Stage Combat Priorities 2: Style and Expertise

The overall goal of stage combat, as we discussed in episode 0: The Illusion of Violence, is creating a violent scene that is safe for the actor and believable to the audience in the context of the show. Last time, we broke down some of the ways in which our first priority, Safety, plays out in learning and performing a choreographed fight.

This week, we get into some of the more fun aspects: Style.

Flash and Flare

We all know that spinning your weapon means you're an expert, right?

Flourishes, flares and flashy moves are not only fun to learn, but they do communicate a certain mastery to the audience. Remember that the real message is: "I'm so confident I'll win that I'll take this opportunity to show off." Also: "I spend so much time practicing swordfighting that I'm bored with ordinary technique."

With that in mind, ask yourself whether the character you're playing would have such an attitude.

Historical and/or Fictional

The real crux of the style issue is what your body looks like in the fight. In stage combat classes, we teach a generic fighting style based on Western martial arts, but it can be applied to any weapon of any era. The differences are largely a matter of style.

Some general guidelines:

  • The better you are, the lower your stance. Bend your knees!
  • A good fighter stays in balance with a generally straight spine. With the exception of Drunken Monkey, almost all martial arts value not falling over.
  • Thrusting weapons are kept with point towards the opponent. Cutting weapons are often weilded above the head or at other angles
  • With a one-handed weapon, pay attention to what you're doing with the off-hand.

Wardrobe Malfunctions

In rehearsal, we often do not use full costumes and footwear, but it is an important consideration for how you will move, your range of motion in arms and legs, and props you may be carrying.

I always recommend that actors rehearse as early as possible in costume shoes so that they can feel comfortable walking and fighting. If there is a cape or hat or other difficult piece, we need to incorporate that into the fight early in the planning process.

Apart from averting disaster, wardrobe pieces can be very useful as a secondary weapon (somebody I know uses rapier & hook), as a distraction (thrown hat), or just as character style.


Character Choices

When it comes down to it, Style really refers to your character within their context. Doing some research on the historical period, and thinking about your character's place in society will give many clues about the elements of style: posture, motions, attitude. It's self-indulgent to think about your character's personality or characteristics... your actions will be more frequently dictated by the needs of the moment.

Next week, we'll tackle the last component of stage combat: Storytelling. It is perhaps the most difficult to explain, and leads to all sorts of misunderstandings among directors, actors and writers. So I'm calling it Stage Combat Priorities 3: Storytelling is Not a List of Events, Stupid.


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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