Stage Combat may be one of the most popular classes I teach, and whenever I tell my students that there will be a fight in a show, their eyes gleam. Fighting onstage is fabulous, and it is its own art form. There are many levels to it, many traps and pitfalls (some literal), and of course it is dangerous when it’s not done correctly. I can’t give you a stage combat course in a blog- but I’ll give you some of the highlights you should know.
First, I’m going to tell you to find and take a stage combat class. It’s athletic, and wonderful, and difficult, and amazing. Make sure that the teacher is certified to teach stage combat. The Society of American Fight Directors is where you can find certified teachers in your area, or email them and they can point you in the right direction. Totally worth it.
When you are in a school or community theatre situation, they may not know how to approach a fight safely and properly. It may be up to you to speak up and ask for what is needed.
First you need to know, What Is a Fight? That’s a strange question, right? Not really. according to the rules in Actors Equity, the union for actors and stage managers, a fight is:
“Stage fighting/stunts with or without weapons, and/or choreographed
movements such as falls, throws, tumbling, catches, aerial work, silk performance,
rappelling, bungee jumping, the use of or exposure to weapons, fire, or pyrotechnic
devices, etc. (AEA LORT Handbook 2013-2017)”
It also includes slaps and grabs- basically, any time there is even slightly violent physical contact between actors or when they have even slightly violent or dangerous contact with their environment. Whether you have to fall down a flight of stairs or just slip on a banana peel, if you have to slap or be slapped, or have a full-out knife or swordfight, you need a fight captain. Ask if there is one, and who that is. If there isn’t one, ask for one. Explain that you are not experienced in stage combat, and you don’t feel safe doing this stunt/fight without some supervision and instruction. Sometimes the fight captain is also the choreographer, sometimes not. If you are really lucky, you’ll get someone with real training, maybe even some certification. Sometimes it’s just someone who has some combat under their belt. Someone is better than no one.
You need to know how to fall safely, if nothing else.
In general, the responsibility of the person being struck to sell the reality of the blow. The responsibility of the person delivering the blow is responsible primarily for safety. So react as fully and as vocally as you can, so that the hitter can concentrate on not really hitting you. Work with the fight choreographer to figure out exactly how best to sell it, and stay consistent. Conversely, if you are the hitter, make sure that your partner is ready to take what you are about to deliver. Make eye contact if possible. If your partner is facing away from you, work out a signal that they are ready to receive. It can be a toss of the head, a toe dig, a placement of a hand, a shrug, or a small vocalization. whatever works.
Resist the temptation to really hit or be hit. With a face slap in a very intimate space- where the audience is very close to you- there is a safe way to make actual contact without hurting the slappee, but that’s the only exception that I can think of. I don’t care if you “feel it more” if you really get hit, or if “I barely even feel it.” Don’t go there. Stage fighting is NOT REAL.
Fight call is when you practice just the fighting/falling/whatever bits with the fight captain. It should always happen before any rehearsal that will include the fight. If you get to that scene and suddenly realize that you did not do a fight call that day, “mark” the fight. That means to just sort of go through the motions but with nothing even close to contact. And no weapons should be used if you are marking. If you have them in your hand already, take a second to put them down.
Fight call will take you through the fight three times at three different speeds (usually): Slo-mo, where you should move like you are in peanut butter; 50%, where you move about half as fast as you think you will onstage; and Show Speed, which is about 75% as fast as you think it should be.
Some folks think that a stage fight, whether with weapons or hand-to-hand, should always be rehearsed at full speed, with sound effects, in order to get the right “feel”. That if you don’t do it as fast as you do it in performance, it’s not “real” to you. Get over it. It’s not about the reality of the fight. Let me explain why fights must be rehearsed in slow motion.
The moves in a fight must be absolutely and permanently the same. Every time. They must come in the same rhythm and the same places EVERY TIME, regardless of the emotional state of the character. When you rehearse your fight in slow motion, you put no emotion into it at all. You are working solely on the moves of the fight, concentrating only on the moves and nothing else. This gives the fight captain a chance to really look at the fight and see why something has been looking wonky, or to make any changes that need to be made for safety or ease of motion. Emotional states are always going to be different every rehearsal and every performance. If you rehearse the emotions and the moves together every time, you run the risk of the emotions and the moves getting attached to one another, therefore making the fight moves subject to change with the emotions. This is a bad thing, especially when weapons are involved. The Slo-Mo speed uses no emotion, lines said (if needed) in dull monotone. 50% also should have no emotion, possibly lines if needed in a manner approaching what you do in show. THEN Show Speed once in real-time, with all emotion, lines, and other vocalizations. By practicing in this pattern, your body gets to know the moves at least twice as well separate from the emotion than with it.
If you don’t believe me, it will only take one missed move with a fencing foil or one black eye for you to reread this and think again.
Something that I encourage my young artists to establish when you are working with some serious fights, such as in Shakespeare, West Side Story, or The Three Musketeers to do is to establish a safe word or phrase that will tell the other fighter that you need to stop the fight, even if you continue the scene. If you or your partner are injured, or have lost track of the choreography, are ill or dizzy, it is not safe to continue the moves. Make it something that fits the language and situation of the scene. “Down, dog!” or “Hellcat!” or something like that- work it out together. if either of you uses the signal phrase, the fight must instantly stop, but continue acting until you can get offstage to help. Make sure the stage manager also knows what that is and what it means, so if she hears it, she can get help ready for you backstage. Use it when you even think you maybe should. Better to use it and not have needed it than to need it and not use it.
Be safe. More on weapons later.