Slapstick 101

This past winter I had the great pleasure of working with a powerhouse cast of women on Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Randolph Academy. 

R&G Randolph

For those who don’t know this play, it is described as an absurdist, existentialist, tragicomedy taking place behind the scenes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As intellectually dizzying as it is, the director, the relentless Rosanna Saracino, played up the physicality of the piece both with the Players, and the triple cast of Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns. As the Fight Director, this is where I got to play. 

R&G Randolph 2015I was brought in to help add slapstick. I came in quite early in the process, so what I wanted to do for the cast was create a slapstick vocabulary, so that they could find opportunities to add it in themselves as they worked through the play. 

I got to do some very pleasing research for this – boning up on my Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and so on. Without getting into how some early slapstick is quite stunt heavy (Pain IS Funny – but sometimes you wonder how Buster Keaton, for one, survived!); what I was looking for was over arching principles, and I came up with a basic recipe for slapstick, which I will now share with you. 

  •  Surprise / The Unexpected

The Audience picks up on patterns quickly, and they know pretty much all the tricks – face slaps, spanks, head bonks. What you have to do is set up an expectation, and then do something different. The Three Stooges are masters of this. i.e. Moe sets up to slap Larry, but instead hits Curly on his wind up.

You can surprise your audience in a variety of ways. The location of the hit, the timing of the hit, and hitting something it was not your intention to hit. Hitting on the back swing, or having the expected strike redirect the target into a secondary strike. The kind of strike also matters: there are so many variations of the slap: The Stooges patented double forehand- double backhand that almost looks like their painting the face. Bites, tweaks, stomps all tend towards comedy. It’s also funny when someone gets hit when violence is not intended – which we will talk about more when I discuss the importance of Clarity of Intention.

  • Comedy Zones

Beating someone in the face or stomach stops being funny after a while. So besides keeping targets unexpected, you want to primarily stick to what I’m calling the Comedy Zones. I bet you can name them yourself. These are non fatal targets, and I think they’re funniest because people can relate to them more.

  1. Nose – the classic Three Stoodges Nose Tweak, or slap
  2. Fingers – getting fingers crushed or bitten in reality is not funny. Watching it happen to others is.
  3. Ears – bring pulled or pinched.
  4. Eyes – Double eye poke. Which sets up the eye poke block.
  5. Bum – a kick in the bum is very safe. It’s also demeaning.
  6. Crotch – some might say it’s low, easy humour. I think the comedy is in the skill of the reaction, and the compliance with the other rules.
  7. Shin – everyone’s been there. It’s shockingly painful. I find audiences relate.
  • Clarity of Intention and Creating Challenges

First you must establish a clear intention: something simple like Open the Door. Then put as many challenges as possible between yourself and success. I always loved it when Charlie Chaplin, or one of the Marx Brothers would get tangled in something, but their single minded pursuit of their goal makes it even harder for them to untangle themselves. Usually these are physical challenges: holding too many things, being stuck on something, etc., but it’s even better when you add characters with opposing intentions, or misunderstandings. The clearer we can read the minds of the characters the funnier it is when they struggle to achieve their goal – one of my favourite examples of this is Charlie Chaplin’s One AM: his drunken intentions are so clear we follow his action no matter how absurd. Watch it here – you won’t regret it! :)

  • Sound Effects

These can be realistic, or absurd, like cowbells or gongs. But as I’ve always said – sound is R&G Randolph 2015the other half of the stage combat/fight picture. So much of the layers of surprise, outrage and pain live in the vocal performance. The specificity of the vocal performance also helps keep the choreography super clear. When things are moving quickly, vocals are required to punctuate the moves and make the story clear.

  • Point of View

It’s most interesting when your character has a strong point of view. If a character bumps into you, the audience needs to see immediately how you feel about it. When a character hits another do you think it’s hilarious or horrifying? Make big choices, and let them evolve. Characters do not have to be nice – they can be petty, vindictive, dumb or clever.  And they can be changeable! Slapstick is not fair.

  • Laser Precision, Timing

You cannot be vague about Slapstick. Every action must have a clear intention, and be executed at the right time – generally sharpness of movement and vocal punctuation are key. The audience needs to see the intention and be able to know what to look at. When working with the cast of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern we found Precision and Timing to be the most important. As a performer you can direct the audience with your eyes, so we were very specific about drawing the eyes to what was important.

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This was a great production to work on, and this cast of women knocked it out of the park!

 

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What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger Part 4: Fitness is about Consistency, Not Perfection

When I was first injured I was like “Okay! What workouts can I do with one leg?” This turned out to be the wrong question. First, as I think I made clear in my earlier injury blog, just having one leg in a cast is a massive workout for the healthy leg, and to train it even more would not help my alignment. Once I had surgery it was a moot point, because moving around a lot hurt too much anyway. I went about ten weeks without a workout.

While it is important to note that the world didn’t end because of my lack of workouts, I did feel the difference. I was still in my cast when I started working out. Being primarily sedentary for ten weeks, I had officially stagnated. My blood wasn’t moving, I wasn’t sleeping well because I wasn’t expending my usual amount of energy; I needed to move.

