No, this is not another article about John Cena's recent elbow and ankle problems. And while he probably should be given a break from wrestling—he has been through several injury scares and a divorce in recent months—it might lead to overworking the man when he comes back from his holidays. Instead, I am talking of giving him and other top stars occasional "creative breaks."
What is a creative break? It is a break in the active gimmick and storylines of a superstar to try him in something different. However, this is not the same as a "turn"—as in "face turn" or "heel turn"—but a trial for a new personality or gimmick for later in the superstar's career.
In the old days, wrestlers didn't break character. They acted the same in and out of the ring, regardless of whether or not they were on TV. Now, things are different. Not only do superstars regularly break character in social events and social media, they also do so in non-televised events and house shows.
The fans are okay with that. Not only does it enable them to see a hidden side of their favorite star, it also allows them to follow their exploits outside the squared circle. Most importantly, it allows superstars to be themselves without having to constantly look behind their backs to see who is watching.
House shows and "dark matches" often allow superstars to take some liberties with their character and experiment with new moves. These new character quirks and moves can be used later, preventing the act from becoming stale. It also allows the power to take calculated risks in changing the whole direction or gimmick of the superstar.
Skip Sheffield did not become Ryback overnight. No, the former NXT rookie was tested for quite a while before becoming the dominant monster from "Sin City" that he now is. Most of this preparation was done in the dark—when the cameras were off, not the lights—and fans were given glimpses into the future wrecking machine. While Ryback's hype has begun to descend, it has quite a bit to do with him not getting a real feud than with his gimmick itself.
So, how would the same thing be achieved with the top stars of the company? A few, like CM Punk, have the ability to transition quite seamlessly from one extreme to the other. While fans might take some time to transition their allegiance with regard to a new gimmick, he will make it happen.
For superstars who are either less talented on the mic—like Alberto Del Rio—or have spent too much time playing the same character—like Cena—it gets a bit more difficult. It is harder to predict the fans' reaction to new gimmicks in such cases, making some form of testing useful.
There are two approaches that can be used to give superstars the Creative breaks they need.
Firstly, they can be taken off TV altogether and tweaked during house shows and dark matches, as was the case with Ryback. This scenario can be best utilized right after a major feud or during a storyline "injury" or "suspension." It would be a very useful tool after a major feud comes to an end—for example, if Cena had been taken off after his WrestleMania loss to The Rock and had used the time to change his character and move-set.
A second approach can be utilized with the character still actively on TV. It involves masking the superstar. The current persona of the superstar can be active in a feud, while his masked gimmick is being tried out in the dark, with a different character and different in-ring style. Then, a creative tool, such as an "injury" can be used to take out the unmasked gimmick, while the masked gimmick is debuted.
Finally, when the masked gimmick has found acceptance with the fans, an unmasking storyline can be used to deliver a shock moment. By this time, the fans are already used to the new gimmick and can invest in the new personality of the unmasked superstar without the need for a transition period.
Executing a successful masked gimmick requires a bit of artfulness in both the superstar and the creative team, but it can be a spectacular way to drastically alter the personality of an active wrestler.
Many fans complain of wrestlers' acts going stale. Often, it looks like the creative team have dug themselves into a hole in quicksand and the only direction the gimmick in question can go is down. Utilizing a creative break to change the superstar's character can be used as a harness to drag the sinking superstar out of the hole and use him fresh.