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Behind the Scenes: How to Stage a Fight

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 14, 2006 11:50PM

mcfarqimage.jpgLast weekend, we caught Robin McFarquhar: Stage Combat, Text-to-Fight, a lecture about and demonstration of stage combat presented by the Chicago Humanities Festival. Dr. McFarquhar teaches theater movement at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and has worked with the Steppenwolf, Court, and Goodman theaters and on Broadway. He choreographed the combat in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s current production of "Hamlet," playing through November 18.

For Dr. McFarquhar, there’s more to stage combat than meets the eye. If you’re noticing fancy blade work, chances are something’s not working right. In his allotted hour at the CHF, he covered a few basic points and then demonstrated the subtleties of the craft with his former student, Kevin Aston, who will choreograph the action in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's upcoming production of "The Three Musketeers."

The professor urges aspiring stage combat artists to keep a few key points in mind:

The fight must advance the story.

A fight should never be just a fight. It must to come out of the context of the play's action and its story. Consider why these adversaries chose to fight and how their relationship will change after the fight, so that the audience knows more about the characters after the fight than they did before.

In "Romeo and Juliet," Romeo chooses to fight with Tybalt out of a sense of wounded pride. Shakespeare wrote that conflict to demonstrate Romeo’s passion and impulsiveness. In staging this scene, what the swords are doing is the least important thing. An audience doesn’t understand swords, but they do understand the attention and the conflict stemming from these characters’ relationship, and a good fight choreographer will favor that relationship over flashy choreography.

In general, we do violence when words are not enough. A well-placed fight is much like a well-placed song in musical theater — the emotion is too large for mere words.

The fight’s length should make sense in the context of the characters’ relationship.

Theater practitioners don't have the level of editing or effects that filmmakers have, so staged fights can't last nearly as long and as those in action movies. If the fight is too long, the scene may seem monotonous and the audience will get bored.

We know nothing about Romeo's sword skills but know that Tybalt is the best swordsman in town. Therefore, Romeo has to be so enraged and out of control to not only take on Tybalt but to actually defeat him. The fight must be relatively short since a prolonged fight would favor Tybalt. Romeo's reaction to his victory is shock since he was in such an out-of-control state during combat. Furthermore, a good fight does not start orderly. If Romeo begins the scene by deliberately rolling up his sleeves, we are robbed of the raw, human emotion.

Practice, practice, practice….

Hamletfight2006.jpgThe actors must rehearse their moves over and over, this is a very dangerous activity with virtually no room for error. People have been killed in the service of this craft. Always consider the reaction you want from your audience, and remember that the same basic moves can inspire different emotions depending on what the characters do in between. A character’s uneasy breathing may suggest his or her massive effort or anxiety.

Not getting the intended reaction from your audience is very, very bad. Rehearse the moves so much that you never ever have to think about it. It's so hard to change those moves so close to opening night.

Know your terms and your weapons.

The “cut” is a swipe at the shoulders often seen in your standard theatrical sword fight. In reality, an actor should be aiming a few inches outside of the adversary’s shoulders, so that a scene partner who fails to counter will remain unharmed. The “thrust” is a forward motion in which you put the point of the blade into an opponent's body.

The professor showed off two different types of weapons: the rapier, a standard blade for stage combat, and the short sword, an immensely sharp and thin blade. The rapier’s length is around an average man’s height. The tools used on stage are not nearly as sharp and are typically shorter than the actual blades. A short sword requires delicacy rather than muscle, which is why, in general, the best practitioners were women. This weapon has prettiness in mind rather than savagery, perfect for "Dangerous Liaisons" or "Cyrano de Bergerac," not for "Romeo and Juliet." The implicit message is: “I'm going to look good as I kill you.”

Know what’s involved when you fight.

Guns are easier to use than swords since a character can kill with distance and detachment. He cited a news story about a 16-year-old criminal who, when shot by the police, didn't realize the bullet would actually hurt. It's very rare to see martial arts in the theater, since that’s more of a film or TV convention. Fist fights have been glamorized by the silver screen. In reality, taking a punch doesn’t involve much sound. A director may be completely unaware that an actor has accidentally taken a punch in the course of a rehearsal.

You’ve got to learn how to die.

Dying is one of the hardest parts of the fight. There are so many clichéd ways of dying that it's hard to give an audience something they have not seen before. The best way to handle death in a drama is to fight to stay alive until your very last breath. In a comedy, you can die quickly.

Related Links:
Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "Hamlet"
U of I's Theater Department
The Chicago Humanities Festival

Images via Chicago Humanities Festival and Chicago Shakespeare Theater