Reapproaching fitness was as much a mental struggle, as a physical one. I had lost a lot of conditioning, and it was a struggle not to get frustrated and disheartened. I did very short workouts, that totally kicked my butt, and I tried to be proud of them. I took the emphasis off intensity, and put it on consistency. Instead of four or five very intense, heavy workouts during a week, I tried to do six or seven small ones.

What workouts could I do in a cast? You might ask. Well I’ll tell you!

Modify, Modify, Modify

I had been forced to train in a different way. I couldn’t fall back on my favourite workouts, or style of workout. For example I really hate the low weight, high rep thing. To me, it’s never been ‘a workout’. I really only believe I’ve done a workout if I’m a sweaty, panting, exhausted mess afterward. I want to feel my muscles ache the next day, I want to feel like I accomplished something, I want to feel spent. If I’m being honest, that’s still how I feel. But I could not afford to do nothing and wait until I could get back into my old routine.

So, I called up my friend (actor and trainer) Aniko Kazsas, to help design a few workouts. I couldn’t lunge, I couldn’t bridge, I couldn’t even plank! So since I had no legs to stand on, I worked out on my knees, and blasted arms.

<I am learning to make GIFs – to show you some examples of these workouts – coming soon!>

Proprioception Wake Up Call

When I first got out of the cast I thought I could go straight to strengthening and mobility training. But my first task was literally to stand on one foot. My first thought was – ‘you mean balance on my tip toe? Jump on one foot?” No. Stand. Then try it with your eyes closed. Try for 10 seconds.

I couldn’t do it.

From what I understand, proprioception is the ability to sense where different parts of your body are in space, their rate of motion, and direction of movement, through the use of proprioceptors, or nerve receptors. When you tear your ligaments, you have to rebuild this connection.

I had a lot of work to do. And I did it constantly! I was always on one foot, closing my eyes, trying to count to ten. When I hit ten seconds, I then stood on one foot and threw a ball back and forth between my hands, or to another person. Then I stood on one foot on unstable surfaces… It was surprisingly difficult.

It was also totally fascinating. I was quite literally re-learning how to perform fundamental physical tasks that I had been doing unconsciously almost all my life.

To Become Better, You Have to Spend Time Being Bad

Training your fitness and strength back up can be extremely humbling. I have cried through several workouts, miserable with my fitness level. But it can also be an opportunity to work some fundamentals up slowly and mindfully. Having one leg in a cast, you compensate all over without noticing and it can create a chain of little misalignments and strain. I have been much more mindful about my form and the ways that I compensate. This is a great way to get a deeper understanding of your body, and as an instructor it was valuable information.

I tried not to compare my workouts to the ones I did before, because I knew it would be a sad comparison. I had to mentally commit to the fact that I was going to be terrible and weak for a long time. And I was! But after a few weeks, I did notice that was getting stronger. It happens. It’s inevitable, if you commit to the attempt.

You have to use yourself as your benchmark. I got injured just in time for the end of the Winter-That-Wouldn’t-End and I was just getting back into my outdoor jogging routine. It had been over six months since surgery when I did my first slow, treadmill jog. I had to alternate between jogging and walking. There were all these joggers and sprinters beside me, and it stung to think they were looking at me thinking I was slow or unfit. Of course: they were probably not thinking that about me, they were probably not thinking about me at all. What really mattered was that despite my judgemental inner voices: inside I was so excited to be running again – and I was proud of myself. I had to nurture that little flame, and be proud of every step. After all – I had been on the stationary bike for months staring longingly at the treadmill – and I’d made it! So what if I was still a long way away from my precious outdoor 10k jogs, I was moving forward.

 

Ultimately when you have a break from routine you get an opportunity for a new perspective.

With the loss of my beloved high intensity, high impact training, I did pilates and yoga. And, in all honesty, it felt good. I noticed myself getting stretched out, but also stronger in ways I don’t normally consider. I think of strength in terms of how much I can lift; power in terms of how high I can jump. But of course it’s there in sustained movement, it’s there in balance. I think yoga is good for my digestion, good for my nervous system, good for my mind. I think I should keep it as part of my regular life.

But, Man!! I still can’t wait to be able to do some quad-burning, lung-bursting plyometric interval training!

 

That’s a wrap on my WhateverDoesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger series, I hope you enjoyed it! If you have any questions of comments please tweet me @CaseyHudecki! Next blog I will be looking at Slapstick Violence!  

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Whatever Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger Part 3: Stages Of Recovery

Immediately after an injury you go into survival mode. There’s all sorts of new things to contend with – mobility issues, appointments, trying to sort out what you can keep doing, what you can’t, pain management, disability claims and so on. For me there was also a wedding to plan, surgery two weeks before the wedding, and a bit of a struggle to get down the aisle without crutches. It kept me busy, so it was easier to stay positive.

Once the surgery was done, the walking cast was no longer too painful, and the wedding was over, I was faced with the idea of recovery. It had gotten as bad as it was going to get, and now it was supposed to get better.

For me, this stage was much scarier than I expected.

