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.
Safety - This is the biggest reason. Fight directors are first and foremost concerned with keeping everyone safe. This is no small job. I've often seen otherwise brilliant people lose their damn minds when it comes to their own safety on stage. I feel like there is an article in the news about once a year about someone getting shot onstage with a real firearm. Think for a moment about how many things need to go wrong for that to happen. I've often told students that "the stage is like The Matrix, if you get hurt there, you get hurt in real life too."
Performers need to be able to identify and actively avoid situations that might lead to injury. A working knowledge of the fundamentals of stage combat is a great start. An understanding of these principles can also help them advocate for themselves in instances where they might be being asked to do something unsafe. I've come to believe that it borders on unethical for a performance training program to send graduates out without these basic tools.
In the past I've also had stage managers take my classes and workshops alongside actors. If you are not "showfolk" and don't know what a stage manager is, they are the backbone of a production. They make sure not only that everything happens, but that it happens on time, and happens correctly. I once invited an AEA stage manager to speak to a theatre appreciation class I was teaching and explain what they do. Near the end of the talk one of the students said, "so we clap for the actors, should we bow down to you?" A good stage manager has among their primary concerns that no one gets hurt on their watch.
I've heard it said by some of the people who've trained me that it's often the simplest techniques that have the highest risk of injury. If you are dueling to the death with chainsaws, you respect the chainsaw and go through all the necessary safety procedures. But if the scene needs someone to be slapped and/or fall down, performers will sometimes think that "they can take it." "Taking it" might land a performer in a hospital.
Narrative Clarity - Few disciplines within theatre enjoy the clarity of dramatic conflict and narrative transparency that fight directors have as a matter of course.
Any specific technique should be able to communicate a storyline (or a piece of one). If one character is striking another and they fall down, the audience should be able to follow the action of what is happening from beginning to end. That is to say, from several seconds before the blow lands until after the victim hits the floor. In a longer sequence, such as a duel for instance, each moment is a piece of narrative action. One character feinting a cut to the head, disengaging their blade after drawing a parry, and then executing a blow that is barely dodged might take less time to perform onstage than it did to read, but involves an entire series of narrative actions with the conflict being clear throughout. If there is a reversal (in the Aristotelian sense) that aspect of the storyline is generally extremely clear.
Actor training is often about having clear objectives and understanding dramatic conflict. Characters in violent conflict are among the most direct manifestations of clear objectives and conflict.
This narrative clarity is extraordinarily useful for directors, designers, playwrights, and dramaturgs. When Romeo is trying to kill Tybalt, there is little ambiguity about what the characters want, but there is no limit to how those wants might be played out.
Understanding of Illusion - We live in one of the least violent periods of history. The overwhelming majority of any violence that anyone reading this is likely to see probably happens in the context of its portrayal in an entertainment medium. Since we see so little actual violence (a good thing I would say), a basic understanding of how the popular illusions of violence are created is a good thing to have. I would argue that an understanding of the illusions would lead us to enjoy them more, the same way that an understanding of music leads to a greater appreciation of same.
Also, there is much to be said for having a better grasp of how specific genres of illusions are created when engaging in creating a larger illusion yourself.
This is true for non-actors as well.
The understanding of illusion also relates to an appreciation for narrative clarity.
Collaborative Synergy - At their best, composition of fight scenes involve a unified effort between the fight director, the director, the performers, designers, and technicians.
I had a great experience that was illustrative of this synergy while choreographing a scene for Aunt Dan and Lemon with Whistler in the Dark last season. The illusion for a pivotal scene involved interfacing the costume design with the set design in order for movement to be created that told the story in the script. (I'm fairly proud of how it turned out and may write a blog post specifically about how we solved the problem presented in the script one day.)
On a very practical level, whatever your discipline within theatre or film, understanding the basics of your collaborator's discipline will speed up communication and deepen the process (I'm speaking broadly here as this is true of all the disciplines in theatre). Going back specifically to combat and performers, if you're an actor, you'll be able to learn more complex choreography more quickly, expanding the options available for the final product.
Broadening of Dramaturgical and Textual Analysis - "They Fight" is a great stage direction. And in many classics involves a lot of context. By broadening the understanding of violence on stage, we can understand how and why they might happen in dramatic literature.
Characters are always in pursuit of their wants. In Stanislavskian terms, actors pursue character objectives. To paraphrase Clausewitz, stage combat is the pursuit of objective by other means.
I wrote a post on "fightaturgy" not too long ago and I so I'm not going to dwell on this for too long. Also, elsewhere on this site I posted the outline for a writing assignment on dramaturgy in stage combat that also illustrates this point.
I also teach a "Writing the Fight" workshop specifically for playwrights and dramaturgs about what they need to know about stage combat.
As for textual analysis for those scholars reading this: some years ago I published an article in The Fight Master: The Journal of the Society of American Fight Directors on a specific piece of violence in The Birds by Aristophanes that I found to have been misrepresented in every single translation I could get my hands on. I was able to write a piece clarifying what was really happening and have it confirmed by Classics scholars. I do not read Ancient Greek, but I do understand weapon dynamics.
Stage combat is an aspect of modern theatre that really doesn't get the attention it deserves. We can start to give it that attention by learning the basics of how its done, and then taking that knowledge to other areas.
All that said, I'd love to hear from people in other disciplines on the benefits of studying their specialty. I once took a great hands-on workshop taught by a brilliant lighting designer friend on what actors should know about lighting, it would be great to have more cross-disciplinary training available.
EDIT: I asked on a social media page if I forgot anything and I was reminded of a good one. For actors it's one of the only skills that can equal a pay raise. Fight Captains (those cast members tasked with running fight calls and maintaining the safety and integrity of the fights) get an automatic pay raise in AEA contracts.
FURTHER EDIT: As this appears to be one of my more popular posts, I'd like to take the opportunity to direct people to my page of Stage Combat Resources for further reading.