How to Transform a Stage Into a Boxing Ring
The Baillie Theatre inside the Young Centre for the Performing Arts has transformed into many things for Soulpepper Theatre: a lonely cemetery on a hill, a Hungarian perfume store, a barren no-man’s land with a single tree. But with “The Royale,” set designer Ken MacKenzie transforms the stage into something it’s never been before: a boxing ring.
Beginning previews on Oct. 12, Marco Ramirez’s play tells the true story of boxer Jack Johnson who, between 1908 and 1915, reigned as the first black world heavyweight boxing champion. Referred to as “Jay” Jackson in Ramirez’s script, the boxer also faced criminal persecution in response to occupying a powerful role in a racist Jim Crow-era society, charged with prison time for transporting a white woman (his girlfriend) across state lines. After a passionate campaign to clear his name promoted by Sylvester Stallone, President Donald Trump officially pardoned Johnson this past May.
But Ramirez’s play dramatizes the period leading up to Johnson’s history-making fight against Tommy Burns (known in the play as Bernard Bixby) and the political scandal he caused with his success. MacKenzie’s set design draws a connection between the two.
“The idea of boxing, the idea of the big fight that this play is based on, is definitely a metaphor for bigger social struggle. It’s certainly not a stretch to base the idea of the set on a boxing ring,” MacKenzie said. “He’s fighting for his life all the time, and whether he likes it or not he’s fighting for other people’s lives, so we tried in a lot of ways to literally box him in.”
His design creates a deconstructed boxing ring — a raised platform, a barrier of ropes, a grid of bright spotlights against the back wall — and even places some of the audience on the stage with the actors, watching the action unfolding within it.
“Putting the audience on stage is a really important part of the design for us, because it meant that there’s an involvement with the spectators, the world who watches this man become the first black heavyweight boxing champion. The audience kind of becomes who he was fighting against the whole time,” he said.
Onstage seating isn’t something that Soulpepper does very often in the grand Baillie Theatre, mostly, as Mackenzie says, because box office timelines usually makes changing seating arrangements difficult. But having a spot up close to the action makes the audience implicit in the action in several ways. First of all, they have a direct connection to the actors.
“There’s a point where his manager says to him, ‘See those guys in the front row? See those suits?’ And he says, ‘Yeah I like those suits.’ He talks about how he’s going to get himself one of those suits,” MacKenzie said. And knowing the typical Soulpepper audience, there’s likely to be more than one well-dressed men in the front row, from a different race and social class as Johnson himself.
But don’t expect to get a ringside seat to an actual boxing match. In Ramirez’s play, the fights play out without throwing punches — instead, the actors perform a combination of foot stomps and hand claps to battle their opponent.
“The way it booms and echoes, the people who are right onstage are going to feel it more than anyone else. It’s right in their face. It’s going to have a very visceral effect, I think,” said MacKenzie.
The abundance of contemporary parallels to Johnson’s story — from Muhammad to Colin Kaepernick to the women challenging power systems and coming forward with stories of sexual harassment and abuse — also prove how vital the metaphor of boxing is to battling all kinds of enemies. But MacKenzie is glad to harness that visual metaphor, and let the script and actors shine.
“For me, the ring is about how he excelled but also symbolic of the limitations around his ability to move in the world he’s in,” he said. “Boxing is in some ways such an easy metaphor, but it happens to be a true story.”