Physical and Mental Repair

I was surprised by how emotional this process was. As I got further past the trauma, and into my recovery, I had to face the possibility that I’d lost something – mentally as well as physically. I worried I wouldn’t get my full range of motion back, and that my ankle was now more prone to injury. But what concerned me more was the sense that a naiveté or a fearlessness has been lost. I know that I can damage myself badly, and I fear that possibility might infect my mind and take away my edge. This is where I had to put my money where my mouth was and turn that the vague optimism I held on to while in a cast into action. It was time to shed the “Injured” identity, and face the “Recovery” road ahead.

This was just another opportunity for a perspective switch. Instead of feeling shame I chose gratitude, and instead of choosing fear now, I could choose to come back stronger and better informed. My body is not the same anymore, that’s the truth, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I can choose to look at my body’s resilience and not dwell on it’s weakness.

No Longer Broken, Not Yet Whole

There’s a funny transition when you become no longer visibly injured. The walking cast is off, the crutches are gone, but this felt like the most dangerous time to be in public. I must have looked very odd: an apparently fit young woman walking absurdly slowly, staring at the ground for any uneven surface that would stretch or twist my weak, newly attached ligaments. No one has patience for you anymore, on the street, so you must be on your guard.

I found I was easily in danger of swinging between two extreme emotional states. In general I felt elated – the simple act of driving, or more precisely, sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on the Gardiner Expressway thrilled me: I could drive again! I got to be in my car – alone! – listening to music! – I felt like I had my life back. Walking through the busy downtown streets, I would alternate between my empowered state: “Hurry up, I just had ankle surgery and I’m doing it – what’s your excuse?” and my Self-Pity mode ‘Waaaahhhh you don’t know how hard this is for me, don’t rush me!!” Neither of which is a healthy mindset.

It was a good reminder that you never know what all the strangers around you are going through, so kindness and respect are always the best choice.

Ghost in the Machine

Now I don’t know the science behind this, but something I’ve observed through my life as an athletic actor is how much emotion is stored in your body. My ankle had been immobilized for ten weeks (except for all those times I snuck it out of my waking cast to test my mobility) and it turned out that a build up of scar tissue was blocking my range of motion. Once free of the cast, it took months of physiotherapy to work through that scar tissue, and one day during an adjustment there was s loud crack. Turned out it was a good crack – and for a few moments, before my ankle seized up again – it felt like a normal foot again. I walked home without a limp, got in my door, sat down and bawled my eyes out. The emotion flooded right through me, from seemingly nowhere. I have always believed that, and have witnessed many examples of how, your body stores emotion – especially your muscles. (Ever get surges of emotion during a massage? Go with it!) An emotional release often accompanies a muscular release, if you’re open to it. And it would seem that the size of the trauma might relate to the size of the emotional release. It was recently pointed out to me that not only does my ankle contain the emotion of the trauma, it probably holds emotion surrounding my wedding too!

Patience, Grasshopper… You Can’t Hop Yet

The biggest lesson for me: Patience. I found this especially hard to apply to my fitness (next blog). But one thing that was surprising was how much judgement I had for myself around the idea of being ‘lazy’. I had no frame of reference: I really couldn’t tell if I was babying myself, or if I was pushing too hard. I desperately didn’t want to use my injury as an excuse, and I was eager to work again – to jump back into my life (when in point of fact, I was months away from even the smallest ‘jump’). It was extremely frustrating to feel free of the cast, yet have so far yet to go. I couldn’t even do my physio every day – I had to rest. My physiotherapist warned me I was a dangerous combination of being enthusiastically committed to my recovery, and in possession of a high pain tolerance. My mission was clear: patience.

What I discovered from this injury is that the pace of your life is actually in your control. I have always felt like I have to talk fast, make decisions fast, be the first one there; and at first I thought I could keep working out, keep helping out on set. But I had been forced to completely stop. And you know what? Stopping is a valid choice. It doesn’t kill you. In order to recover I had to let go of trying to prove that I was indestructible, and trust that there would still be a place for me in the industry, when I was ready. With that mental shift, I could concentrate on moving forward with wisdom, not with an impatient need to please, but a calculated caution. As with so many things in life, we don’t get to leap to the end destination, we just have to keep taking the best steps we can.

 

I hope  you enjoyed this blog. If you have any comments I’d love to hear them @CaseyHudecki! Tune in next month for the last part of my Injury Series – Whatever Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger Part 4: Injury Fitness!

 

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Whatever Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger Part 2: The Tragedy and the Comedy of Crutches

I like to think I can do anything I set my mind to. But there are times your body fails you, and it can be quite eye opening. 

My first day on crutches, I got up early after being up most of the night in Emergency; crutched my way to the kitchen, and made myself a perfect cup of coffee. I picked up the mug, got on one crutch…. and was hit all at once by the extent of my uselessness: I could not take a step holding my coffee.

 ‘This is ridiculous!” I thought. “This is a simple task. I can take my full mug to the table!” Determined to solve the problem, I decided I would simply hop on my good foot. The first hop was okay, the second flung my coffee all over myself and the kitchen floor. I had to accept I was in a new set of circumstances. I sat on the kitchen floor and drank my new cup of coffee.

Now of course you find work-arounds. I discovered various ways of reaching one legged and putting my coffee mug on ever closer surfaces to get it eventually to the table. I figured out how to squeeze my crutches to me with my upper arm, kick them forward, and lean on them so I could move forward while holding things. Where there is a will, there is a way! But there are limits.

