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:
One of my current projects is working on fights and movement for a production of The Miracle Worker at Salve Regina University under the direction of Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. This is a play based on Helen Keller's first acquisition of language while she was still very young. For the vast majority of the play, she is almost feral.
This play has several fights, most of which involve the young Miss Keller. As the character is both blind and deaf, it's easy to jump to a conclusion that she would be easily overcome by sighted and hearing adversaries. She is not written that way, and it makes total sense that she should not be.
A major point in the seminar led by Rory Miller that I attended a few weeks ago is that touch is the fastest sense in terms of the brain processing information. The character of Helen Keller would be fighting primarily by touch (it's possible to put smell in the equation, but let's leave that out for the purposes of this argument). Once she is in physical contact with her adversary, they have essentially stepped into her office. As it is her primary means of exploring the world, especially before she has learned language, she will be more adept at dealing with the subtle shifts in weight and the "tells" that come through the muscular and skeletal systems. I'd like to take this moment to remind my readers that there is a longstanding practice of blind Judo competition, and I have heard that those athletes have performed very well against sighted opponents.
Once you have established that the character of Helen Keller is a fierce and proficient fighter (she wins some of the fights in the script, and when she is overcome, it is not done easily), a new dimension is added to the character. She is not so helpless. Her entire physicality can relate this to the audience, and the actress portraying her has much more to work with. We know that the historical figure that this play is based on was a brilliant woman. This peak into her childhood can show us more of her potential at that period of her life if she is aware of this particular aspect of her physical life.
Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
This play is a favorite in the stage combat community. The fights are all major turning points in the plot and each one comes with a wealth of background information supported by the text itself. Some of the background may appear prescriptive at first glance, but what it really offers is structure.
Some of the dialogue surrounding the fights refers to the rules of dueling. This play appeared not long after Vincento Saviolo, the first Italian fencing master to publish a treatise in English, printed his first book. This included a code of conduct around the rapier, which would have been a new weapon to the English. Just about everything Mercutio says about Tybalt is a criticism of his adherence to this new school of swordplay.
That said, let's talk about Tybalt. I've seen this character played as a hostile and violent jerk. Which is not all that interesting for either audience or actor. A question I often ask directors is where they see the relative skill levels of the characters who engage in the duels. (Another question I often ask is "Where would you like this on a scale of one to audience-in-therapy-for-life?" Though that is another discussion.) Regardless of where they place these characters' prowess in relation to each other (and there are arguments for just about any arrangement), in the end it is Tybalt who is playing by a very specific book.
I am currently fight directing this play for Framingham High School Drama Company (which, for the record, has an amazing theatre program). I've done Romeo & Juliet numerous times at this point and more or less recite most of the dialogue that surrounds the fights and much of the text that gives clues to how and why they violence occurs. I had some discussions with the cast members who fight as well as the dramaturg about these scenes (let us take a moment to recognize how awesome it is that this high school program uses dramaturgs). And the performer playing Tybalt had a great observation, "Tybalt just wants everybody to be classy."
Tybalt wanting the other characters to just adhere to the rules of honor and being offended by their lack of decorum from his perspective gives him far more motivation than just being a hostile bully. And though he is rarely onstage without engaging in violence, being the proponent of proper etiquette and style is a much more playable situation for an actor than being a bully. Fightaturgy for the win.
Another Romeo & Juliet story I'd like to share so long as I am on the subject: some years ago I did a production in which the actor playing Paris taught math at Harvard. When I explained to him how he would physically portray receiving a minor wound early in his fight with Romeo, he took a moment to digest the note and said to me, "Of course, there would be a drag coefficient between flesh and steel." I have been using that phrase to describe how to move when sustaining wounds from edged weapons onstage since.
Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth by Tom Stoppard
I've blogged about this play earlier in the process. It's currently running with Whistler in the Dark Theatre Company (my favorite of Boston's small companies, and one in which I have recently become an Artistic Associate of). Much of the violence is metatheatrical. In Dogg's Hamlet the violence in the play-within-a-play is played for comedy. An important portion of it is specifically done in slow motion, with the accompanying dialogue also slowed down (which is awesome, that sort of creative synergy is one of the reasons I love this company). I don't want to give too many spoilers about a play that's currently running, but I do want to say that the creation of different sorts of violence in this play was done with an eye for establishing the rules of the world the characters inhabit.
I teach a workshop on stage combat specifically geared towards playwrights and dramaturgs. It's evolved quite a bit since I first started doing it. I have the feeling that it's about to evolve just a bit more the next time I teach it based on some of my recent work.
Also, one last bit on skydiving: It rocked the Casbah like Elvis in Vegas in 1999. I highly recommend the experience. Freefall was a completely new way of experiencing my body in space. I completely understand how that can become habit forming.