The boxing gym: place of dreams, of glory, of a better life . For 18 months theatre-maker Roslyn Oades followed a determined young boxer from Bankstown through his preparations for a world-title fight. I’m Your Man is the story of who Oades met along the way.
Oades tells me the seeds of this project were planted when she walked into her first boxing gym in London in 2001. "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 3 minutes, trainers yelling – sweat and the intense discipline on display," Oades describes. "I also met an eccentric trainer there called CJ who proceeded to flirt with me by sharing a series of stories about his violent tendencies – broken only by his barking instructions to a young fighter he was training for a fight that weekend. That experience made a big impression. Also one of my long-term collaborators, performer Mohammed Ahmad, was an amateur boxer so the conversation happened over many years before coming to fruition."
The two challenges Oades set for herself on this project were to capture adrenaline on tape and to follow a real-life high stakes story of courage as it unfolded in present tense (as opposed to most documentaries which reflect on past events). "Billy ‘The Kid’ Dib agreed to let me follow him on his quest for a World Title Belt – allowing me access to his gym and dressing rooms before and after each fight along the way," says Oades. "Initially we thought he’d get a shot at the title within 6 months but it ended up taking 18 months. Jumping into the ring after his IBF World Title fight to record the action made it all worthwhile. Some of the toughest moments along the way involved being the only woman in a dressing room full of big men – and trying to accurately explain what the hell I was doing there. My way forward was to just keep going and to always be as transparent as possible about my intentions. We got there in the end."
Acts of courage have always fascinated Oades. In fact this is the third work in a trilogy on Acts of Courage Oades has worked on. Oades tells me that on the first two works she explored this theme from the context of social or political tensions. In I’m Your Man she wanted to explore courage in a more literal, raw, visceral way – and the world of boxing offered Oades the perfect place to do this. "I found these characters incredibly inspiring and vulnerable. The only thing that’s certain in the world of professional boxing is no matter how high you fly you will eventually lose in a very public way – that kind of risk-taking takes real guts and a big heart. The loser’s dressing room is like a graveyard" she says. "As they say in the gym, ‘the more you sweat, the less you bleed!’ Success is all about discipline and preparation – there’s no short cut to being top of your game, whatever that game may be."
The work is described as a sweaty, energy-fuelled study of a contemporary masculine drama but, confides Oades, ttime and again she was surprised to discover such big-hearted characters in the boxing world. I’m Your Man focuses exclusively on the voices of real-life professional boxers, seven men in this case, whose lives have been irreversibly changed by the fight game. "An extraordinary ability to land hard, fast punches and knock people out is what makes them special," concedes Oades. "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. For example, despite his tough talk, Jeff Fenech (three-time World Title holder and possibly Australia’s greatest boxer), is an extremely generous man. He grew up very poor and as he began to find success he shared it with all the other boys in his gym – buying them all new shoes, taking them out to fancy restaurants with him and eventually even on overseas trips. I can’t imagine finding characters like that in the business world very readily."
As a theatre maker Oades is driven by curiosity for things she doesn't understand – which, paradoxically, usually involves making work she doesn't know how to make yet. "The themes in I'm Your Man and my line of inquiry are certainly still in tact but to be honest I didn’t really know what I’d find when I set out to make the work and that was part of the attraction," she says. "It’s a process of being alert to artistic possibilities and learning as I go. I was in search of a deeper understanding of courage and the psychology of respect – the resulting show is essentially a selective eavesdrop into my 18 month quest to uncover the compelling insights I was after."
Oades promises that audiences will find I’m Your Man engaging, innovative and uplifting – part documentary theatre, part audio adventure and part sweaty workout (including some pretty impressive skipping routines). "The show is set in a boxing gym and focuses on intimate behind-the-scenes experiences rather than actual fights," she says. "It’s ultimately a work about courage and the desire to be special – which is a very human story we can all relate to even if you haven’t the slightest interest in boxing. I want to give audience a little adrenaline rush and have them leave inspired to be braver, fitter and to keep striving in their pursuits."
I'm Your Man – Season Wed 4 – Sun 8 September 2013 Time Wed – Fri 7.30pm / Sat 2pm* & 7.30pm / Sun 5pm Green Saturday Matinee* Sat 7 September 2013, 2pm Post-show Q&A Thu 5 September 2013 Duration 70 minutes no interval Venue Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, 521 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne Tickets Full $30 / Conc $25 / Student $20 Bookings artshouse.com.au or 03 9322 3713