- WWE Raw: Road to Summerslam, and: WWE Raw Live
Professional wrestling no longer attempts to position itself as “legitimate” sport. Instead, companies like the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) call their work “sports entertainment,” and their major stars publicly acknowledge the scripted nature of their performances. Unlike other forms of scripted entertainment, however, the audiences for wrestling events continue to respond to these spectacles just as they would if they were “real” sporting events. The crowd’s willingness to cheer (and more importantly, jeer) throughout the program is encouraged, and, moreover, wrestling fans outdo spectators at other professional sporting events in terms of their own participatory performance practices, placing professional wrestling in a unique place among contemporary live performance. The importance of the crowd’s response, particularly its jeers, connects performer and audience in a particular method of shared performance. The WWE uses the audience’s reactions to emphasize plot lines, guiding the television audience through the cast of characters in terms of who is a “face” (wrestling lingo for hero) or “heel” (villain). Because the performers often shift between the two, the audience’s cheers or jeers allow the casual viewer to quickly catch up with the current storylines. In an attempt to prompt the audience properly on the villain’s identity, WWE performers use geographical and current cultural biases to their advantage in both their televised and nontelevised live performances.
The WWE produces four nationally televised programs each week using performers from its three “brands”: Raw, Smackdown, and ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling). In addition, the company produces a monthly pay-per-view event featuring performers from each brand. With the exception of the pay-per-view events, the Raw brand tours separately, and while the ECW and Smackdown brands normally record their events in the same arena on Tuesday evenings for Tuesday- and Friday-night programming, respectively, the Raw brand airs live on Monday nights. The rest of the week, Raw wrestlers perform for live audiences across the country in untelevised matches. I attended one of these events in Erie, Pennsylvania—the WWE RAW: Road to SummerSlam—and then a televised Raw Live performance in Columbus, Ohio, three days later.
For the Erie production, the matches revolved around a self-contained set of circumstances for that night. Jamie Noble competed against a new, Irish-themed wrestler named Sheamus O’Shaugnessy in the first match of the evening. Since Sheamus was a new performer (having not yet appeared on television) and Noble had not been established yet as either a face or a heel, Noble directed the crowd’s response by verbally dressing down both Sheamus and the men of Erie before the match began. While the crowd initially had no idea how to respond to Sheamus, Noble’s performance as a heel signaled whom the audience should cheer and boo. Similarly, Matt Hardy, who had been a long-time face until he recently turned against his (real-life) brother Jeff and thus became a heel, came out with a cast on his arm and directed the audience how to respond to the action in his match. On this evening, fans were undoubtedly remembering a recent match between the Hardy brothers, in which Jeff broke Matt’s hand in three places. Many fans around me questioned whether Hardy’s injury was legitimate or merely part of the storyline. Hardy expressed his disgust at having to come to Erie to wrestle when he should have been able to go home to rehabilitate his injury. Once again, the heel drew the audience’s ire by attacking both the geographical region and the city’s pride. When Hardy’s opponent, Goldust, appeared, he sent the crowd into a frenzy, not so much because of his own popularity, but because he represented the crowd’s desire to stand up for its city.
The other matches pitted a face against a heel, and, with the exception of the main event, none of these events paired performers who were working together in current televised storylines. Instead, they offered...