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How this die-hard theatregoer ended up at a WWE wrestling event
We spend a lot of time at TDF thinking about ways to encourage people who have never attended the theatre to try it. Devoted audiences may not know how daunting it can be for someone to step into a theatre for the first time. Even some people who work in the theatre industry don't realize it! I remember hearing about a trustee at a theatre who did not understand why the institution was allocating resources to programs aimed at enticing brand-new audiences and making sure they felt welcome. "What could be hard about going to the theatre for the first time?" she wondered. To answer her own question, she decided to do something completely out of her comfort zone: attend a wrestling match. Suddenly, she understood firsthand how scary it can be to attend a type of event you never have before.
I recounted that story during a TDF meeting last fall, suggesting the lesson for us all was to imagine that experience as we thought about new programs to create new audiences. A few hours later, one of my colleagues, Tyler Riley, asked if I had ever attended a wrestling event. My answer was, "Of course not! Have you?" I admit, I was surprised when he said yes, explaining that he had been a WWE fan since childhood.
Then he surprised me again by inviting me to attend a WWE event with him.
Never in my wildest dreams would I have suspected that Tyler was a lifelong wrestling entertainment fan. I have known him as an actor, director, podcaster and arts education facilitator. We have talked about plays, performing and dramatic theory. Wrestling?? Not so much. Nevertheless, there it was, right in front of me. Actions speak louder than words, so I immediately said yes.
Fast-forward to January 2022. Tyler told me that we had tickets for a WWE event on March 25 at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. He explained that it would be an extra-special experience as it was the last round of matches before WrestleMania, arguably the biggest event in sports entertainment. It was to be broadcast, which he said was a good thing because it would have to adhere to a strict timetable. Individual matches wouldn't be able to go on indefinitely. I was already confused. How could the organizers control the length of each match? Tyler responded, "It's all scripted. The outcome is predetermined. There are some storylines that have been going on for years." I nodded my head, pretending to understand and already fearing that I would embarrass myself because I clearly did not have a clue.
As the date approached, I was increasingly apprehensive. Would I stick out among the fans? Would it be too violent for me? Would I be able to follow anything? Tyler provided me with a variety of preparatory YouTube videos (akin to dramaturgical materials in theatre parlance). I learned a bit about the characters, and I watched highlights from the matches the week before. I had an inkling of what I was in for.
We discussed the particulars: What time should I get there? What was the preshow like? Most importantly, what should I wear? I literally had no idea, but I knew that if I got it wrong, I would be mortified and would feel like everyone would know I shouldn't be there. Tyler shrugged and said not to worry. Easy for him to say! In consultation with a group of twentysomethings, we agreed on blue jeans, a black shirt and a denim jacket. And a fanny pack.
I had fun. I was able to follow the action at least some of the time, and Tyler patiently answered my many questions. "Is he really hurt? Why are you rooting for that character? Is there a hero and a villain?" To my surprise, there were many families from a host of backgrounds, a real cross section of New York City. While the crowd was enthusiastic and very engaged in the event (dare I say the performance), the atmosphere was friendly, welcoming and inclusive. I was never made to feel like I didn't belong.
When we left, I was genuinely glad to have attended. It's even possible I will go again! What did I learn? That with a generous host who genuinely wanted me to have a good time, with the right preparation, with the ability to ask questions without being made to feel ignorant, I was able to participate in a new experience that provided real entertainment. And, of course, that is what we need to do when we invite newcomers to the theatre. Or when we ask theatregoers to try attending dance, or musical lovers to see a play. That is what TDF is about, and that is what we keep doing.
And we need you as a partner. Invite a friend who has never been to the theatre to join you and help them prepare for the experience. If you are a longtime theatregoer and are apprehensive about trying a dance performance, let us know what information you would like to have beforehand. And if you're interested in seeing a WWE event, well, I'll probably hand you off to Tyler.
Introducing the art that you love to a first-timer is an incredibly rewarding experience. This is how we create new audiences together and keep theatre and dance and wrestling going for generations to come.
Victoria Bailey has been the Executive Director of TDF since 2001. The not-for-profit organization is dedicated to bringing the performing arts to everyone.
Top image: Tyler Riley and Victoria Bailey at the WWE event. Photo courtesy of Riley.