Speaking English: The Amazing Artiste of WWE
Sometimes life is a stage. Sometimes it's a WWE wrestling ring.
Sporting a waxed moustache and an overcoat thrown over wrestling tights, Aiden English struts his lean and muscular frame down a runway alongside his tag team partner Simon Gotch, a strongman throwback you might find pressing barbells at a carnival. The arena music erupts into ragtime piano. Instead of exchanging high fives, The Vaudevillains magnanimously shake hands and pose for fisticuffs straight out of a silent film—a decidedly artistic entrance for the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) stage.
Approaching his wrestling persona as an “artiste,” English has been known to enter rings singing show tunes. Sometimes he croons out a lullaby as he brings an opponent into an inescapable headlock. And with the April 2017 news that Gotch has been released from the WWE, English will be flying off the ropes solo for a while. But the self-styled 19th-century thespian now works under the biggest bright lights of his dream career.
English, better known as Matt Rehwoldt ’10 during his Columbia College Chicago years, has pursued professional wrestling since he was growing up in La Grange, Illinois. His parents didn’t have cable, so WWE’s Monday Night Raw became a sort of forbidden fruit. Rehwoldt was hooked from the moment he overheard grade school classmates raging about professional wrestling as they practiced fake fighting. The humor and dramatics appealed to him, and he eagerly took to the sport perhaps most associated with performance art. In fact, Rehwoldt only matriculated to Columbia to study Theatre after striking a deal with his parents, who discouraged him from going straight into wrestling.
Yet Rehwoldt says his four-year college detour thoroughly prepared him for the theatrics of WWE. In Chicago, he transformed himself from a shy kid to someone who could woo a live crowd. “You crave that sort of attention and affirmation from an audience,” he says. “It’s a terrifying experience, but getting through it is very rewarding.”
The chance to forge his own artistic path at Columbia also appealed to Rehwoldt. He found his way through a stage combat class taught by David Woolley, developing a strong stage presence and learning a few performance tricks along the way.
Of course, he learned things about the importance of diction and the muscle memory required of live performance.
“But the bigger thing was learning about taking beats and making moments really count,” Rehwoldt says. “You’re constantly trying to find the emotional arc of whatever story you’re trying to tell. Those are all the things we’re trying to do in the WWE today.”
With a wrestling persona inspired by vaudeville days of yore, Rehwoldt has been known to enter the ring belting show tunes to intimidate his opponents.
Post-graduation, Rehwoldt scored a role in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity—a Chicago-born dramatic comedy and finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama—which tells the story of the American world of professional wrestling. He also landed some professional stage time at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he performed in Macbeth as a non-singing character.
In January 2011, Rehwoldt moved south for a three-month course at Florida Championship Wrestling, a training ground for the WWE. After someone suggested he team up with Gotch, a sort of likeminded traditionalist, the idea for The Vaudevillains quickly emerged. The duo perfected their craft in the Sunshine State for a couple of years and began wrestling on the larger WWE stage in 2016.
Nostalgic by nature, Rehwoldt holds the wrestlers who inspired him as a kid in high regard. Legends such as Ric “The Nature Boy” Flair, Shawn Michaels, and Stone Cold Steve Austin combined great theater with spectacular wrestling skills. He’s also a student of the game, learning about WWE greats like Gorgeous George and the villainous Killer Kowalski. “I have a great deal of appreciation for the legacy of wrestling,” he says. “A lot of these guys were wrestling in small armories with one light above the ring just to make a living.”
The armories are a stark contrast to today’s hordes of fans showing up for events inside venues like Madison Square Garden in New York. But this is English’s world today: on the road every week, in WWE primetime—as big as it gets in professional wrestling.
Still, he’s aware of wrestlers like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena, who’ve made the leap from wrestling ring to the silver screen. Rehwoldt, however, has a very classic, specific goal. “Part of me would love to do movies,” he says. “But I want to be the first WWE superstar to perform in a play on Broadway.”
The stage combat skills Rehwoldt perfected at Columbia come in hand during WWE feuds.