TOP TWENTY THINGS You Don’t Know If You Have Not Been Stuck On Crutches For A Long Period Of Time! (I tried to make it ten, but there was just too much to say! Let me know if I left anything out!)

  1. Everyone will ask you what you did, and no matter how good your story is, you will eventually come up with a better one, and a much much shorter one.
  2. Your crutches are an invitation for everyone to tell you their injury story.
  3. Everyone wants to try your crutches. They look fun.
  4. You can practice fun balancing ab crunches. This gets old.
  5. You have a use for all of your odd socks. You suddenly get the cut off jogging pants thing. You miss your skinny jeans.
  6. You must concentrate and be careful on your Escalator Dismount!
  7. Children are often scared, but are always fascinated by crutches and casts.
  8. You cannot carry anything in your hands. Especially unsealed liquids.
  9. You realize that walking is SO EASY. Someone beside you on crutches is working so much harder than you. Be kind to them.
  10. You hinge higher than your hips making your stride on crutches super long, so you can cover much more distance in a ‘step’ on crutches than on foot – but it tires you out faster.
  11. Other people walking and looking down at their cellphones are the enemy – they will kick out your crutches. You begin to avoid crowds.
  12. You must wear a backpack, not a side purse. The reason why become obvious quickly.
  13. Crutches are a serious cardio, ab and shoulder workout! It gets a bit easier over the weeks as you get stronger.
  14. Despite how it looks, when moving, you do not rest the weight of your body on your armpits – you hold yourself up from the handles – the shoulder pads are just to stabilize. Even though you don’t weight bear on your armpits, the back and forth action of crutches seriously chafes your underarms… I have bled.
  15. Showering. :(
  16. You begin to make life choices based on distance.
  17. There are so many more stairs everywhere than you’ve noticed before. Every restaurant has the bathroom upstairs or downstairs. RAILINGS are crucial to success.
  18. You become a one legged jumping master – and it hurts so bad in your healthy hip!
  19. Standing on one leg for prolonged periods of time is excruciating. Try it.
  20. Crutching down small hallways is very difficult, and anything on the ground – a closet door that is not quite closed, a piece of clothing, a back pack strap, wet floor, a napkin- will Take. You. Out!

 

BONUS CRUTCH TIPS:

* When falling from crutches: abandon the crutches and use your hands. Try to ignore the impulse to catch yourself with your bad side.

* Just because they finally put you in a walking cast, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to walk in it right away.

* Especially after the injury or surgery, you must keep the foot elevated! It can be excruciating when the foot is below the waist. You get used to crazy positions when you have to keep your foot up over your heart.

* Be loving to your healthy leg and foot!!

* Because there’s no walking friction on the bottom of your foot – the exposed toes and ball of the injured foot get really dry and scaly! Gotta buff and moisturize – if you can reach.

* Nice to have metro priority seating clout. But when no one offers seat – it can be pretty bad.

* You can take yourself out if your thumb or the handle bar wing-nut of your crutches catches in the opening of your pants pocket during forward motion! Hard to explain – but some of you must know what I’m talking about!

 

Got any Crutch Tips of your own? Tweet me @CaseyHudecki!

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Whatever Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger Part 1: A Trip Through Pain

This is a different kind of blog for me, and a little more personal. It is the first Part of a series where I share some of my thoughts and feelings on Pain, by sharing my journey of a recent injury.

In a physical industry accidents happen. This is a given. And I’ve had my share of smaller injuries before, injuries that were painful, that slowed me down, but none that took me out of the game. Me, and those I work with, take safety extremely seriously, and we are all trained in First Aid. But this year I was reminded first hand that even when every precaution is taken, things can go wrong.

I find the mindset of a stunt person has to be pretty interesting. You train for safety and you know your limits, but these limits are pushed. What you are doing has risk– that is the nature of stunt performing. As much as you know your capabilities, there has to be that part of your mind that yes “Yeah! Go!” in spite of the risks.

I’m always amazed at how strong and how fragile the body can be – and you never know which one it will be. We all know examples of this – someone can somehow make it through a major accident unscathed, yet walk down the street, trip on seemingly nothing, and break an ankle, a wrist or a hip.

As a stage combat instructor and an actor, it is my job to think about pain, injury and death, and how to act them. Some pain is easy to play because you’ve experienced it; but for other pain, hopefully, you have to use your imagination.

I’ve always taught my students to be specific with their pain reactions. When ‘selling’ a punch or a slap or some sort of strike that has ‘connected’ I tell them to (1) decide the ‘reality’ of their reaction: did they chip a tooth? Is the wind knocked out of them? Are they seeing double? Once you have decided specifically what’s going on in your body, you must (2) pair this pain with an emotion, and this is where it gets REALLY fun! Maybe you’ve decided your nose is bleeding – you can still tell a variety of stories: your nose is bleeding and you’re extremely angry, is very different than your nose is bleeding and you’re excited – the latter may sound implausible but either can be appropriate, depending on the character and the scene.

But sometimes pain is so big, it overrides emotion.

