Let’s fight… but not really

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En garde!

Stage combat is one of the most entertaining and intense elements of theatre, whether it’s the climactic swordfight in Hamlet (“A hit, a very palpable hit!”), a slap across the face in a melodrama, or a tuneful rumble between Sharks and Jets in West Side Story.

But onstage violence can be as dangerous as it is exciting, unless it’s in the hands of an experienced professional.

Enter the fight director.

Even though the action you see in a fight scene might look spontaneous, every single punch, lunge, head-butt, and rapier thrust is carefully planned. Fight directors work out each movement as if it were a tightly choreographed musical number, which is why they are sometimes called fight choreographers. Their job is to carry out the director’s vision of how conflict should be staged by creating a safe illusion of violence that propels the story forward.

Sometimes the show’s director might want a violent scene to appear very realistic. The fight director’s challenge would then be something along these lines: How do you depict one actor savagely beating another without causing any actual harm?

But realism is just one of many possible choices. In some shows the fighting is stylized, almost balletic. Other times violence is a source of laughter, like clowns doing slapstick. And of course, the focus of a fight might be on illuminating character, as in the Sondheim musical Company when a married couple go at each other with karate moves.

Most importantly, the fight director shows the performers not just how to move, but also how to be safe—the right way to hold the sword, where to place the hands in a mock strangulation, how to fall without cracking bones, etc.

Each fight director has a unique style. Many bring areas of special expertise to a production, such as swordplay, pratfalls, and hand-to-hand combat. Whether you call her a fight director, fight choreographer, or violence coordinator, she is an essential behind-the-scenes craftsperson whose artistry helps keep the performers safe… and the audience sitting on the edge of their seats.

–Ben Pesner

This video was made by Signature Theatre.

Signature Theatre exists to honor and celebrate the playwright. Founded in 1991 by James Houghton, Signature makes an extended commitment to a playwright’s body of work, and during this journey, the writer is engaged in every aspect of the creative process.

The footage from this video was taken during rehearsals for MEDIEVAL PLAY written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan and features cast members Tate Donovan, Kevin Geer, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson, and Fight Director J. David Brimmer.

For more information about Signature Theatre please visit www.signaturetheatre.org