It’s an ordinary Tuesday night in the Walgreen Drama Center. There’s a squeaking sound from vocal exercises, pounding on the ground from a dance practice and some shouting from an impassioned soliloquy.

“Trafford Tanzi”

April 1 & 8 at 7:30 p.m.;
 April 2, 3, 9, & 10 at 8 p.m.;
 April 4 & 11 at 2 p.m.
Walgreen Drama Center, Arthur Miller Theater
Tickets from $9

But in the Arthur Miller Theatre, where rehearsals for “Trafford Tanzi” are taking place, the thud of body slams and the resultant grunts and howls overpower the other noises of the building.

“What was that, the giant swan on crack?” exclaims Malcolm Tulip, director of “Tanzi” and professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, as he jokes about the ungraceful movements of one of his actors.

The cast of this unconventional and adventurous wrestling musical is warming up for the battle that’s about to ensue between its fiery protagonist and the rest of the characters. As Tanzi laces up her knee-high leather boots, she prepares to confront her family and friends and take a stand against their constant oppression.

A Story of Social Struggle

“Trafford Tanzi” is the story of a girl growing up in 1950s England who struggles mightily with the relationships in her life. She has been a forgettable disappointment to those around her — Tanzi’s mother always wanted a boy, and her father can’t even remember the color of her eyes. As a result, those around her serve as obstacles that shape her miserable existence.

In reaction to this unfair treatment, Tanzi literally and metaphorically begins to wrestle with her school counselor, best friend, husband, mother and father, all while a referee tries to keep a fair fight.

The man in stripes is played by Music, Theatre & Dance senior Torrey Wigfield, who acts as a mediator in each of the 10 matches, interjecting snarky comments while preventing the competitors from killing each other.

“The lead character kind of (grows) up in this unjust world, and we can see her kind of being violated and ramshackled and thrown about the ring a bit, (which) really lends itself to her growing up in an unjust environment,” he said.

During these scuffles, Tanzi finds a better sense of herself and eventually pursues a career as a professional wrestler. Compounding her existing obstacles, Tanzi faces a strict social construct that says women should never leave the kitchen, let alone take part in an ultra-masculine sport. In this sense, feminist commentary is prevalent throughout the work, but the message of achieving a goal against all odds is applicable regardless of gender.

Story and social struggles aside, how did this crazy concept come about?

“There was a theater company — well, it still exists — in Liverpool, England, called the Everyman Theatre, and in the late ’70s, they were closed down for refurbishment,” Tulip explained. “And they had to find plays that they could do in other venues and at the same time they were also looking to do plays that had a more prominent role for women.”

The need for filling a non-traditional space and the desire for less male-dominated material led British playwright Claire Luckham to craft the script for “Trafford Tanzi” in 1980. It made its debut and continued for some time in bars in Liverpool before migrating to London.

One of the most remarkable parts regarding the conception of “Tanzi” is the audience’s placement on all sides of a genuine wrestling ring. Constructing the ring from scratch out of a canvas mat and stretchy ropes gave it an authentic look without having to break the bank on an expensive object for temporary use.

A theater-in-the-round style of seating is employed with the ring at the center. This decision to break the fourth wall allows for a blurring of the line between onstage action and the seated audience.

The position of the stage in the middle of the room provides an interesting challenge for the actors.

“You can never stay facing one side,” said Music, Theatre & Dance junior and understudy Charlotte Raines. “You have to always be moving around.”

The constant motion of actors and balanced arrangement of seating allows for a completely immersive experience for onlookers.

For Tulip, attendees who are more directly involved with the play provide a rare opportunity for audience participation as part of the show.

“We want people yelling and shouting,” he said. “This is a play that people don’t have to sit and be quiet (for).”

Tulip thinks one of his hardest jobs is going to be “to give people permission to yell.” He welcomes the “irreverent and casual atmosphere” of wrestling as a contributing force to the performance’s overall mood.

