PETER PAN @ Tufts University - Photo by Elizabeth Herman
Attention Young Actors: You don't always know what you think you know. This is especially true when it comes to stage combat. And you may want to think twice before you claim it on a resume. This is true even if you took a workshop or two and/or performed fights onstage a handful of times.
I'm talking mostly about the "Special Skills" section of the resume. As many of you know, common wisdom dictates that you should not put anything down on there that you cannot do on short notice. I want to work on the assumption that people are making their claims in good faith (liars are a whole other issue). That one would not put down a language that they do not speak, an instrument they do not play, or claim a degree that they have not earned.
But unfortunately, sometimes stage combat ends up on an acting resume when it really shouldn't be...
A plate from Capo Ferro's Treatise
Curating information is a task that demands that one think carefully about how various types of material are being presented.
As some of you may have noticed, I recently started working on a page of Stage Combat Resources
for this site, as I feel that there is a need for such a thing. (I also started a more modest one for Playwriting & Dramaturgy
, but that is more to guide people to the more established resources that are already out there). On the stage combat page I've listed (among other things): links to professional organizations, weapons suppliers that I can vouch for, some teaching organizations in NYC that I've trained with, and links to a bunch of stuff by & about me (including my recent McSweeney's interview, which I have to admit made me feel mildly famous)
. And perhaps most importantly, a selected bibliography. The bibliography is where I am having some trouble. While books by B.H. Barry and J. Allen Suddeth are obvious and required reading, I don't quite know what to do with Ridolfo Capo Ferro. Or Vincentio Saviolo. Or Morihei Ueshiba for that matter. Let me explain...
This past November I was one of two alumni speakers at TEX: Tufts Idea Exchange
. TEX is an event inspired by and modeled on TED
. If you are not familiar with TED
, do yourself a favor and click that link. Be sure that you don't have anyplace important to be for a while.
I'm coming back to this long-overdue post now in part because I've noticed through social media that they're soliciting speakers again, and to urge anyone among my readership in the Tufts community to apply. And also, anyone with access to any similar events, like TEDx
for instance, to make a point of going and/or somehow getting involved. (I met many of the people involved in TEDxSomerville
, and they are awesome, one of the TEX
presenters will actually be speaking at their event). For something even more informal, check out NerdNite
I want to talk specifically about TEX
, and generally about what events like this have to offer. Let's start with my presentation and go from there...
A few weeks ago I wrote at some length about the general utility of studying stage combat.
I touched on the subject of falls at the time, but I'd like to go into it in a little more depth here. As I've said before, falls are a surprisingly high risk activity on stage, in part because in many circumstance performers do not even realize that they are at risk. Many are surprised to learn that they constitute an important part of stage combat training. It doesn't take a whole lot of thought to realize why falls are both so important (because you can hurt yourself on the way down to the ground in myriad ways) and so often overlooked (because they are so obvious).
Before going much further I need to acknowledge that there are written sources on falls from fight directors far more advanced than myself. By way of example, an excellent technical manual is Combat Mime: A Non-Violent Approach to Stage Violence by J.D. Martinez
, is one of the standard texts on unarmed combat and a book I strongly recommend for anyone pursuing any long-term study of physical performance.Anyway, let's talk a bit about falling on stage or screen. (Like some of my other posts, this is probably an early draft of something that I'll expand into a more in-depth article or paper later on.)
"Professional Fight Director and Stage Combat Instructor
" is apparently one of the best jobs one can possibly have when attending a cocktail party (though for the record, I would like to state that I always say "Playwright
" first). A surprising amount of intelligent and educated people are unaware that the job actually exists. And once they do know, there is a lot of curiosity about how our work is done.
Recently I've been teaching a whole lot of Intro to Stage Combat workshops in various settings, and I have a few more coming up in the near future. I've been saying for quite some time that the basics of stage combat are essential skills for actors, as well as incredibly useful for other disciplines within theatre & film. I would also say that taking such a workshop could also be a really interesting adventure for those outside of professional entertainment. I've written a whole lot about this subject (a dissertation and several articles)
and have been the subject some interviews and so on in this capacity as well, so some of what I'm saying here I've said before, but anything I'm repeating is worth writing about again.
The first priority of a fight director is the safety of the performers. For a profession with such a badass reputation, the practitioners spend a whole lot of time and energy being concerned with the well-being of everyone involved. Stage combat has more in common with a combination of ballroom dance and stage magic that it does with any actual fighting discipline. Once an illusion is decided upon, it becomes a matter of figuring out how to best execute it within the skill level of the cast and in the time allotted. This can be as "simple" as someone being slapped and/or falling down, or as complex as a duel to the death with chainsaws. The illusion must also further the story being told and support character development. If the fight director has done their job well it should be nearly impossible to determine where the director's work ended and where the fight director's has begun.I'd like to take a moment to discuss why the the study of stage combat is important and why acquiring some familiarity with the skills involved in portraying violence in performance should be given some priority across the various disciplines.
