Stage Combat Priorities 1: Safety... Boring!

This is really the first post in my series on the basics of stage combat and how it is applied in real productions. Last time, I talked about the illusion of violence, and how the effect to the audience must match the rest of the production (a fairy tale should be magical and melodramatic, while a thriller should be short and shocking). But that's really part zero.

Click here to revisit Stage Combat Priorities Part 0: The Illusion of Violence

So the very reason for stage combat is that the actors are safe through every rehearsal. 

An Eye for Hazards

Taking questions from audience members from a demonstration or after a performance, I get asked all the time: "Are the swords real?"

The swords I prefer are steel, full size, and blunt on edges and tip.

The question, though, is interesting because the assumption is that the weapon itself is dangerous, not the action. It's not surprising that this comes up, but it points out the first critical point that a student starts to absorb on their first day in class: an awareness of possible dangers.

Recently, one of my astute students saw a performance that had many safety problems. In talking to those involved in the show, it turned out that those issues were not even noticed by those in charge or those performing. This eye for hazards is very important to preventing injuries.

An expert in stage combat is the same as an expert in fire prevention: awareness of what can cause a problem is not common knowledge, despite what non-experts might think. And until you get an intuitive shock when seeing a stack of paint cans, it doesn't matter how well you use a fire extinguisher. Let me know if my analogies are incomprehensible.

Repetition and Repetition

All stage combat is choreographed and rehearsed, which has its own safety issues besides taking the enthusiasm out of the fight.

Repeating some motions causes repetitive strain, especially in the wrist holding a sword if the actor has minor errors. Maintaining awareness of stiffness and doing proper warm ups is better than the alternative of not getting enough repetitions and practice.

The repetition, even at high speed, can make a person complacent. If it goes without mistake a dozen times, the next time might be the injury if a performer is not vigilant.

Finally, and most importantly, tough guys can take a hit, but we still use the illuions of stage combat because even the toughest guy can't take the same hit to the same spot dozens of times in rehearsals and shows without consequences.

Slowing Down, Not Boring Down

I never choreograph slow motion sequences for performance. Some directors take this route for safety, but it sucks all the energy from the scene and reduces the audience's excitement.

However, we always begin rehearsing sequences slowly. Like moving through molasses, we target clearly and move in a smooth and slow progression to ensure everything is perfect. Then, we gradually increase the tempo while maintaing that control and those perfect targets. We only achieve full speed after several rehearsals and corrections, and if anything is amiss, we slow down again.

The goal is fast and awesome fights, but with complete control of the angles, steps and targets. The illusions are created using some core techniques that must be done correctly at any speed.

Translating Reality into Illusion

Returning to our main goal: How do we make an action look real and dangerous when it is in fact safe? There are thousands of tricks, but a few simple principles.

  1. Distance: the figthers are not actually close enough to touch
  2. Target: the fighters are not aiming for the body, instead they go a safe direction
  3. Timing: instead of surprising each other, the fighters give cues and move together

Each of these methods can (and will) be a chapter, and I can't take room here to elaborate all the ways these can be used and combined.

Next time, we'll look at a more exciting element of stage combat: Storytelling, or Why Fight?

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.