The art of Stage Combat could also be called “extreme acting,” since it has much more in common with dance or magic than martial arts. Like a dance number in a musical, a fight is learned and rehearsed, with specific spatial awareness and body shapes. And like magic, stage combat often relies on misdirection to hide its cooperative nature and to instead create the illusion of conflict.
You can think of the moves as physical lines of dialogue, linked together in musical phrases just as sentences build paragraphs. Every move or series of techniques needs to combine the elements of safety, story-telling, and repeatability. Safety is obviously paramount, not only for the actors, but for crew members and the audience as well. However, theatrical violence should also drive the story forward and reveal character, not merely be spectacle. And finally, it needs to be accomplishable 8 shows a week by the actual performers with real velocity and visible intention — no stunt doubles, and no re-takes!
The following pictures demonstrate a principle commonly used in theatrical violence:
- Veronika cues John with an exaggerated wind-up of the punch: in essence, she goes away from her partner first in order to give him time to react, but disguises it by making it look like she’s trying to generate more power.
- John begins his avoidance, moving his body away from the line of attack. This tells Veronika that she’s now safe to begin to throw the agreed-upon punch. She doesn’t need to let him fully complete his dodge before launching the punch, or it would be too visible to the audience — but she does need to see him start his half of the equation, giving her permission to attack.
- Veronika completes her punch, having passed her fist through the space that John’s body once occupied. This means that the ostensible reason that John moved at all happens last, at the end of the physical line of dialogue.
The actors are now set up for the next moment, whether that be another strike, or a return to text.
-Ted Hewlett, Movement Specialist, Home of the Brave
Ted Hewlett is a fight director, actor, and teacher, and has staged theatrical violence in Boston at the Huntington Theatre, A.R.T., and Actors’ Shakespeare Project, amongst others. Mr. Hewlett is on the full-time acting faculty at Emerson College.