In the past few days I've had three major projects come to fruition: my round table of Burning Up the Dictionary
at the Lark Play Development Center
, my devised piece, Ghosts of Hamlet
in Something Rotten: Hamlet Remixed
at the Boston Center for the Arts
, and my talk as an alumni speaker at TEX: Tufts Idea Exchange
. In the middle of all of this, I did the fights for The Nutcracker
at Stoneham Theatre
and continued my work on The Miracle Worker
at Salve Regina University
.TEX will most likely get its own blog post some time after the videos are posted online. So I'd like to discuss the new plays, Burning Up the Dictionary and Ghosts of Hamlet.
One piece is a fairly straightforward full length play, the other is a short piece of devised experimental theatre.Let's start with the less conventional of the two:
"Be well versed in the arts of pen and sword." - Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings
I recently joked that on principle, scholars of John Milton
and Paradise Lost
should all skydive. In part because the opportunity to fall screaming from Heaven like Lucifer
himself would be wonderful fieldwork. And also because the study of great literature should be visceral.This was because not so long ago I went skydiving to celebrate my graduation from my doctoral program, and also because
lately I've been having more and more realizations about what I've come to call "fightaturgy," or, the dramaturgical
revelations of the analysis of violence and movement implied in a performance text and their effect on character development in a play. I brought this up in a recent conversation with my friend and colleague Ryan Hartigan
, which led me to realize that I need to write about this if I'm going to keep talking about it.
A few of my current projects have some great examples:
I've been thinking lately about ephemerality of performance and mutability of texts. And how a play is completed not on paper but in performance. All of this is very Theatre 101 of course. But as theatre on the whole is not performed for "'experts" but for audiences, it bears repeating.
A few of my current and recent fight directing projects are plays that I've done previously in other venues (or, in the case of Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth
, contain pieces of plays I've done in other contexts). In the case of Romeo & Juliet
, I've done that play so many times I can pretty much recite the dialogue around the fight scenes as well as all the commentary about how the characters might fight that takes place in other scenes.
A question I've been getting a lot is whether I just recycle choreography when I repeat plays.That would be a resounding No.
The actors are different, the space is different, and most importantly, the director's vision is never the same. Then there are also the logistical factors. How much time are they planning to spend composing and rehearsing the fights? A production with a three month rehearsal period, plenty of time to train, and a commitment to rehearse diligently will have different ambitions for a fight scene than a company with less time and money for the same play. A production set in the Italian Renaissance will very likely have Mercutio and Tybalt face off with rapier and dagger, where the post-apocalyptic version may go with chainsaws (I am waiting for that version to happen). Context shapes the presentation of text. This is something you learn in any branch of theatre. As a writer, if you're fortunate enough to see multiple productions/workshops/readings of the same play, you get a feel for what has fluidity and what has consistency. By way of example, here are three videos of the same monologue. Two are performed by my friend and collaborator Zillah Glory, the third was performed at Brooklyn College as part of the Gi60 short play festival a little over a year ago:
I'm posting here to put down some early thoughts about how stage combat that occurs "in quotes" is choreographed and perceived. Somewhere down the line I'll be expanding these thoughts into an academic paper.
About a week ago I came into rehearsal for Whistler in the Dark
's production of Tom Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth,
for which I am composing violence. Both sections of the script involve a play-within-a-play, (Hamlet
, respectively). In one case it is a group of schoolboys putting on Hamlet
at their school, in the other it is famous actors putting up an illicit performance of Macbeth
in someone's home in a totalitarian regime. Both metatheatrical sections include the famous duels of the Shakespeare plays that their characters are putting on. Which means we are seeing an actor playing one character, who is in turn playing another character, who is in turn engaging in a duel. The task of a fight director in a case like this is not to choreograph the character of Hamlet per se, but to choreograph a schoolboy playing Hamlet. The character of Hamlet is an early-modern image of a Danish prince who would have had extensive training and familiarity with dueling. In a production of said play with professional actors, the fight director would be working to articulate the conflict of the duel within these (and other) parameters. The character in Dogg's Hamlet
however, is a schoolboy playing said prince, which adds a whole other filter to the physicality of the fights. The movement must be believable for a schoolboy moreso than for a prince. And of course must remain safe for the actors, engaging for the audience, and continue to advance the story.
This past Monday I took part in a Small Theatre Alliance of Boston
Open Mic Night at the Charlestown Working Theater
. I brought in a section of a new full length play I'm working on called Burning Up the Dictionary
, which I'm billing as "a story of language, love, lust and loss." I'll be having a round table of the entire thing at the Lark Play Development Center
in New York City next month, so this was a great opportunity to test-drive a section of it in front of an audience and see how things play in front of an audience as I work on it in preparation for the Lark. I've been developing it through the Playwrights' Commons
Playwrights' Playground this past summer (which was quite a blessing), but this was the first time I'd heard it in front of an audience as opposed to workshop participants.