And with Wigfield’s eloquently described “drop kicks, head mares, arm locks, nose drops, flying from off the top rope (and) pinfalls” as the centerpiece of the evening, some cheers and jeers shouldn’t be too difficult to provoke.

Body-Slamming Stereotypes

Learning complex and physically demanding wrestling moves was not something that happened overnight.

Rackham student Charles Fairbanks, who spent last summer in Mexico as a lucha libre, taught the entire cast the fundamentals of professional wrestling starting the second week of January.

Fairbanks gained experience under the guise of “El Gato Tuerto” and filmed his matches by attaching a camera to his mask.

“It was because of my experience in these (more theatrical) wrestling arenas that director Malcolm Tulip asked me to be the coach,” he explained.

Instead of apprehension and uncertainty, the actors pursued the endeavor with positive enthusiasm.

“We all just dove head first, went for it, and I can now put on my résumé that I know professional wrestling,” Raines said.

There’s an inherent risk in the pursuit, however, which inevitably led to some minor injuries. Tulip said that staying healthy was a priority throughout the rigorous training period.

Regardless, both director and actors alike see the benefit of an alternative form of performance aside from the normal song, dance and dialogue.

For Tanzi, played by Music, Theatre & Dance junior Arielle Goldman, the wrestling serves a dual purpose. On one hand, “a lot of the moves are there just to be big and (to contribute to) the performance,” she said.

On the other hand, they also “help to express how she sees the world.”

In her acting classes, Goldman has worked on realizing her character’s “internal monologue” using actions instead of words.

A specific example of channeling emotion through an act of physical expression comes near the beginning, when Tanzi’s friend Platinum Sue (Erin Cousins, Music, Theatre & Dance junior) pretends to be her friend only to tease and provoke her.

“I think her first instinct is that she feels like crying,” Goldman said. “But she doesn’t let herself, so her next instinct is to grab Sue’s doll and slam it on the ground and break its limbs apart.”

This rejection of things that are traditionally deemed “girly” is evident throughout the comedy. Tanzi’s tomboy personality is one that Goldman says she can relate to, even if only briefly.

“For a good awkward stage, I was a tomboy,” she explained. “I believe it was the period of my life when I was missing my two front teeth … and I refused to wear dresses. All I would ever wear were boys’ plaid shirts from Old Navy and cut-off shorts. So I rocked the look at some point.”

“(With Tanzi) being a tomboy and not a classic girly-girl, it made it easier to relate to her, and painting a clear picture of who she was made her more likeable, too,” she added.

Portraying a tomboy may not have been too difficult, but Goldman found that playing the role of a championship wrestler with a British accent posed a greater challenge.

Overcoming the stereotype that women should not be allowed to compete with men in athletic competition — an opinion that still remains true for some — becomes a focal point of the performance. After all, Luckham wrote the play during a time when sexism in sports was a hot-button issue. Billie Jean King had only recently defeated Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of Sexes” tennis match. Her victory spurred a debate that — despite legislative efforts like Title IX — has not ceased since.

An even clearer portrait of female oppression is presented in the character of Tanzi’s Mum, played by Music, Theatre & Dance junior Kelsey Lappa.

“She’s kind of the stereotypical 1950s woman-in-a-man’s-world type of person,” Lappa explained. “She thinks men are all pigs but she’s also into conforming with all the men … (Tulip) said to me in one of the rehearsals, ‘Imagine a mother breastfeeding her child with a beer in the other hand.’ ”

Attacking this image of a broken-down mother who cooks, cleans and takes care of her children all day is the story’s primary purpose. Tanzi faces countless physical and social barriers in her pursuit to become a championship wrestler. For assistant director and Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Porscha Kazmierczak, Tanzi’s effort in attaining this goal is clearly a feminist statement.

“I hope (the audience) can take away that women are still oppressed in one way or another (even if) in subtle ways we take for granted,” she said.

Ultimately, you don’t have to be Betty Friedan or Hulk Hogan to enjoy “Trafford Tanzi.” The production will put your loudest whistle, capacity for laughter and tear ducts to the test as you root Tanzi on until the very end.

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