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 and Macbeth, 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.
Normally in a stage fight, we are watching actors portray characters who are in trouble. In the case of a metatheatrical stage fight, we are watching actors play characters who are playing other characters who are the ones who are in trouble. Richard Schechner's concept of the performative double-negative is compounded in cases like this, as it is not the the actor playing "Hamlet" who is "not-Hamlet" and "not-not-Hamlet," it is the character said actor is portraying. It's a strength of theatre to be able to create multiple simultaneously active levels of reality that can be observed by an audience without confusion (this is actually easier done than described). In the case of metatheatrical combat, letting an audience see "cues" is a special challenge.
I've already written at length about the semiotics of the simulacra of combat, but plays like this create an added dimension. Especially since such scripts often contain violence that the first level of characters engage in. The violence taking place between the characters exists at a different level of reality than the violence that happens in the play-within-a-play, and the audience needs to be able to make the distinction instantaneously.
This is not a problem unique to Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth. In recent years I had similar compositional challenges with The Fantastiks at Merrimack Rep and Bad Jazz with Zeitgeist Stage. Bad Jazz had a particularly interesting moment where a "stage fight" became a "real fight." We accomplished this in part by exaggerating the cues and showing all the strings in the "stage fight" portion of the scene so that the audience could "get" that the actors were in a metatheatrical moment, and then going into more conventional combat when it got "real."
In the case of my current project, I'm beginning by creating a non-standard physical vocabulary with the members of the ensemble who take part in the fights. I came in and started them on some modified drills adapted from Filipino and Japanese martial arts (as a point of reference, Matt Damon's character in The Bourne Identity used Filipino martial arts). My intention is that once they can manipulate the stage weapons in ways that a contemporary audience is unused to seeing but can still clearly understand as a narrative element, the composition the the "fights" themselves will have an element of unreality to them that will serve the needs of the play in this production. We're going to be in the Black Box theater of the Boston Center for the Arts, which is a fairly intimate space. Working with a less common movement vocabulary in a small space where the slightest movement registers to the audience will hopefully signal when we are in the world of "Hamlet" or "Macbeth" that is within the world of Stoppard, as opposed to the primary world of the characters.
I'm still very early in the process of working on this show, so all of this is very much subject to change. In the end, any fight director's goal is to create safe and effective violence that serves the needs of the production. In cases like this, the violence can have an existential crisis.