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Theatre in a Fly-over State

Louisville Championship Arm Wrestling

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Mark Twain once said, "When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Kentucky because everything there happens twenty years after it happens anywhere else." Interestingly, Louisville, KY is now being listed in national media as the next Austin, the next Portland, and even the next Brooklyn. This series focuses on theatre and film in a fly-over state like Kentucky that is struggling to not only join, but also lead in the twenty-first century.

On Double Eve, the night before Christmas Eve, nestled away in Germantown is a watering hole cum music venue called The Cure. Shortly after avant-punk band Sweatermeat finished their set, the speakers began to blare a cheaply synthesized mixture of uplifting horns and mechanical beats. The crowd drifted back in from the bar with craft beers in hand and confused looks on their faces.

This was not a theatre crowd. This was a mix of punk kids, students, and twenty-something scenester drunks. Before long the puzzled faces become overjoyed and enraptured. “What is this?” I heard one confused kid behind me ask. The response, offered by another half-drunk kid in a dirty hoodie, yelled above the noise of the crowd and the onstage antics unfolding: “It’s arm wrestling.”

two actors wrestling on stage
Pump Up Skins (played by Mike Skins) versus Kotton Kandy (Laura Hanes). Photo by Joe Underbakke.

Louisville Championship Arm Wrestling—LCAW to its growing fan base—is a performance art theatre project modeled on professional wrestling—the huge colorful characters, the clash of good guys (faces) versus bad guys (heels), and the serial storytelling. Perhaps the most potent shared ingredient is a lack of pretension.

In the same year that theatre writers gasped in horror at audience members’ cell phone use, and published articles asking what to do about “rogue laughter,” this Louisville group spent their time in dive bars offering free performances, wandering through their audience to high-five, insult, hug, and spit Faygo at them. Above all, LCAW invited cheers and jeers. By doing this they created the most passionate and engaged theatregoers I have ever seen.

Theatre is a dying horse. But it’s pregnant. It’s our job to birth it while it still has a chance.—Jon Becraft

Is this the future?
“Theatre is dying. It’s old card to say that,” said Jon Becraft, explaining the weird train of thought that led to his company’s name. “Theatre is a dying horse. But it’s pregnant. It’s our job to birth it while it still has a chance.” 

Becraft is one of the founders of Baby Horse, and he is the brave, kindhearted, loquacious, yet thick-tongued Buck Dungle. He’s the onstage owner of LCAW and the ringleader offstage. While the group functions a lot like an improv group with almost all suggestions being met with a “yes and,” it’s Becraft who creates the scripts with everyone’s input. The group fluctuates, growing steadily over the year and a half since LCAW’s first performance. 

It’s a weird mix. There are academically trained actors and passionate rookies who have never acted or improvised before. Becraft sees something beautiful in the punk and local music scene, noting that people can just pick up an instrument, not be great at it, and get onstage. Many members of LCAW double as regulars in the local scene, playing in bands like Blood Planet and Vader Bomb.

Many of the more polished performers met in the Hanover College theatre department, including Jake Allen Miller, a cornerstone of the group. He’s the head of a contingent of performers who travel down to Louisville from Chicago. Miller plays Gino Grigio, a villain whose goal is to destroy LCAW, insult Louisville, and drink mediocre wine.

The clash between Buck and Gino has filled most of the storyline from what Becraft is calling “Season One.” Gino has infiltrated, leveraged his wealth, and used sneaky lawyers to slowly take control of LCAW. Buck just wants to honor the spirit of competition and offer his fans a good clean show. 

The duo’s onstage chemistry is comedic gold—honed at Hanover in the on campus improv group Evil Petting Zoo. Their beef will come to a head at the culmination of the first season when Dungle will, for the first time, step up to the arm wrestling table and battle Gino for sole ownership of LCAW in a cage—a tap out, barbed wire, “I quit match” that will not end until one of the men gives up and leaves in shame. 

