Prepare to Die!

Stanislavski’s primary book on Method Acting is called “An Actor Prepares,” which points to the central question: How to be an actor?

In one sense, what he’s saying is: “Don’t neglect rehearsal. You can’t control what happens on stage and you can’t rely on your raw talent in the moment to save every show. A working actor should have reliable means of producing the desired emotional effect in the audience, not just instinct.” And I would heartily agree with that statement.

In another sense, “an actor prepares” almost implies the opposite: “Rehearsal is not robotic practice to get things correct, it is needed to prime you for a similar situation. You’ll be ready to react in ways that are appropriate, even if not exactly the same.” Which I’d also agree with.

Both of these statements are arguments against what many beginner actors falsely believe: that rehearsal is the physical form of learning lines, a lesson in when and how to move that accompanies the words. Theatre is more like a team sport, not like building a boat.

But just to add more nuance: stage combat requires more choreography and attention than other moments on stage.

Fastidious or Freeform: Extremes are Annoying

The first thing to remember is that rehearsal is a collaborative process. Your personal process or preferences must take a back-seat to the needs of the show, which are dictated by the director. If you’ve got a sympathetic director, you could talk a bit about your process or needs, and you may get what you want. But you also have to be ready to integrate.

Some actors are very precise in their process, adding layers step by step, and valuing consistency. They’d like you to say the line the same way every time, and they’ll get negative when things don’t go as expected. The thing is: they’re reliable. Their timing is great, their cues are precise and there are no surprises. They also take direction well because when you know every detail has its place, you can just move a detail to another precise location. But most of the time, they’re annoyingly OCD.

Other actors value the creativity and exploration of voice, character, and interpretation. They change almost every part of their performance many times, and seem to always have new ideas at each rehearsal. They change or invert lines (so playwrights hate them), don’t incorporate direction well, and laugh a lot. However, their fresh ideas are often better than the previous ones. They’re also very capable at adapting to different circumstances, like moving your venue indoors due to rain. But most of the time, they’re annoyingly flighty.

You have to mix both.

Learning Lines

For the love of Pete, memorize your lines in private, and have them in mind before rehearsal. At the very least, get the ends of your lines right so that you cue your acting partner correctly. It’s the fastidious part.

Let’s be clear: if there’s a script, you’re expected to perform it as written. If there’s no script, then you might feel better writing your own, or you might improvise the words in each performance. Actors who improvise parts of the script that they don’t like just haven’t done the work.


Improvisation is a great skill for actors, but don’t give it too much power. It’s the freeform aspect that belongs early in the rehearsal process to explore your character relationships. After a run of a scene, make quick notes about what worked and what didn’t work. Your director will have plenty of notes as well. Don’t get locked down too early, but you will need to lock in most of your movement around the stage (or on camera), and your cue lines.

Improvisation also allows you to react spontaneously in a performance, to pause for laughter when appropriate, and to take little problems in stride.

Practice Makes Perfect Permanent

Remember that practice does NOT make perfect, it makes permanent. Repetition of a line will embed it as a memory, but it will be just as strong a memory if you repeat it incorrectly. So be careful what you repeat and what you practice in rehearsals and at home.

This is one reason why it’s important to keep the core of the scene the same every rehearsal, but to vary the little things like your vocal inflection, your gestures and your pace. If you do them too consistently, your habit will be harder to adjust when necessary.


Unlike rehearsal, training is designed to impart a skill that can be used in many circumstances. The repetition in training gives you “muscle memory” so that strange actions become familiar, complicated motions seem simpler, and precision ever increases. This is true of singing, dance, sports, martial arts and stage combat.


You’ve done nothing but study swordplay for 20 years? You seem like a decent fellow, I hate to die.

Habitual Actions

Performing a certain action every day can have a profound effect on skill and on thought. They say that quitting smoking or other bad habits takes 21 days. They say the same thing about a new diet or exercise plan. Try it for a month, then decide whether to continue based on your habit, not the tough part of changing the habit.

Not all changes are difficult or uncomfortable. Learning to handstand might take 3 weeks of practice every day. Learning to punch correctly might take that time if you’ve never tried martial arts before. Be patient with yourself. If you can get it right after two days, that’s great, but it’s not a habit yet, so you’ll probably forget it soon enough.

Remember that smiling can lift your mood, so your internal state can also be affected by your actions. Habitual smiling might make you a happier person.

Habitual Thoughts

A secondary but important effect of training is the type of thoughts that will occur to you from habit. When training in stage combat, we frequently ask the same questions:

  1. Where is the safety for this technique?
  2. Where is my audience?
  3. Does my appearance match my intent? Does it appear that I’m applying force when I’m reversing energy? Does my body-shape match the reference plate from the historical text?

And those questions will pop into your head by habit if you’ve heard them enough.

This is also a kind of therapy, and the reason why some people believe strongly in daily affirmations. When you say something nice about yourself every day, you’re intending to make that thought a habit which will improve your mood. The same is true of negative thoughts: you should avoid repeating thoughts like “I’m stupid, worthless, ugly,” because whether true or not, it’s not productive to make those thoughts a habit.

Aristotle believed that ethics was habitual, and that thinking of ethical situations, making judgements about fairness, and performing good deeds were all ways of training the moral muscles.

Stage Combat

When it comes to the illusion of violence on stage or on film, we have the same two distinctions: Training and Rehearsal.

Stage combat training happens in the classroom. You learn the techniques for striking, grappling and sword play with different partners to better hone the skill and maybe even how to adjust and improvise them in different scenarios.

Stage combat rehearsal happens in the theatre. You practice specific choreography with your scene partner in order to perform the sequences that tell your story. With well-trained actors, we may be able to improvise and change early in the process, but we need to lock-in the choreography and practice it to gain complete safety and effectiveness.

Just like your acting scenes, too much freeform is annoying. Your partner will cry, “Can we please settle on specific moves!” if they’re not already crying in pain because you improvised a strike they weren’t expecting. And too much fastidiousness is bad for performance and getting along with your partner. Don’t be the Parry Police and correct your partner at every turn. Then, when you’re performing and an orange rolls on stage, you freeze because Something Changed! In both cases, good prior training will keep you precise but flexible.

Training Opportunities!

Come to our next Introduction to Stage Combat on 4 November (2pm-6pm) at Academie Duello. It’s the first step towards our ongoing classes where you’ll learn unarmed, quarterstaff and sword techniques for actors. Right now, evening classes are ongoing, but if you’re available daytimes, we’ll be adding midday classes soon!

Do Your Own Stunts! Be an Action Hero! Sign up at or 604-568-9907


David McCormick Head of Stage Combat at Academie Duello and certified Instructor with Fight Directors Canada. Head of Bartitsu at Academie Duello, the longest continuously running Bartitsu program in the world.
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