After attending a winter discussion on fight choreography, guest Mary Barnidge wrote the following article. Note: The Jeff Awards Committee periodically invites speakers on special topics to educate members as well as to provide information to other theatre enthusiasts.
Jeff Committee Looks for a Fight
by Mary Barnidge
Ho-hum! Look for Geoffrey Coates to take home another non-equity Joseph Jefferson award--his fourth, so far--next spring. Not only has every single review of Lifeline Theatre's adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island mentioned, commended or outright gushed about his pirates swarming over the good ship Hispañola in frenzied uproar, but only a week before its opening, the Jeff Committee got its combat consciousness raised at its bi-monthly meeting with a visit from a panel comprised of Coates, Babes With Blades founder Stephanie Repin, and the Fight Master himself, David Woolley.
The Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee has, in recent years, gradually come to recognize stage combat as an artistic skill in itself, and even to take notice of its performance (when exposed to it in portions sufficiently large or lengthy). But the discussion led by moderator David Alex dealt with the small details: the psychology of the fight and its effect on both victor and the vanquished, or the integration of the fight into the play's story and character traits. ("If you have a character who doesn't know how to fight, you get an actor who does know how to fight, and you teach him how to look like he doesn't".) And let's not forget the emotional engagement, negative or otherwise, that is the goal of all good fights.
Those who would evaluate the quality of fight design simply by its execution were warned against looking for real-world fighting techniques. ("I would rather have ten actors who have never touched a weapon than one martial arts know-it-all" grumbled Repin, echoed by Woolley, "Fencers are trained to stick their opponents, not paw the air around them."). Questions regarding onstage attempts at hyper-realistic cinematic effects were answered with caveats on the expense, the necessity of implementing scores of auxiliary personnel, and the need for actors to repeat their rigorous drill eight times a week. ("A stunt, you only have to do once--after it's on film, you can go to the hospital"). Spectators were also alerted to such unseeming violence as falls, stumbles and playful rough-housing, Woolley recounting how his decision to take up stage combat--a discipline taught only in England in those years--was fueled by his girl friend returning home with bruises from her fellow actors' manhandling. Proclaims Woolley, "Every actor should learn stage combat, for their own safety!"
There were also funny stories: the Romeo with impaired depth-perception, the 12-minute fight that had to be scrapped, the night the weapon slipped from an actor's sweaty hand. But if the committee members left with no other insight than the importance of fight choreographers being included in a production's design as a fully-recognized member of the creative team--as opposed to waiting until tech rehearsals before demanding that a specialist work miracles--then the lessons taught by these instructors, even if their pupils were disappointed at the absence of swashbuckling demonstrations, was time well spent.