By Cynthia Darling, Staff Writer, All About Solo
Like any free, creative soul, Jake Boston realizes that the world is his oyster. He has a craving to travel and explore the world, while educating himself further and sharing with young artists the skills and techniques he’s acquired over 16 years onstage and in front of the camera. He has been quite fortunate in facilitating, teaching, performing, and taking part in some amazing projects in Brazil, Indonesia, and France, to name a few. He has always been interested in how everyday stories and real‑life experiences make their way onto the stage. Focusing on writing and directing, he explores material that he is passionate about and that speaks to audiences. “Bare Knuckle” is a personal and touching autobiographical piece.
Cynthia Darling: What are the core athletic values of bare knuckle fighting, and how have they affected your own personal identity journey and your understanding of masculinity?
Jake Boston: Really and truly, bare knuckle fighting was originally intended to quash any troubles or qualms any individuals or families had with one another. The fights could take place that night, or were planned in advance. Only in the past decade have fighters started scheduling fights to give each other the opportunity to get into shape, or at the very least, work on technique and form. The typical physical figure for a bare knuckle fight? There isn’t one. You just show up and fight. The hard man image comes with the territory. You find a patch of land, go over the agreed rules, and then you start banging! Very little technique is actually used, and there is a real intent to remove the opponent’s head from his shoulders. Fights only really come to an end when one of the fighters either taps out (gives up), or the referee decides that one fighter has had enough. As someone of mixed heritage, growing up in east London, Hackney, I believe that the streets gave me the tools I needed to grow. My dad being Irish, I inherited the so-called Irish gene. I’m supposed to be able to fight, hold my ground, and drink a lot! I have been taught in the way of the Irish Gypsy fighter by my father, and these are the themes I explore in my show. I was taught to defend myself and carry the bravado and honour that comes with the title. Having a champion bare knuckle boxer as a dad, I had to take over once he hung up the wraps! He was the be‑all and end‑all, my hero! He was the epitome of a man to me, everything I wanted to live up to, and was required to.
What are the challenges of writing and performing a show that investigates the effects of bare knuckle fighting?
For me personally, it was obviously very raw, exploring the ins and outs of my dad’s life, gathering tales and stories from my cousins, uncles, etc. It was a real eye‑opener for me. The life he had lived before he was my dad. It was intriguing but also quite barbaric. It was a challenge for me to hear all these stories whilst moulding my own experiences with my dad, and turning them into a full‑fledged theatre show. At times it would be way too raw, and would leave me feeling extremely vulnerable and lost. I worked on “Bare Knuckle” for 7 years before it was finally completed to be performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. Even then, rewrites were happening on the fly. The original idea was to call the show “Bottom of the Bottle,” with a cast of 4, with me directing it. Once Lucy Richardson (the director of “Bare Knuckle”) heard my story, she told me, “This needs to be a one‑man show, and you need to be the one man!” The subject matter of bare knuckle fighting was very natural for me, as it has played such a big role in my life. Watching my father fight and come home battered and bruised was the norm. So, I just wrote from my own lived experience. Hence, the title changing to “Bare Knuckle.” The story is real and I lay everything bare on stage. Performing the show itself is very raw, so it is quite natural to me. We require very little in staging, and we focus more on the storytelling itself. The text drives the story, and the descriptive nature of the text allows the audience to create the imagery for themselves.
What are some of the ways your show interrogates common notions of masculinity?
Naturally, a topic such as fighting invokes a certain element of “fight or flight.” With my father not present, it was “fight or fight,” only. Masculinity was defined by how hard you could take a punch and how many of them! That was the way it was described to me by my father. He was my hero, and I was hung up on every word he said. He was my teacher. He did all his own dentistry work and cut his own hair. He knew how to wire an electric meter to accumulate instead of deduct money ‑‑ a real con man, but one for the people. He taught me to wire electronics, the basics of plumbing, what makes a car tick, and the problems I would encounter in life and how to solve them. “Every man in the world needs to know these things,” he said. “You will always be employed, as everyone always needs a labourer.” All of this informs the show. I have carried my dad’s attitude towards life into my own life, and it (even subliminally) affects the decisions I make, and the way I approach things. Naturally, it affected how I wrote the show. Although my father was a huge influence on me, I think that my understanding of masculinity is somewhat different from his. For example, I suffer from mental health issues and have looked for help to try and understand myself better and heal. My father, on the other hand, who, I’m sure, suffered from mental health issues himself, could never speak about them or ask for help. Mental health wasn’t explored or talked about back when I was young. Plus, my dad being the hard man he was, dealt with his own demons the only way he knew how, which was drinking. Perhaps, paradoxically, my dad, the strongest man I knew, turned to alcohol throughout most of his life, and it was his downfall. Some may say it was a coward’s way out. But again, my dad believed that the more you could drink, the more masculine you were. All of this guided me in writing the show, and allowed me to question what it means to be a man today. Do I want to be a mirror image of my dad? Am I (do I want to be) a totally different kind of man? Or am I a combination of both?
