On fight choreography

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in February 2010.

Staging a fight scene for a play is a bit like designing a rollercoaster ride: it should look dangerous, but it needs to be safe. Those swords you see onstage don’t have sharp edges, but they can deliver some serious bruises. Many stage firearms make enough noise to damage someone’s hearing if they’re fired too close to the head. And it isn’t hard to imagine all the things that might go wrong when actors swing their fists, even if they aren’t really trying to land a solid punch.

When actors fight with fists, swords, knives or guns, what we’re actually watching is a carefully choreographed dance. In rehearsal, the actors make sure their bodies are in the right place, positioning themselves at angles that will keep the audience from seeing the tricks they’re using to make the fight seem real. They practice their moves over and over, until they can smoothly execute the entire fight sequence, making it appear spontaneous. “For every ten seconds of violence that you see onstage, it’s probably about an hour to an hour and a half of rehearsal,” says David Woolley, who teaches at Columbia College and has been choreographing fights in Chicago since 1982.

So what are some of the tricks that actors use during stage combat? “The secret to a good slap is not hitting somebody in the face,” Woolley says. “The physical reaction of the actor is as though they’ve been hit.” What makes the slap seem realistic is the sound. Fight choreographers call the sound of people hitting each other a “knap,” and they use different tricks to make a knap. Sometimes, an actor hits his own body with one hand to make the sound, while his other hand seems to be hitting his opponent.

When Nick Sandys choreographed a boxing match for Shattered Globe Theatre’s 2008 production of A Requiem for a Heavyweight, the trick was hidden inside the gloves. Sandys says boxing gloves make a hard impact only if the fighters tighten their fists. “If you leave your hands relaxed, they’re like having a big sponge on the back of your hand.” But the sound of the glove’s impact is the same, so the boxing looks and sounds real to the audience.  “This looked like the biggest pounding you’ve ever seen in your life,” Sandys says.

Sandys, a native of York, England, who’s been acting and choreographing fights on Chicago stages since 1992, revealed another trick of the trade in a class at The Theatre School of DePaul University. He showed his students how to do a “flipper kick.” An actor lies on the floor, with his back to the rest of the class, one hand jutting out like a dolphin’s flipper. Another actor approaches and lift his leg to kick his classmate. To the audience, it looks and sounds like the assailant landed a solid kick on the victim’s head or torso. But he actually just kicked that “flipper” hand, which the audience can’t see. The contact of his foot against that hand made the “knap” sound.

But the most important trick of all is the constant teamwork between actors. It may look like they’re trying to kill each other, but they’re actually working together. “They’ve got to be partners and not antagonists,” says Chicago fight choreographer Charles Coyl, who teaches at Roosevelt University and the Actors Gymnasium in Evanston. The actors give each other subtle cues, signaling when they’re ready for the next move. “The victim controls the action,” Sandys says. “If the victim doesn’t respond correctly, the illusion is broken. Their reaction sells the danger of the moment.”

On occasion, Sandys uses historical research to make his stage violence look real. For a swordfight in Faust last fall at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, he studied books about 19th-century French saber technique. For The Ballad of Emmett Till at the Goodman Theatre in 2008, Sandys researched the shocking murder that galvanized the civil rights movement and constructed a devastatingly brutal scene based on Till’s actual injuries. Some audience members had trouble watching this violence, but Sandys intended it to be difficult. “It is one of the murders that changed the face of the 20th century, and it needs to be horrific.”

In Shakespeare’s time, Sandys suggests, sword fights onstage must have looked authentic. After all, Italian fencing masters ran popular salons just down the street from the Globe Theatre, and Shakespeare’s acting company included a master of arms and an actor who’d killed a man in a duel. But as sword fights and duels became less common in real life, they became less realistic on the stage. Later, when audiences got used to seeing realistic violence in movies and television shows, theaters had to step up their game. Founded in 1977, the Society of American Fight Directors has certified thousands of actors in the skills of stage combat. The society also created a common vocabulary for how to describe fight moves.

With Sandys as his fight choreographer, actor Dev Kennedy learned that lingo when he starred in The Castle of Otronto last fall at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook. At first, the directions seemed like gibberish, with numbers representing different areas of the body (when a fight choreographer says “1,” for example, he’s talking about your head). Mastering his moves felt like learning a foreign language, but Kennedy says he succeeded through sheer repetition. “It becomes part of you, it’s in your body and you’re able to execute it easily.”

In his class at DePaul, Sandys showed students how to handle rapiers and daggers in a duel. The room echoed with the clink and clatter of metal blades. And then, as the young actors began to learn their moves, Sandys told them to think about what their characters were feeling. “We’re trying to tell a story,” he said. “Each phrase begins in a certain way and ends in a different way. Something has changed. The power has shifted. What is the story? What does it make you feel like? … Just think, if this was real, how much danger you’d been put through already — a lot!” The students laughed. “I always tell them: The fight is useless without their acting. No matter how good my choreography is, it doesn’t matter if they don’t act.”

Photo by Robert Loerzel