Greg Cullen on Masculinity and Muscle

Greg Cullen is one half of the directing team behind Muscle, a play by Shock n Awe theatre company who put together the play on masculinity after realising that there was some confusion over what the concept actually meant for real men.

After winning a Herald Angel award at the Edinburgh Festival last year, the praised theatre company return to Sherman Cymru this week with a reworked version of the prize winning play.

We caught up with Greg to have a chat about the piece.


So if we talk a little bit about muscle, what’s the idea?


The idea came from a concern of mine and the other half of Shock n Awe, Phil Williams. Really we just wanted to do a show about men because the nature of masculinity seemed quite obvious. We were different to our fathers who had grown up with traditional industries around them and so on. Also, I had brought a son up and I know I was a very different father to my own father. That interested us and I think we were also concerned at the way images of masculinity are being sold to us. You read about that the metro, new-age man or a gangster and there seems to be nothing in between. We found these ideas very confusing and I think a lot of guys do. We started by going out and researching. What I was doing was talking to men from all walks of life conceivable in Wales and they were incredibly gracious and gave lengthy interviews where we discussed pretty much every aspect of life from a male perspective. I talked to everyone from Libyan freedom fighters to hippy farmers to ex coalminers to transvestites. Every conceivable type of man was there! From their stories, we collated the ones we really liked and so Muscle is a collage of true stories. Some of the stories are told in no more than a few sentences and others are epic mini-drams within the piece.


It’s interesting you should say about masculinity. There’s a lot of comment about the idea of the metrosexual and the evolution into the 4D man. What that means in reality, I’m not really sure but for you, what is masculinity? 


I’m not sure that we set out with a theory and then use the drama to prove it. This isn’t in any sense concerned with making some kind of riposte or reply to feminism. We simply wanted to tell stories of real men’s lives so that we can take an honest look at the state of men in society today and the problems and shortcomings in that and some of the definitions. There are certain things that endure in terms of defining masculinity, I would say: the desire to protect, nurture, support people more vulnerable than oneself, fight if necessary. I’m not a pacifist. To fight for justice. Protect those in danger. Those are noble things to do and I would stand up for them in any definition of masculinity. But then again, I don’t think those qualities are exclusively male.


You mentioned the diverse group of people you spoke to, am I right in saying that they were all from Wales? 


Yes. They all live in Wales. I spoke to a Libyan taxi driver who spend one month working every shift he can on Cardiff taxis so that he can spend the next month going out and fighting Gadaffi.


That must have been an interesting conversation!


This is the thing though about collecting stories from real people instead of making stories in your own head. You’re going to come up with something much more extraordinary than you could ever even imagine. The most ordinary of men have the most extraordinary stories to tell. I think that’s beautiful.


How did you find your subjects? 


Well, I have a fairly wide circle of acquaintances which includes some fairly odd characters. So I started with them. When you work this way, people will say to you ‘Oh, I know someone you should speak to’ and you get passed down the line until you find yourself talking to an Iraqi cage fighter in Newport. You know.


Wow. I’m now really looking forward to seeing the play! You picked up a lot of attention with it, doing quite well at Edinburgh last year, right? 


We won the Herald Angel award up there which was absolutely phenomenal really. For a small, independent company to go up there and do that was great. This is the fourth reincarnation of Muscle because it has a magazine style structure so you can take stories out and put new stories in. Every time we do the show it’s different and it reflects the research which is ongoing. We haven’t stopped! I recently interviewed a young gay guy who is studying law at university in Cardiff – a few years ago he was living in Brazil as a fully ordained Catholic priest. So you get these amazing characters and constantly refresh the show. Some stories have stayed the same because they’re so amazing that you don’t want to lose them. We like to keep it fresh for ourselves as well. Some of the actors have been doing the show for two years as well!


I guess finally, I’m interested in the format of the show. Why does it have so many disciplines in it? 


Well each story should find its own form. Some stories are best told as stand up comedy and others are danced through. Dance does something that words alone can’t do so we use any weapon at our disposal to tell the best story we can in the most entertaining way we can. We set out to explore the relationship between text and movement. That’s our starting point. I have an interest in how you integrate new technology with theatre, trying to move it on a bit and so we’ve got film, animation. We’ve worked with Kim Fielding, a Cardiff-based photographer whose work is about male sexuality – that was amazing.