By Broderick D.V. Chow, Senior Lecturer in Theatre at Brunel University London and AHRC Leadership Fellow
Like so many men in the historical present, I started working out at 15. It was my Grade 9 PE class in Vancouver that did it. One day, we had to choose: “weight training”, or ball hockey. I knew I was bad at ball hockey, so alongside ten or so other teenage boys and girls, I entered the tiny weight room behind our school gym, equipped with creaky machine and rusted dumbbells.
But what was initially a way of avoiding “real sports” quickly became a central part of my life. I got a gym membership, I read Men’s Health, I mixed whey protein with creatine and choked it down. I put my body into machines I didn’t really understand, an hour, three times a week, to maintain a vague dislike of my body. Headphones in, head down. Shower, dress, and get on with real life. Even living in two other cities and in two different countries, I have never, since that time, not maintained a gym membership.
Going to the gym can often seem like a repetitive, timetabled, disciplinary activity that you do not necessarily enjoy, but continue to do regardless. At the same time, the gym is often the best part of my day. I love the carnal intensity of a one-rep max back squat; the sweat and flush of 2000 metres on the rowing machine; the peculiar community of people thrown together simply by a desire to improve themselves. In 2014 I took up Olympic Weightlifting and started spending more time in the gym than ever. After a long day, working out can feel like a burden, and yet, when I step onto a weightlifting platform and wrap my hands around the rough steel of the barbell’s knurling, nothing feels as free.
These kinds of contradictions—between discipline and freedom—are what I call the “Dynamic Tensions” of physical fitness (borrowing the name from Charles Atlas’s mail-order programme of muscle-building). The dynamic space between the institutions, industries, and social structures of physical fitness and the participant’s individual bodily experience was what I set out to study when I embarked on my AHRC Early Career Leadership Fellows Project in September 2016.
At a time when “masculinity” as such is being interrogated in urgent conversations about “toxic masculinity”, gendered violence, institutionalized sexism, homophobia, and mental health, it is important to create new understandings about fitness and exercise, which is part of the every day lived of so many men. How do men negotiate their relationship to the strong, athletic, muscular male body ideal, especially when we know that it can be destructive? How can fitness be seen as a form of self-expression, even something creative? How do men use fitness as a way of relating to others (and themselves)? And how have these questions played out across the history of the physical fitness movement?
With my curiosity sparked by the dual careers of strongmen/showmen like Eugen Sandow and George Hackenschmidt, I dove into the archives at the British Library, the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the New York Public Library, and most importantly, the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, at the University of Texas at Austin. I discovered that it was in fact in the popular theatre of the 19th and early 20th century that contemporary forms of training were invented, popularised, and disseminated. Of course, forms of fitness and exercise have existed since the Ancient Greeks, and trends such as Britain’s Muscular Christianity and Germany’s Turner movement in the mid-19th century all contributed to the wider movement of bodily self-improvement we call “physical culture.”
However, it was actually the (re)enactment of images of manly strength and beauty on the popular stage that catalysed the transition from physical culture to an industry of fitness. Physical culturists used theatrical performance as a way to spread their message and advertise their programmes. What I now call the “physical culture show” was a ubiquitous form of popular theatre, and it ranged from simple weightlifting displays at local clubs, to the strongman turns of British Music Hall and American Variety, the gymnastics and bodybuilding displays of Muscle Beach performers Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton, Jack Lalanne, and Steve Reeves, to the world of professional wrestling. The stage enabled physical culturists to “flesh out” an image of ideal masculinity that was achievable by any man—so long as you were willing to put in the work!
This counter-genealogy of physical fitness through theatre studies forces us to rethink much of what we know about health and fitness today. Theatre, which historically is often associated with fakery, challenges fitness’s claims to scientific truth; its disciplinary procedures; and its ideology of authentic self-improvement. It also reveals the muscular, athletic male body ideal to be a kind of role or cultural script rather than an authentic expression of masculinity.
The Dynamic Tensions Physical Culture Show
Alongside my archival research, I undertook a period of fieldwork, training in gyms in London and the South East, Glasgow, New York City, Vancouver, and Austin, Texas. My aim was less about explaining fitness than understanding it as a performative and theatrical practice, so I treated this fieldwork as a way of learning from other “practitioners”—what is their process, the way they “rehearse”? Gyms, I began to see, were not very different from the theatre stages and rehearsal spaces where I found community in my youth. Like theatres, gyms are full of people working on presenting something to the world.
The final phase of the research was to bring history and the present together through the creation of a practice-as-research performance entitled The Dynamic Tensions Physical Culture Show. The performance lay somewhere between tribute and reimagining. I assembled a company of performers, each with a different background in physical culture and sport. First to come on board was Jonathan Hinton, a semi-professional rugby player, and at the time, an MA Student at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance. I also worked with Peter Moore, an actor and bodybuilder who was in training for a UK competition at the time; and Philip Bedwell, a personal trainer and former professional wrestler who is also a practicing live artist. I was fortunate to also bring in the services of professional strongman Sir Leopold Aleksander, the Lion of London (also known as performer Daniel Crute).
Complimenting this company of performer-athletes were three BA Theatre students from Brunel University London, Adam Johnson, Phoebe Ransome, and Jack Robinson. Having taken a module with me the previous year on performance and sport, the students researched and staged musical interludes from the turn-of-the-century Music Hall, alongside with my frequent collaborator, musical director Sally Goodworth.
The resulting show, performed 13 October 2018 at the Anatomy Museum at Kings College London, combined autobiographical performance, verbatim theatre, physical performance, dance, and live art. It enables an embodied perspective on fitness and physical culture, challenging many of our easy stereotypes. It balances precariously between theatre and sport, especially in the coda, which recalls the evening weightlifting exhibitions common in the early 20th century. Accompanied by my Olympic Weightlifting coach Kristian McPhee, and his coach, the three-time British Olympian Mike Pearman, I attempt a “personal best” Snatch lift of 85 kg.
As you will see from the documentation (directed and edited by filmmaker Alexandros Papathanasiou), I got the lift. But no sooner had the sweat dried than the questions began. Was that really the heaviest weight you’d ever lifted? Did you miss the first attempt on purpose, so we’d be more impressed? Are the weights real? One audience member asked to try to lift the barbell as we cleared up the space. Not wanting to disappoint, we let him pull it a few inches from the floor. There must be some trick to it, he muttered, as he walked away.
This vague suspicion of what claims to be a “real” moment, I suggest, encapsulates the theatrical nature of physical fitness. Like theatre, fitness attempts to show or represent an image or ideal, but it does so through the manipulation of material, real, things, and the live sweat and labours of the performer. By understanding the nature of the work of self-fashioning in an everyday practice we often take for granted, we can also understand that the association of fitness with destructive or “toxic” aspects of masculinity is not a given. Theatre and performance presents a different perspective on bodies that often signify aggression, violence and narcissism. While theatre strongmen, bodybuilders and wrestlers may be responsible for the physical ideal associated with a masculinity that urgently needs to change, remembering their theatrical origins helps us see past the stereotypes.