When I tore three ligaments in my ankle rehearsing a stunt, the pain eclipsed all emotion. From the outside, it was very undramatic. Apparently, I didn’t make a sound and no one knew I was hurt until I crumpled to the ground. Then, and for several minutes, all I could do was breath. I think it was the most pain I’ve ever been in in my life, it took over every part of me. I just kept forcing air in and out of my lungs praying that the pain would release on my exhales, but it didn’t. The stunt coordinator got me lying down with my foot up in ice, and eventually I could speak, but the waves of pain just kept coming.

There’s an other side of pain that is not physical, but it’s not really intellectual either. It’s a deep visceral fear that comes from not knowing how bad the injury is, but knowing that a part of your body is wrong. I’ve always found change unsettling; I need time to figure out my new relationship with whatever has changed. This feeling goes on overdrive when it has taken place violently within your own body. There was a deep displacement in my guts that came with the unknown.

But the amazing thing is – just as your body heals itself (we’re all superheroes) your mind adapts. After an X-ray and a CT scan, I still didn’t know my ankle’s diagnosis, but I had now spent six hours in the hospital with my extremely distressed joint, and I was getting used to its new state. Even though I couldn’t move it and it was swollen into an entirely alien shape, it was becoming mine again. Once I had more knowledge about what was wrong with it, what I could and could not do with it, it became better still. The news was not good, but at least I knew I could picture what was going on inside the swelling, my relationship with my ankle, and how to safely relate to it, was clearer and therefore I could relax a bit. Never underestimate how calming knowledge can be, whether it’s good or bad.

I was told early on, by another stunt performer, that I must beware of depression and work to stay positive. This was probably the most important advice I got, as every trip to the surgeon brought worse news. It would have been so easy to allow myself to slip into a very dark place, watching my career go on hold, losing the ability to be independent.

Just like I’ve always told my students – pain is paired with emotion, and early on, once my pain left some room, I was able to identify that fear and shame were continually arising in me. Shame that I had hurt myself on a seemingly innocuous stunt, that I had let people down, and so on. And fear of what the consequences would be.

Once I identified these emotions I decided to see if I could make a choice about my emotional state. I decided to choose gratitude instead. The other emotions were still there, but I was determined not to dwell on them, and I quickly found that I had so much to be grateful for. This injury happened six weeks before my wedding. I was overwhelmed with the support I got over the weeks from my family, my wedding party, and most of all from my fiance who had suddenly become the breadwinner, care giver and main wedding planner. He took on the challenge with so much love and energy, it made the future very bright. 

This event was a good reminder for me of the importance of breath and awareness. We train stage combat physically and vocally, and the breath is the link. As actors, when playing an injury, we must start with the breath to find an authentic vocalization. And, as with my case, sometimes there is no sound needed: the rhythm or holding of the breath can tell a powerful (and painful) story on it’s own.

In terms of awareness, I think it’s always important to be able to identify what you’re feeling, whether you’re an actor or not. Emotions can come from all sorts of places, and only by being aware of them can you release them if they’re not healthy. For me, being in pain was enough without adding shame to it. My awareness helped me release that feeling and gain control of my mindset.

(I hope you don’t mind me sharing my story through the lens of what I teach in stage combat. I don’t mean to trivialize anyone’s pain by suggesting that it is an easy mental flip, because certainly chronic pain can be unbelievably demoralizing. Please tune in for part 2 and 3, where I muse about the stages of recovery, coming soon. If you have any comments please tweet me @CaseyHudecki)

 

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Fighting from Script to Screen!

I received an email from someone with some great questions about who contributes to the final look of a fight, and how that happens. So this is a look at the process of developing the fight from script to screen.

It begins with the script. Any well written scene advances the story – something new is revealed or there is a reversal of fortune – and fights are often an exciting means to this end. So the best starting point to choreographing a fight is to know is why the fight happens – what part of the story does it tell? This can be something simple like: “show off how powerful this character is, by getting them to easily kill 12 people as they get from A to B.” Or the fight might have to express something more complicated like “Darth Vader fights Luke Skywalker, making him angrier and angrier to seduce him to the dark side, and Luke has to realize this and resist.” The first story requires the fight choreographer to give the protagonist cool, flashy Luke_vs_Vadermoves that appear effortless. The second story is more emotionally driven, and there are quite a few story beats the choreographer must make sure to hit: getting Luke to attack, then several sequences that build in intensity, escalating, the hate must be ‘flowing through’ Luke and he almost fully commits to the emotion, then he must realize what’s happening and pull himself back.

Once you know the large plot points – the Why – you can deal with the specific moves – the How. The script may or may not have answers for you there.

Sometimes quite a bit of the fight is scripted: “I see you have studied your Agrippa…. I am not left handed!… you’re amazing!” Sometimes the script will say specific things like “She slams his head into the wall” which is pretty straight forward to choreograph. But usually, especially if it’s a large fight, the script will only say something like “They Fight” – or if they want to be more specific “They Fight -it’s intense, they are evenly matched, it’s very sexy” or something. Then the Fight Coordinator must interpret that based on their knowledge of the characters (which I talk about more in my Fight Directing Blog here). they-fight

Once they have all the clues from the script, the fight coordinator must then talk to the director. The director will know the location of the fight, and explain their vision: whether they want to emphasize a skill or emotion, what the power dynamic is between the characters, if they want it to be very messy, if they imagine the characters getting into a clinch for a certain set of lines, if they have an idea for a camera move, where the fight needs to travel – if it has a specific beginning or ending position, etc. Some directors have a very clear vision, some leave it more up to the fight coordinator to decide.