While I’d hate to see more traditional theatre completely disappear, there is energy and a life at LCAW shows that I’ve almost never seen anywhere else. The group performs in non-traditional spaces. They perform with untrained actors.

an actor and an an actress on stage
Grunt (played by Brandon Cox) versus Lacy Truck (Jacqueline Heinzen). Photo by Joe Underbakke.

The Origins of Buck Dungle
When Becraft moved to Louisville in 2012 he had already spent several summers here working for Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. Instead of feeling like moving to a new city, it felt like more like coming home; he had an instant support group and a host of collaborators. There is a solid little knot of Hanover graduates in Louisville, including Brandon Cox, and Kelli Fitzgibbon. They all performed in Evil Petting Zoo, formed the first nucleus of Baby Horse Theatre, and then helped create LCAW. Fitzgibbon has since moved to New Orleans, while Cox is still active in LCAW as Grunt, a caveman who speaks only in monosyllables and grunts. As one-time champ, he lost his title through dirty dealings at the hands of Gino Grigio. 

Baby Horse started out arty and experimental. Their first show was a sensory-based, unscripted experience. Their second show, Intoxico the Live Drinking Game, was more in line stylistically with LCAW's raucous, audience inclusive faire. For that performance Becraft created game show host Buck Dungle. The sold out crowds, and rampant good times sparked a light bulb moment for the group. “That was the first notion that we could just have fun. We didn’t need to worry about being significant or special, or important or profound. We just need to have fuckin' fun,” said Becraft.

Miller, Becraft, and Cox all shared a love of professional wrestling. And at the time Miller, based in Chicago, was dating a member of the Chicago Ladies League of Arm Wrestlers. CLAW features some antics, but the arm wrestling portion is legit sport. From this mixture of influences Baby Horse developed what was meant to be the only LCAW show as a part of the Slant Culture Theatre Festival. It had a successful run, and they loved doing it so much that it has become Baby Horse’s sole focus. Slant is where I discovered the group as a critic and audience member. After I saw every show they did at the festival, I was invited to join the group. The masked arm wrestler El Death has currently been sidelined due to a wrist-breaking finishing move, which I’m pretty sure was illegally employed by El Chubbs. And any rumors that El Death is secretly LCAW commentator Larry Lawrence are unfounded and hurtful. 

an actor giving a speech on stage
Jake Miller as Gino Grigiot. Photo by Joe Underbakke.

This is a Future
While I’d hate to see more traditional theatre completely disappear, there is energy and a life at LCAW shows that I’ve almost never seen anywhere else. The group performs in non-traditional spaces. They perform with untrained actors. They offer their shows for free, on a budget of nearly zero dollars. They embrace the twenty-something community on its terms instead of demanding that they come to a stuffy theatre. They reach out to the local music community for audience and performers. Their stories are ongoing, approachable, and bawdy.

It’s the least classy theatre in Louisville. Consequently, it’s also the least classist.

LCAW probably isn’t the future of theatre, but it certainly is a future for theatre, a future that I’m thrilled to be apart. This future includes a regional presence, as LCAW will have its Chicago debut this April; the team takes on Gino Grigio on his home turf.

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Thoughts from the curator

Mark Twain once said, "When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Kentucky because everything there happens twenty years after it happens anywhere else." Interestingly, Louisville, KY is now being listed in national media as the next Austin, the next Portland, and even the next Brooklyn. This series focuses on theatre and film in a fly-over state like Kentucky that is struggling to not only join, but also lead in the twenty-first century.

Theatre in a Fly-over State

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I'm really happy to see the ladies arm wrestling movement profiled here. As a theatre artist and the co-founder of the original theatrical ladies arm wrestling league CLAW (Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers) which began 2008 and first executive director of CLAW USA, I want to let folks know that this is a growing DIY movement with each city creating its own expression of theatre, arm wrestling (real or fake), and usually philanthropy accessible to all participants and audience. If folks are interested in how to organize such a thing, please go to www.clawusa.org or search on FB.