What are the challenges of writing about personal identity and your own father?
Grief! Sorrow and pain! All things I felt whilst writing “Bare Knuckle.” I only wrote the show to be performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and then intended to wash my hands of it. I wrote it simply for my own grieving process, as I did not cry at my dad’s funeral, or even let it affect me during the first few years. Writing the show gave me the opportunity to turn something as dramatic as death into a tale of beauty and life, a chance to say one last goodbye to my father. The show is tender, funny at times, sad at times, but also light. I was more interested in celebrating my dad’s life and remembering the good times we had together. But alas it has gone much further than I ever intended it to, thanks to Fabio, Lucy and Dale. They encouraged and pushed me to continue the journey, as they believe the work needs to be seen by a wider audience! During the process, as cliché as it sounds, I found out so much about myself as an individual and as a writer. It was exciting, sad, ambitious, and scary, all at the same time. The greatest ideas start with a pen and a paper. I took those, dug deep into my own thoughts, and just spoke everything into existence. How do physicality and violence play into your show artistically? Artistically, the merging between the storytelling and the physicality of the fighting was interesting to explore. We could have easily told a story about guys’ faces getting smashed in, and blood everywhere, but it is less about the violent nature of the fighting and more about the poetic aspect of the nature of the beast. The descriptive text is more violent in words alone than with physicality: “A right hook here and a left to the gut, through the middle with an uppercut.” We play on the idea of letting the audience piece together the scene by making the text as descriptive as possible. This allows them to convey what they see, and decide just how barbaric they want to make it out to be.
What did you discover about yourself and/or the artistic process through the writing process of “Bare Knuckle”?
I discovered that I was a much better storyteller than I ever thought I could be. Granted it took me 7 years, a title change, and so many different sessions sitting down with Dale, Shells, Stefan (friends and family depicted in the show), and my mum, to finally come up with the idea of making the show autobiographical. Then, with Lucy’s help, we came up with all the mini stories that would make the show. One sunny afternoon, I went to South London to Lucy’s house. She had a cheese board with grapes and a coffee, and she sat me down and said, “Right, Jake, tell me your life.” This was longwinded, and 4 hours later, and many different types of cheeses later, we finally had around 30 post‑it notes with mini stories on them. Then we took a further 2 hours to arrange the stories in order. I used this as a skeleton for the script, and I went to town writing out the scenes, just keeping track of what moments came where. Never have I utilized this technique before, but I must say for anyone wanting to write an autobiographical piece: this is certainly the way to go about it!
What are the specific tropes of father/son relationships that are most challenging?
For me personally, it was knowing that I could never be the man my father wanted me to be. Our time together was cut short, and I never got a chance to make him a proud man. I denied him, disobeyed him, and eventually I paid the ultimate price by losing him. Writing about this made me feel such a disconnect from who my father wanted me to be ‑ just like him ‑ and naturally, I had my own experiences with life that shaped my path, career and goals. For me, he was an almighty being who never blinked an eye at any danger. Even now, I am still trying to possess the same mentality my father had. Mentally, I believed him to be strong and saw him as an example of what a great role model should be. Growing up with very little room to experiment, and to find out what makes me tick, was challenging in itself, as I was always in my father’s shadow. He guided me, taught me and took me everywhere with him. Even answering this question has got me all up in my feelings. It never really leaves you, and you just learn to turn the sorrow into joy. There’s a lot of beauty in the struggle. I am looking forward to putting this show on for a new fresh audience, and feel very proud to be chosen to perform at the United Solo Theatre Festival. I cannot wait to get on stage and lay it all bare.
Written and Performed by Jake Boston
Directed by Lucy Richardson
Tuesday, Nov 19th at 7:30PM
Photo credit: Verona Lewis
The 2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
CYNTHIA DARLING is a writer and teacher living in Hell’s Kitchen. A writer for NAfME’s Teaching Music magazine for many years, she also wrote for New York Family magazine. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Louisiana Literature, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Wanderlust Journal.