In film and television there will probably also be a Stunt meeting, which will include all the relevant departments. On Lost Girl, because there are often supernatural powers involved in fights, these meetings include the Visual Effects department. They must be involved to make sure the fight is shot in such a way that they can animate whatever they need to in post (i.e. Glowing eyes, body morphs, swords getting stabbed into people, etc.). There will also be the Director, Props (who build the weapons), Wardrobe, Writers, and Producers – so that everyone is on the same page.

With all this information the fight coordinator can then go choreograph the fight. If it’s a big, important fight and time permits, they will shoot a PreViz. The PreViz is shot to be a live story-board. It involves all the camera angles, stunts, edits, padding, etc. so that the shoot can proceed as smoothly as possible when the time comes. An example of an amazing PreViz is River’s bar fight in Serenity (watch it here). Often the PreViz needs to be approved by the Network, so it can go through quite a few versions. Usually the PreViz is shot with the stunt doubles.

As with all best laid plans – even with all this prep work – things inevitably change ‘on the day.’ The actors know their characters extremely well, so if a certain move doesn’t ring true for their character, the fight coordinator will often change it. Depending on location, and budget and time constraints, sometimes fights get cut short, simplified, and so forth, keeping the fight coordinator on their toes! Lastly – once the fight is shot, the director and the editor will choose the best shots and cut the fight together. If you know anything about editing, you know that it has massive power to shape the story the audience will eventually see. The editor must choose the takes that tell the right story, and that fits the show into it’s time constraints. At this point sound will be added – and that will be the finishing touch – completing the final layer of the fight.

In terms of choosing individual fight moves – I was asked about the Bo vs. Lachlan fight in episode 213. The fight shows two different styles: Bo is untrained and fuel by emotion, and Lachlan has more upright, stylized sword technique. We also chose for the fight to get more physical – with Bo throwing a punch – which I think suited the story and the character. If I were to choreograph a historical duel, it would be rare for the combatants to throw punches. But the Ep 213 fight is not a traditional duel, and Bo is not one for following rules, so it made sense to flavour the sword choreography with her scrappy instincts. Personally, since I am also an actor, I tend to choreograph very instinctually, and the punch just felt right. When choreographing, it’s always a balance to stay true to the character, but also throw in some fun and flashy moves.

As you can see taking a fight from script to screen is quite a collaboration! From the writer’s imagination, the director’s vision, wardrobe, prop and visual effects tricks, the actor’s instincts, the editor’s eye and the very real issues of time, space and money concerns, everyone leaves their mark on the fight. I believe that combining the skills of all these departments is one of the things that makes this industry so exciting. That said, I like my department the best! So that’s where you’ll find me: building and performing story-driven fights!P1020003_edited-1

Hope that answered some questions! If it just created MORE questions – let me know! Tweet me @CaseyHudecki!

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Top Ten Random Things in my Stunt Bag

This is certainly not the blog I promised, but I’ve been on set a lot in the last few weeks, and I’ve decided to start some Top Ten Lists… because it amuses me…

Stunt Performers carry around a stunt bag. Generally the bag is full of pads – knee pads, elbow pads, hip pads, armadillo (back pad) – every pad possible. These pads are generally as low-profile as possible so they can’t be seen under clothes. I also carry some bigger pads, for rehearsals, or when the costume can conceal them (I’ve never personally experienced that last – but it happens). These pads are for me, or to lend to the actors if they need protection.

But there are some things in the pad bag that are not pads. Some relate to stunts, and some are just good to have on set in general. Here are ten that you might not expect:

10. Change of Clothes. (I once had to lend an actress my pants, you never know. You also never know when you’ll come home covered in fake blood). I will add: Comfortable Warm Footwear!! (You don’t want to get stuck in stilettos all day, or sandals in the winter!)

9. First Aid Stuff. (Advil, Tensor Bandages, Traumeel, Athletic Tape, A535, for obvious reasons.)

8. Moleskin. (To be stuck to hands, etc. if you’re taking a fall on concrete).

7. Notebook. (I’m always learning and I like to write things down. Or plan blogs… that take me forever to write…)

6. Phone Charger. (Set Days are Loong! I bet you feel naked/cut off/bored without your phone too!)

5. Alcohol Spray. (Since I share my pads with the actors, and stunts tend to be sweaty, I want to make sure they’re smelling fresh!)

4. Toothbrush/Paste. (Again -Set Days are Loooong! They go by faster when your teeth aren’t furry. Also fights can get pretty up-close-and-personal, and I must protect the actors from my breath as well as physical injury!) I may as well add Deodorant. (When I’m leaving for set in the wee, small (dark) hours of the morning, I often forget certain morning steps – like putting on deodorant, and that just won’t do.)

3. A Book. (As you’ve probably heard, shooting is a lot of ‘Hurry Up and Wait.’ I find a good book helps with the waiting. Sometimes I’ll bring research material to prep for the classes I teach, but often I just need pure escapism.)

