TAMPA — Everyone knows professional wrestling isn’t a real athletic competition.
But it might surprise some people that in place of real sports action, teams of writers working with the oversized actors create elaborate story lines week after week — like for a TV series.
Those in the business say it requires the same kind of great storytelling.
Toward that end, two seminars — unrelated, one on each side of the bay — are scheduled this weekend for those interested in working in front of or behind the cameras.
It starts 1 p.m. today at American Stage Theatre Company, 163 3rd St. N., St. Petersburg, when Joe Belcastro — a former Tampa resident and a member of WWE’s writing team — will take part in a panel discussion at the Sunscreen Film Festival on how to pitch ideas to television network executives.
Belcastro, a former contributing writer with The Tampa Tribune, will be joined by a literary agent and a producer from Hollywood.
Attendance requires a $50 day pass to the St. Petersburg festival, available at the door or through www.sunscreenfilmfestival.com.
Then at 5 p.m. today, at The Orpheum, 1915 E. 7th Ave., Ybor City, wrestler Austin Aries of Clearwater will discuss how he works to further the storylines through his athleticism inside the ring.
Admission is $50 at the door. Following the class, Full Impact Pro Wrestling will hold a live wrestling event for an extra $15.
“This business is like no other,” said Aries, with Orlando-based Total Nonstop Action. His real name is Daniel Healy Solwold, Jr. “It is awesome to be a part of. But it is also difficult. If you don’t love it, you should seek another career. It takes real dedication.”
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For Belcastro, 35, and Aries, 36, this was the only career they ever wanted.
A lifelong wrestling fan, Belcastro approached WWE about a job when he graduated from Niagara University. He was rebuffed.
Over the next five years, he honed his writing skills, penning articles for the Tribune and movie reviews for online entertainment industry websites.
Then in summer 2013, a friend with connections in the WWE secured him another job interview. This time, they hired him even though he had no experience writing scripts.
Belcastro said his story is a lesson for those interested in a similar career: There is no defined path.
The WWE’s creative team, he said, comes from a mix of backgrounds — wrestlers, actors, television writers and journalists.
During Belcastro’s job interview, he said, he was asked to discuss WWE storylines and how he would build on them.
“Pitching a story properly is everything.” he said. “You have to know every nuance of your story. You need to offer them more than a good idea. These people hear great ideas every day.”
With more than 50 characters to bring to life and seven hours of programming every week of the year, the work can be daunting, he said. No fictional television series requires so much.
“There is no off-season,” Belcastro said. “It takes a team of creative people to make this work.”
Writers meet regularly to develop long-term and short-term stories for every character, from the wrestler who never wins a match to the one who hoists the championship belt over his head.
There is a “writers’ room” at WWE headquarters in Stamford, Conn., as any television series would have. But because writers are often on the road with the show, and they have so much time to fill, meetings are also held backstage, in hotel rooms or wherever ideas strike.
Writers pitch ideas. The best one sticks and the rest of the team builds upon it.
Wrestling match scripts have been leaked to online fan sites in the past, but Belcastro would not say whether WWE even uses scripts. Or whether there are read-throughs or rehearsals.
Once the story lines are written, and winning and losing wrestlers are chosen, it is up to the athletes to work within those boundaries and to bring a feud to life inside the ring.
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Wrestler Aries with Total Nonstop Action said the performers must put as much thought into the matches as the writers do the story lines.
Aries has never worked for the WWE, so he doesn’t know if its writers and performers work like he does.
But with his team, he said, the punches and slams have to look real — and so do the motives of each participant in the ring.
“We need to make it believable,” he said. “Just going out there and flipping around and hitting each other in the head aren’t enough. Each wrestler needs to know who he is and who his opponent is and put together a story line that makes sense and gets the crowd excited and invested in who wins and loses.”
For instance, he said, a basic in-ring story he uses is the classic “David and Goliath” story.
Aries stands at 5’9 and tips the scales just over 200 pounds. When he is in the ring with a 300-pound giant, the story he wants to tell is speed versus strength. He sticks and moves while his opponent tries to overpower him.
As a 14-year veteran of the industry, he may want to tell a story of savvy versus inexperience if he is wrestling a rookie.
His story lines also carry over from previous shows, so if he had a leg injury he’ll wrestle at a slower pace, maneuver to protect the leg and tell a story of overcoming the odds.
Matches are not fully choreographed in advance. The match’s ebb and flow is often decided during the live performance, so long as it fits into the established story line.
“If my opponent just smashed my leg,” Aries explained, “It wouldn’t make much sense for me to be leaping through the air seconds later. It sounds simple, but some wrestlers get caught up in the moment and forget the basics of storytelling.”
All of this while performing feats of athleticism that wow the crowd.
“It’s a lot,” he said.
Aries wants to keep some secrets about how he works, like the way wrestlers communicate in the ring without fans seeing it.
And while the winners are decided once the story line is done, neither wrestler nor writer calls the show fake.
“I can line up a lot of guys who will tell you otherwise,” Belcastro said.
The injuries are certainly real.
In his career, Aries said, he has torn a lower disk, partially torn a ligament, dislocated his shoulders, broken his nose too many times to count, and probably incurred a few concussions.
“If you don’t like pain, this is not for you.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had a workshop date listed incorrectly. In addition, the first name of Daniel Healy Solwold Jr. was left off and the wrong school was listed for writer Joe Belcastro