By Urszula Dawkins
Taped on the back wall are tournament flyers, magazine covers, a poster for Raging Bull and a fine pencil drawing of a boxer, fists poised to hit out. In between are the inspirational quotes – like ‘Pain is Temporary, Pride is Forever’. Between the punch balls and skipping ropes of documentary theatre work I’m Your Man, the actors channel the recorded words of high-flyers and up-and-comers, in a high-adrenaline examination of courage, determination and vulnerability.
I’m Your Man’s Creator/Director, Roslyn Oades, walked into her first boxing gym in London in 2001. There, she met a somewhat eccentric trainer called CJ. “[He] proceeded to flirt with me by sharing a series of stories about his violent tendencies,” Oades says, “broken only by his barking instructions to a young fighter he was training.”
“My senses were overwhelmed by the noise and rhythms and smells of this environment and I was instantly intrigued. Bags being pounded, skipping ropes, bells going off every three minutes, trainers yelling; sweat and the intense discipline on display… My experience that day made a big impression.”
Nearly a decade later, Oades and collaborator/performer Mohammed Ahmad – a former boxer – approached Western Sydney Featherweight, Billy ‘The Kid’ Dib, who agreed to let them follow him as he worked towards his dream of an IBF World Title.
“My aim was to capture adrenaline on tape and to follow an action-based story unfolding in the present tense. Making I’m Your Man involved 18 months of hanging out in boxing gyms and backstage at fights in search of a deeper understanding of courage and the psychology of respect.”
The resulting work – in which the actors wear headphones and repeat verbatim the words of the original interviewees – is an “eavesdrop” into what Oades describes as a sweaty, disciplined and big-hearted world.
It’s also a world that maps a history of disadvantage: for many boxers, she says, the sport is a chance to attain respect, fortune and a better life.
“I find something very beautiful about intense commitment to any craft or skill. The boxing gyms struck me as places of dreaming.”
I’m Your Man focuses on the voices of seven professional boxers – from young contenders Dib and Melbourne’s Wale ‘Lucky Boy’ Omotoso, through to legends Jeff Fenech and Tony Mundine. Oades’s research was conducted with boxers from both Sydney and Melbourne.
“An extraordinary ability to land hard, fast punches and knock people out is what makes them special. For many people this conjures up a negative image and yet I found them to be some of the most generous, vulnerable and caring people I’ve met.
“I was completely humbled by their courage. One thing is certain in the hyper-masculine world of professional boxing: no matter how high you fly you will eventually lose in a very public way – that takes guts. The loser’s dressing room is like a graveyard.”
I’m Your Man is the third in a trilogy of verbatim-theatre works titled Acts of Courage. The first, Fast Cars & Tractor Engines (2005) is a collection of what Oades calls “fight-of-my-life stories” from Sydney’s Bankstown. Stories of Love & Hate (2008) responded to the Cronulla riots. It grew out of two years spent working with the communities of Bankstown and the Sutherland Shire – “the two warring tribes, so to speak”.
I’m Your Man, says Oades, was inspired in part by her encounters with young men from both sides of the Cronulla riots, who claimed they’d be prepared to die for their ‘pride’: “I was curious to explore the psychology of respect in the micro-world of boxing, as a way of offering deeper insights into the ways this psychology resonates in broader social contexts.”
Consistent across the Acts of Courage trilogy is the performers’ exact replication of every nuance of speech, from accent to breath, cough or stumble. Oades believes there’s as much information contained in the way a person speaks as in what they are saying – “every individual speech pattern is as unique as a fingerprint”.
At times the performer’s gender, age or appearance may conflict with that of the original speaker, rupturing the reliability of the ‘portrait’.
“The audience realises pretty early on that what they’re seeing can’t be trusted – despite the hyper-real delivery style – and that the actor’s body is being employed as a medium… I find mismatching voices and bodies, within this very disciplined, non-interpretive performance mode, allows the work to gently question who is allowed to say what in our culture.”
I’m Your Man is an exploration of ideas, of a sport, and of a particular theatre-making technique – but it’s also a document about the lives of real people. Having premiered the show in Sydney in 2012, Oades looks forward to seeing the response of Melbourne’s boxing community.
“Sadly, the late, great Gus Mercurio from Melbourne, who features strongly in the work, passed away before it was finished – which was very sad for me. But I’m looking forward to having Murray Thompson and his fighters from the Fighters Factory in Blackburn come along, as well as some of the inspiring female boxers I’ve met in Melbourne.
“In Sydney, Jeff Fenech, Tony Mundine, Wally Carr and Billy Dib all loved the show – in fact Wally’s seen it five times and Billy Dib has insisted Mohammed Ahmed wear one of his personal boxing cloaks in the show – so you could say they’re pretty proud of it!”