2. Make Up Remover. (I once had ‘leg tan spray’ applied to my face to darken me up to match an actor – at the end of a day you need to get that stuff off!!)

1. Nude Bra and Thong. (Leading Ladies don’t have panty lines, so neither can I!)

 

There you have it! I hope that was somewhat interesting! Any other Top Ten lists you’d be interested in? Tweet me! @CaseyHudecki or @TemperArts

Have a Great Day!

 

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Stage Fighting vs. Screen Fighting

The majority of my fifteen years of fighting has been spent performing and fight directing for stage. However in the last six years or so I have been fortunate to have had many opportunities to apply my skills on screen.

The fight technique is actually very similar between stage and screen. Both require a very strong understanding of angle, good performance intensity, and good physical skill (timing, reflexes, etc.,). Depending on the budget of the production (Stage or Screen) actors will get varying amounts of rehearsal time – this time is always precious. In theatre actors often have at least a few weeks to learn choreography and several preview performances before opening night. In television and film, actors rarely get more than one or two rehearsals before the sequence needs to be shot at full speed. In either case there is never enough rehearsal, so having trained a skill-set and built a physical vocabulary beforehand is a huge asset. The main differences lie in the process. Let”s look at the differences in terms of Eyes vs. Frame, Fight Performance, Schedule and Performance Structure.

The first and most obvious difference is the audience: In Theatre the audience is (usually) fixed, in Television/Film, the audience moves with the camera. On stage this means the Fight Director must pay careful attention to drawing the eye to the right part of the story, while in film the camera has absolute control over what the audience sees.

On stage the Fight Director must consider where the audience is and make the fight look it”s best from there. There are various kinds of stages – Proscenium Arch, Thrust, the Round – and this will affect how the fight is staged. The Fight Director must choose the right angle for each strike that hides the fact that there is no contact (in the case of a non-contact hit) and hide the “knap” (on stage the sound of the “hit” must be made live by the actors, on screen these sound effects are added in post by foley artists). In a Proscenium Arch this is easy: the audience is only on one side. Once we get into the Round these strikes become more difficult, as the fight must sell from multiple angles at once. In this case Fight Directors have to use more contact strikes and misdirection/ third-person masking, and whatever other stage techniques they have up their sleeve to sell the impact.

On stage the story is received with the eyes and every moment is gone once it”s happened, and story points can get missed. In the case of a large battle scene on stage, it is possible for every audience member to get a different piece of the story, as each patron is seeing the fight from a slightly different angle. If there is a specific part of a battle that needs to be seen by everyone, the Fight Director (as well as the rest of the creative team, like the lighting designer) must be crafty about drawing the eye to that part of the story. Alternatively, fights on screen need to be impaction for repeated viewings – audiences can rewind, replay, scan in slow motion – for this reason nothing is left to chance.

On Screen the only eye that matters is the camera lens, and it has complete control of what you see. During the shoot, this means you can end up doing some very strange things that make no sense in reality, i.e. aiming a punch above the head, but works because it sells to the camera as contact. Conversely, what the camera lens doesn”t see won”t be part of the story, which allows us to hide all kinds of mats to fall on and padding to punch – there for the brief moment they”re required, magically gone for the next shot! For film and television the camera angle is chosen based on what makes the action look the most dynamic, most hard hitting, or that tells the right story. Like every scene, fight scenes are edited to showcase different pieces of the story: villain close up, hero close up, wide shot of crazy fight moves, close up on fist hitting stomach, medium shot of characters locked in a corps a corps, etc.  In theatre, since the audience doesn”t move, the actors must continuously position themselves to create the right angles. On screen we can bring the audience right into the middle of the action, up close, while on stage it is always a one-take wide shot.

Fight Performance.

On both Stage and Screen it”s great to have the actor do most of the action. In Theatre – the actor has to play their own action, though of course there have been exceptions to this.

For example: Jacques Cappelle, a fantastically talented Belgian Fight Master, doubled Cyrano de Bergerac in an outdoor venue – between scenes they decided to actually stage Cyrano”s fight with a hundred men. Cyrano is a demanding part, and there are never enough fight rehearsals, so Jacques performed the fight as Cyrano and then swapped back out for the real Cyrano every show. This was both a practical and effective way to show off Cyrano”s fight skills while saving the actor”s energy for the rest of the play.

But it is more the exception than the rule. Generally stage actors must have the physical ability to do their own fights. And they must do them for the entire run of the show, every night, sometimes twice, often for months. This means the action must be safely repeatable – there can”t be huge risky moves, especially for lead actors, because an injury could jeopardize the entire run of the show.

On screen there is much more wiggle room for the actor. Most actors would like to do their own stunts and fights, but often this is not practical; furthermore, since film and television have higher financial stakes, even if the actor is capable of doing the stunt, the production often won”t let them risk it. The actor is required to do enough action for their close ups to sell the story of the fight, but any over the shoulder or wide shots can be performed by a stunt double. Stunt doubles are used if the action is too dangerous for the actor or if the actor simply does not have the skill required. This should not be a source of shame for any actor.

