Zoni Article: Choreography as Stage Fighting

(from the ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence July 2008 newsletter)

Theatrical Terminology – Choreography as Stage Fighting
by Christi Sweeney

Our featured section, Theatrical Terminology, is a two-part section focusing on Choreography.
Choreography promotes the expression of ideas through dance. Apart from dance, the term choreography can be applied to many settings including stage combat, gymnastics, ice-skating, marching bands, and movies.
What I want to focus on this month is stage combat, and all it entails! Let’s get ready to Rumble!

What is Stage Combat?

Put simply, stage combat is choreographed violence for stage or screen. Forms can range from simple fall and a roll to hand-to-hand fighting, from a slap in the face to the use of just about any kind of weapon (swords, guns, knives, bottles, salamis, etc.).
Stage Combat is akin to dance in that it is choreographed and created for dramatic effect. It is the discipline and creative performance of the actor (or dancer) that brings the choreography to life. This is done by executing proper technique, basing choices in character and text, and then merging everything with the overall production.
But, that is where the differences end, or so implies Andrea Robertson, founder of Fight Call LLC, (click here for website: Fight Call, LLC), that provides stage combat education and fight direction throughout the Valley of the Sun. Andrea is an Associate Instructor with Dueling Arts International and a Recognized Advanced Actor Combatant with the Society of American Fight Directors. She has worked as a fight director, choreographing such theatre shows as The Scarlet Pimpernel, Romeo and Juliet, and Deathtrap as well as several films.
According to Robertson, there is a world of difference between dance choreography and fight combat choreographed for the stage. “The terminology is different, and the product is different,” she said in a recent interview. ” They are two totally different things, telling different stories. Where dance tends to tell a story beginning in music and ending with movement and pictures, stage combat begins with the script – characters and motives- that leads to movement and is told through violence. Stage combat is choreographed violence that is safe for the actor but looks real for the audience. I always make sure my students know all three points.”
Stage combat can include any form of choreographed violence. Most of the techniques are drawn from actual fighting techniques, but modified to be safer for actors. For example, although there are a number of ways to create the safe illusion of a slap to the face, none of these involve making actual contact with the victim’s face.
What is interesting is that we don’t hear more about stage combat or utilizing professional fight directors in theatrical productions. This thought was echoed by Robertson, who accurately points out that “All plays have conflict, and for the large part it is a physical conflict. Think about how many shows have a fall or a slap. It should be a consideration of every production to ensure that these physical conflicts are handled in a way that provides a safe environment for the actors – so they can concentrate on their characters and not if they are going to bruised, as well as bringing a level of professionalism to the movement.” I couldn’t agree more, after all, it is an extension of the play and the character.
Stage choreography is much more than just combat. Not only is a stage fight an opportunity to excite the audience with action, the staged fight should be consistent with the style of the production as a whole. A comedy will demand a particular style of fighting in order to evoke a humorous response, tragedy perhaps a horrified response, melodrama an excited response.

How to come up with a fight?

Good question, one that choreographers constantly have to ask. The most important aspect to remember is SAFETY, throughout the entire process.
Robertson indicated that she always reads the script first in order to get an idea for motives and movements that are character appropriate. Then, she meets with the actors and director. This really determines the direction she takes in choreographing the fight, as the actors may not be able (or willing – in some cases..) to perform the actions, or the director may have a specific vision that wasn’t apparent in the reading of the script.
Depending on time constraints and script requirements, the fight is written out in words by recording the movements in a verbal description. Then, the actors are taught the rudimentary moves and safety precautions. Afterwards, they begin to learn the fight by rehearsing it. Then pick up speed. Then rehearse it at that speed, and then more. Then rehearse again and again. It may seem boring, but lots of rehearsal is the key to a safe, fluid, good-looking fight.


I know that’s a lot to absorb in one sitting, but that’s the basics of stage combat. So, rumble at your own risk, or better yet, hire a qualified stage combat professional to help you!