By Troy Hasselman, March 8 2019 —
Ghost River Theatre is set to première Giant, a work inspired by the life of wrestler André the Giant told from the perspective of his abandoned daughter, as part of the annual Festival of Animated Objects. The play uses an all-female-identifying cast, puppets, dance montages, elaborate stage setups and lively wrestling sequences to tell this story.
The inspiration for the project stems from graphic novel biographies about André’s life that gave co-writers David van Belle and Eric Rose the idea for telling his story in an unorthodox way.
“David and I were discussing future projects and he was reading a graphic novel about André the Giant and said, ‘I think that would be a really incredible story for us to tell,’ ” says Rose, who is also the play’s director. “We said, ‘What if we told that by using a small female performer to represent André?’ as we both acknowledge that finding an actor that is 7’4” and 500 pounds is fairly unlikely and theatre doesn’t do that literal quality very well. David and I are interested in doing projects that stretch us to think of different ways to look at the world that we’re creating.”
The work dates back to early 2015 with the project taking several years to develop, going through numerous re-writes and workshops in the process.
“It’s been a very long process. We began work on a performance plan in December 2015,” explains van Belle. “We’re a devised company, which means we make work differently than the standard script-to-production model. The script has really developed through collaborations with other artists. We had a workshop this past summer where we staged much of the show and developed prototypes for the puppets. We made them out of cardboard and tape and built the actual puppets between last summer and now.”
The choice to have an all-female-identifying cast is meant to contrast with the physical violence depicted in the wrestling scenes.
“We wanted to work with an ensemble of female-identifying performers because because I feel that I was rarely seeing them being used in works with this level of physical violence and I was interested in the juxtaposition of this and the stereotypes that we create in our minds,” says Rose. “I was kind of curious about how we could investigate or interrogate the hyper-masculine world of wrestling in a very different lens and point of view. Also what is very important in the story of André the Giant is that he’s estranged from his daughter. Getting to investigate his life through her lens started to become really important in the way that we were telling the story.”
Highlighting the production are the elaborately choreographed wrestling sequences that capture the machismo and campiness of ‘70s wrestling while also capturing the deconstructive themes of the play by being performed by women wearing muscle suits.
“We have Brianna Johnston as our wrestling choreographer, who has been a really amazing gift. Last summer we got together for three weeks to workshop, start conceptualizing and put these ideas on their feet for the first time,” says actor Makambe K. Simbaba. “At that point, the whole cast learned some basic wrestling moves and that was really the first time that we began to learn the vocabulary of wrestling.”
The play follows an episodic format, with different scenes depicting different aspects of André’s life and career told in a way that is fun and makes use of the theatre backdrop.
“We have a dance-puppetry extravaganza number called ‘The Seventies Strut’ about his rise to cultish fame as a pro-wrestler. We have another scene where he was a kid about the playwright Samuel Beckett driving him to school because he couldn’t fit in the school bus,” Rose says. “There are other scenes that talk about his alcoholism, his sense of pain in how acromegaly — the disease that affected his pituitary gland — affected his life. As well, we talk about his daughter and why he didn’t embrace and take responsibility for her. This is all told through the context of his daughter investigating him and trying to find out about his life.”
The wrestling backdrop feels like a natural extension of theatre for its creators with van Belle and Rose being inspired by the numerous wrestling matches they attended while developing the project.
“As we were doing our research and writing our first drafts of the play, Eric and I went to see a lot of local wrestling programs,” says van Belle. “We really felt an affinity for wrestling in that performative mode and it’s so theatrical and it’s so much fun to write in that world as well because it’s so outlandish.”