The Fight Director will arrange or choreograph a fight for specific actors on a specific stage. This is an important aspect of safety, because setting choreography early and repeating it often in rehearsal will give actors the consistency and confidence to perform safely in front of an audience.
The better they feel about the safety, the more acting and effort and energy can be expressed on stage.
Choreography should take into account the situation of a set and the gifts or limitations of the performers so that it is achievable with a believable performance speed without sacrificing safety.
Ideal versus Realistic Rehearsal
In an ideal world, the Fight Director meets with the director before rehearsals begin in order to discuss the needs of the production in terms of number of fights, weapons, the set design and the mood or effect. The Fight Director will then sketch out generalities of the fight and meet with actors to find out their capabilities. Choreography should be created early in the rehearsal process, and the actors work slowly to master each phrase. As their comfort increases, their speed should increase until they are at performance speed on opening night.
In most real circumstances, the actors need a lot of time at the start of rehearsals as the Fight Director takes the role of Instructor to train or re-train actors who are out of practice. Insufficient rehearsal time is allocated to fights. Since the Fight Director cannot be at every rehearsal, a Fight Captain takes over running their paces, but is not himself trained, so errors creep in. If we are lucky the set does not change, no weapons are broken, and nobody is hurt.
Fight Direction in Production
Let's break down those elements in chronological order to see where they succeed and fail.
1. Fight Directors are part of the creative team and involved in the design process.
The fights will involve the set design to avoid hitting obstacles and work with lighting for visibility to the audience, and the director will want the fight choreographer to understand the mood and themes of the piece. Fights, as we'll see later, take a lot of rehearsal time, so everyone should agree on their scope.
Unfortunately, meetings with the fight director happen just before fight rehearsals start.
2. Actors are trained, fit and able to start the choreography early.
It almost never happens, but in an ideal production, the actors behave like professional dancers when in a fight rehearsal. They are warming up, they are ready to move, and attentive to every correction the fight director will make to their movement. They are able to take notes because they have the vocabulary and familiarity with general technique.
However, most first rehearsals of stage combat involve the fight director giving basic instruction on stance, grip, parts of the sword, footwork and parries.This is an incredible waste of time, even if the actors are gifted and absorb the material quickly.
3. Rehearsal pace
Although actors should begin their work slowly, it takes a certain amount of imagination to understand what the final fight is intended to look like. In the best circumstances, the fight director will have complete choreography worked out with an assistant, and they can show the fight at full speed at the first rehearsal. Even if the entire show is not choreographed, the fight director should demonstrate sequences with their assistant at top speed to show actors the intent.
Then the actors start to learn the fight move by move in slow motion. Along the way, they are paying attention to the safety features of each move, and the specific cues and targets used.
I use two forms of slow motion: tai chi and stop-go. Tai chi slow motion is a smooth and uninterrupted flow. It teaches the actor to think ahead and link the moves, but also shows the victim that anticipation is unnecessary. I alternate that with a stoccato slow motion called stop-go. In this form, moves are performed at full speed, but with a long pause between each move. It teaches the actors the true speed of the fight without overwhelming them with too many actions at once.
Both forms of slow motion yeild to faster performace over many rehearsals. Tai chi just gets progressively faster, while stop-go reduces the pauses between moves.
In many shows, there is not enough rehearsal time to work the actors up through a gradual process, so actors take the stage before working up to full speed, or else they feel unsafe because they were encouraged to go full speed before they are ready.
4. The Fight Captain
During the rehearsal process, the Fight Director is often not on set, and his surrogate is a Fight Captain. This crew member should not be an actor with a fighting role, but trained in stage combat nonetheless. Stage managers often make good Fight Captains because they take notes well and are already focused on time.
What does the Fight Captain do? Run fight rehearsals: keep the choreography for reference, make sure actors are present and working, account for the weapons and props, and report to the Fight Director if there are any problems that need attention.
The Fight Captain does not make decisions in the place of the Fight Director. The last thing a choreographer wants to hear on opening night is "We changed this part a few days ago because we couldn't get it right."
I Hate To Say It: Train Like A Dancer
Professional dancers are some of the most dedicated professionals I've ever met. They are not only highly trained, they also train diligently every day, whether that is new techniques, fundamental movement, improvised dance, or strength and flexibility training (often all of the above).
Dance is highly competitive, not only is it difficult to land the diva role, it is often difficult not to get cut from a show, or even to stay in school. Perhaps that's what's missing from stage combat: we need to reject people who can't fight.
In the end, there's nothing mysterious or special about the dancer. You can do it too: focus on your art, improve every day, keep a positive attitude but not so light as to be distracting. Be professional, especially in rehearsal.