Safety Systems

We say that the first rule of stage combat is safety. All stage combat must be safe so that actors will never be hurt in rehearsal or performance. Focusing on safety also gives actors the confidence to move at high speed with full acting. When safety is deprioritized, actors start to flinch or otherwise compensate.

Some martial artists want to be action heroes on film. They have body control and an understanding of the purpose of the moves, but no appreciation of safety. In fact, the only actors who have been injured on set when I'm in charge have injured themselves not with a sword contact, but because they were overconfident in their martial arts skills and didn't pay attention to safety. Twisted ankles and poor falling technique are the culprits.

If you're a martial artist, take a close look at the following categories of safety, and modify your fighting skills to incorporate one of these to keep you and your partner safe.

If you're an actor, the following categories form the basis and start of your understanding of stage combat. We put style and effectiveness on top of these concerns.

Safety by Equipment

The simplest and least reliable form of safety is to rely on padding or armour. A full suit of hard and soft armour is how stuntmen do stair falls. Mere kneepads can make falling to your knees bearable.

Not only can your armour's straps come undone unexpectedly, but even when they function properly, they may transfer some force to your joints in unexpected ways. One of the main drawbacks for live performance is that it's sometimes difficult to hide it under your costume.

Another major drawback is that audiences want to see the actors' faces. Therefore, we can't rely on helmets to protect our most vulnerable and valuable body part: the head.

Safety by Distance

You can perform a slap without changing the face target by taking a step away from your partner and swing your hand in front of their face. This additional distance is the only modification from the intended action. As long as neither partner moves or leans, 6-8 inches is sufficient for total safety.

Safety by Target

We can move to a distance where I might hit my partner, but remain safe by changing my target to a safe one. Most of swordplay is based on Safety by Target, since we point off-line for our cuts and thrusts to be parried with the lightest contact.

The secret to performing this convincingly is not merely to change to an arbitrary safe space, but to plan the path of your hand or weapon so that it is reliably safe and completely believable from the audience's viewpoint.


Safety by Timing

Slashes and huge haymaker punches that are ducked rely on timing for safety. They can be done in-distance and on-target, but we always use a specific 3-step safety count:

  1. Operator Cue
  2. Victim Reaction
  3. Operator Action

In other words, the operator begins their action with a preparation move (usually directly backwards or away from their target), then the victim evades or performs their defensive action, then the operator can complete their action proper.

Specifically, here's how it works with the sword slash:

  1. Operator moves the sword directly to the side
  2. Victim ducks
  3. Operator slashes through where their parter's head used to be.

Both operator and victim must be looking for the timing and moving when they actually witness their partner's movement, instead of assuming that it will happen. Then you're just relying on luck.

Safety by Victim Control

When the operator and victim are in physical contact, we allow the victim to act, while the operator follows.

Pushes: The operator places their hand on the victim's shoulder, then the victim moves as the operator tries to maintain gentle contact, acting as if pushing. If the push leads to a fall, the victim must be able to get to the floor without any "help" from their partner.

Grabs and Locks: It is especially important when the victim's joints may be in danger of a pull that can dislocate, a twist that can cause a spiral fracture, or an imbalancing move that can lead to an unexpected fall.

Strangulation: Obviously, the neck is very vulnerable, and the victim must be in control of their own struggle. Just as important, the victim must be able to escape the operator's hands.

Safety First

We always start our choreography slow, which gives us the opportunity to pick our distance, targets and timing for optimum timing. As we move faster after a couple of rehearsals, it is good to review the safety.

Remember that the illusion of violence is created with correct angles and audience attention, not by skimping on safety. If your partner feels unsafe, the illusion will always seem false.

Daytime Classes for Professionals

Professional actors often have busy evenings. We now offer daytime stage combat classes Tuesdays and Thursdays 10am-noon. Just contact me at to join us.

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.
Read more from David McCormick.