Stage Combat Priorities: Illusion


The practice of stage combat has three priorities which define it: safety, storytelling and style. In this series of posts, we’ll talk about each in turn, but today we’re going to explore why.

The very existence of stage combat is the answer to the question: how do we show the fight on stage without hurting actors? Stage combat is the illusion of violence. In order to accomplish this, the safety tricks must look “real” to the audience.

Before going into the specifics of how stage combat operates, let’s first examine what we are simulating. When I said it must look real, I should have said they must match the audience’s expectations within the story. In most professional plays today, that means a gritty realism with short bursts of energy. However, we also need stage combat for children’s shows and fantasy themes with superhero powers. These special circumstances fall into two camps: 1. Shows in which the performers talk directly to the audience, and 2. Clowns.

In the case of direct audience address, it would violate the audience’s trust to have realistic violence. It would be better to show the tricks and the safety and exaggerate the performative aspects.

For any shows in which there is magic or a cartoon universe in which violations of physics are expected, then we must hide all the stage combat tricks and the safety, but exaggerate the effects of violence, slow down and enlarge the action without betraying the intention of the character. I call this “clowning,” but it’s not necessarily funny.

One example of clowning that isn’t funny is the typical martial arts fight. During the build-up, the hero is knocking out henchmen with one punch, defeating them by the dozen. Then, at the climax, the hero and villain fight tirelessly, performing amazing flips and kicks, balancing on i-beams, and recovering after being choked out to fling a final poison dart. It’s the accepted reality of the form, and most people don’t laugh at it.

So from the beginning, the play or film is telling the audience what they should expect in this imaginary universe with these particular characters. The fight choreographer must design within the story’s paradigm, and communicate that clearly to the performers.

If the environment seems real and the plot is reasonable and the characters seem normal, it would be crazy to see a video-game like sequence for the fight… and before you can say “Scott Pilgrim,” let me remind you that the rest of the film is replete with pop-up banners, colour-swirl montages and other magical-reality effects.

Compare various James Bond movies… different directors (and fight directors and actors) have interpreted the reality of Bond differently. Most Bonds are near-realistic, but in a slightly more technologically advanced world, he is a near-perfect man. That makes for fights that are sometimes short and brutal, and sometimes extreme and unlikely. The choice of choreography, duration and special equipment (wires, crash mats, padding, etc) is not arbitrary but fits in the director’s vision for the movie. The new Daniel Craig Bond movie will be called “Skyfall”.

Or, even better, compare various Star Trek fights. Ostensibly, all of the series and films take place in the same universe at different times. But original series Kirk fights are not the same as… anything before or since.

When this is done badly, it usually makes you laugh. So if you see something violent in a movie or a play, and you laugh, it’s because the reality of the fight did not match the reality you were expecting. Like a joke, if the punch line is surprising, it’s funny.

This is why actors need to practice stage combat for all levels of realism and to know what is neutral. A realistic fall looks great, but is not appropriate for a children’s show. To be able to act electrocuted without making the audience laugh is tough, and worth the work. It’s in the set-up.

Next post in this series: Safety… Boring!

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.
Read more from David McCormick.