s biggest stars — The British Bulldog, Edge, Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Stu’s own son, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, became the formative personalities of pro-wrestling thanks to a basement in southwest Calgary.

Bret “The Hitman” Hart was not only an international sensation, but a figure that shaped his home community with undying passion. The city’s major junior hockey team, the Calgary Hitmen, have Bret to thank for their name. The Hitman even maintained a column in the Calgary Sun for well over a decade. Arguably Calgary’s biggest star, The Hitman met his match in the ring against the WWF’s literal biggest star, The Eighth Wonder of the World, André René Roussimoff — known immemorial as André the Giant.

With all this legendary history in mind, it makes sense that when Ghost River Theatre — Calgary’s premiere experimental alternative to traditional visual performance — announced production on a biographical play centring on the life of André the Giant, those familiar with Calgary’s influence on the squared circle and the quality of Ghost River’s productions knew the news was as exciting as a top-rope powerbomb.

The aptly titled GIANT is an exploration of one of the most recognizable sports and entertainment figures in history. Even those separated from wrestling fandom undoubtedly adore Roussimoff for his performance of the frighteningly charming Fezzik in The Princess Bride. For David van Belle, the creator-in-residence for Ghost River Theatre, the life of André the Giant is a tale reserved for the stage.

“I started thinking, ‘You know, there’s one character that you never could stage in a movie version of his life.’ Because who’s gonna play him? He’s 7’4” and 500 pounds,” van Belle says. “So the idea came out that, well, maybe this is one of those instances where the theatrical representation might be the more interesting route.”

And the interest is inherent. The tale of a massive and wonderful star, born in Moliens, France and achieved stardom when he moved to Canada, Roussimoff consistently sold out the Montreal Forum, a story abundant with its own magic. But how do you stage The Eighth Wonder of the World? In true Ghost River fashion, the company aims to deliver the story in a way only theatre can.

“The cast is five women, who are going to be playing all of the roles and the actor who’s playing André is maybe 5’2”,” van Belle says. “We thought about how can you scale a world around somebody to make them big or what other ways theatrically can you speak that language to make a giant on stage.”

GIANT is currently in production, with a full-fledged release set for the March 2019 season. Until then, Ghost River is honing their design to display one of the most unique biographies to date, with a focus on puppets and “the animated object” with the help of Vancouver-based production designer Robert Levarousse.

“He was one of the most recognizable sports figures of his time. And there is something about the paradox of being larger than life but also having a wound inside,” van Belle says. “That kind of defined him and I think sometimes we tell stories because by telling stories from the peripheries of life, as in the extremes of life, we understand more about our own lives.”

GIANT is also the recipient of The Canada Council for the Arts’ newest grant, the New Chapter grant, which van Belle says will allow Ghost River to achieve their experimental vision for this larger-than-life project. The tale of wrestling’s largest luminary may be a spectacle on its own, but the combination of Ghost River’s avant expression and Calgary’s wrestling-riddled past make it all the more important a story to tell.

“It’s just such a part of Calgary’s mythology. The Hart family just connects and that still resonates today,” van Belle says. “When I go and see [the local wrestling scene], I see a lot of the enthusiasms that are similar to those who create theatre as well. Like a passion for the work and an embrace of character. A real dedication to putting on a good show. That’s been a real inspiration for us as well.”

Despite a long wait for Ghost River’s next opus, keen fans may get a glimpse of the puppetry included in the play in early July at the Festival of Animated Objects at the West Village Theatre. And if you want to take in the local scene that birthed television’s greatest gladiator of the ‘80s, keep your eyes open for events from Real Canadian Wrestling and the Prairie Wrestling Alliance throughout the summer.

Only in the home of the Hart Family Dungeon could a tale of such scale be achieved with Ghost River’s GIANT. Calgary’s wrestling legacy remains strong and Ghost River Theatre intends to prove the city’s creative energy will never be down for the count.

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