As an actor I believe that I am not the only one creating the character. “The Character” is what the audience sees, and sometimes to tell the right story of the character we need many people”s skills: make up, costume, lighting, body doubling, stunt doubling. If I am playing a character that knows how to jump off a horse, flip and land on their feet, but I don’t know how to do that, we get someone to dress up as the character and show that part of them. In that moment they are the character as much as I am. Also, while I”m shooting another scene that requires the character”s face (mine) the stunt double can be rehearsing and perfecting that flip with the help of all sorts of other people – riggers, wire pullers, coaches, CGI, etc.

Even in the case that the stunt is not too dangerous, action sequences are tiring and there is inevitable wear and tear. The main actors have very long days and they are responsible for representing the emotional journey of the character (emotional scenes are also exhausting!). It doesn”t help the story to spend their energy hanging from a harness for hours when the next shot is an emotional monologue (for example). It is for this reason that the stunt doubles are there to share the load and take on risks the actor can”t afford to take.

Schedule and Performance Structure

On stage the actors tell the story all the way through over a few hours. Any big mistakes can be perceived by the audience and must be fixed in real time in order to continue the story. On screen, actors can cut and repeat a sequence until they get it right, making the final product the “Best Of”. Both stage and screen acting requires a lot of stamina.

An actor playing Macbeth on stage needs to carry the entire show, monologue after monologue and still have enough energy to do an entire fight scene at the end. And they need to do that every day, sometimes twice, possibly for months. If that actor is part of a Rep Company (like the Stratford Theatre Festival) they may be in rehearsals all day for another show, and then perform Macbeth at night. Since theatre has no editing, the actor must perform the entire fight from beginning to end, at full speed. This is why any production generally has a minimum of two weeks rehearsal.

The same Macbeth on screen however must sustain one moment for the better part of a day or several days, repeating it for every camera angle, be it an emotional scene or a fight. While the Stage Actor does the fight once in a show, the Screen actor will probably shoot the fight over and over. But the fight need not be done from beginning to end, a fight scene on screen is almost always shot in segments. This means the performers don”t have to worry about learning the whole fight at speed – they can speed it up and shoot it piece by piece. Then, often, the stunt doubles will do the full fight wide shot. But once it”s shot – it”s over.

To give you a personal example, one of the sword fights I shot for Lost Girl (Ep. 213, Bo vs. Lachlan) was shot over two days. One day on set at the studio, and another day (over fourteen hours long) on location. In the episode this fight ended up being about a minute long or less of pure fight time. On stage, however, the longest fight I ever performed non-stop was about four minutes. That is a very long fight on stage – by the end I could barely hold my sword. Television shoots at a very fast pace, so I ended up having two rehearsals for the Lost Girl fight, which is good! (When I doubled Bo in Season 1, I had one rehearsal with the other stunt double, and then we taught it to the actors a few hours before we shot it – which is more common.) For the stage fight, however, which had to be performed flawlessly from beginning to end, we had dozens of hours of rehearsals, and I was fighting with other highly trained fighters. By the time it hit the stage it was pure muscle memory, and went pretty much according to plan every night. If that fight were to be filmed, it would probably take several days to shoot, but would arguably not have to be as rehearsed.

Lastly, a quick note about weapons. Stage and Screen weapons are designed for different purposes. A stage weapon must be built to handle prolonged use – and a good one should last you many years. There are many things you can do to prolong the life of your stage weapons, (food for another blog), but they should be built to withstand much wear and tear. Generally stage swords are made of steel or high grade aluminum (I like aircraft aluminum). In film what matters is speed, not lifespan. Weapons are often cheaply made because they do not need to last longer than a day or so. Often little thought is put into what one weapon will do to another. This is not ideal – as I have had shards of hot metal hit me in the face as one well made weapon chewed into my cheaply made blade. But speed is key, and this means weapons should be light and quick. (Anthony DeLongis tells a story of shooting his sabre fight with Jet Li in Fearless – he brought what he considered very light aluminum blades, but they dismissed them immediately as too heavy, opting to use painted bamboo swords. Watch that fight – it”s crazy fast!). In film and television they also have multiple weapons: the hero weapon, which might still be sharp and is used for close ups, the practical weapon – often aluminum, and if they”re smart they will have a few of these, and then probably (hopefully) a rubber weapon for contact strikes, and as an extra layer of safety when fighting at full speed.

Wow, I had a lot to say about that – being succinct is certainly not one of my skills. If you have questions or  want me to elaborate on anything please tweet me! @TemperArts or @CaseyHudecki Otherwise I will attempt to summarize via Table:

SCREEN STAGE
Choreographer Fight Coordinator Fight Director
Perspective Camera Lens : Absolute control over what audience sees. Fixed Audience – Fight Director must draw the eye to the part of the story they want the audience to see. One take wide shot
Prep Time Never enough rehearsal – rarely more than a couple rehearsals Never enough rehearsal – usually 2-3 weeks
Final Product Shot in pieces over hours Performed beginning to end every night
Performance Performed as much as possible by the actor, the rest performed by stunt doubles Performed by the actor
Weapons Built for Speed – Hero Weapon (Real), Practical (often low grade aluminum or rubber) Built for Durability – usually steel or high grade aluminum

 

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Best Workshop Ever

For almost ten years I”ve been hearing about the Paddy Crean Workshop, and the cries of “You MUST go!” and “What?! You”ve never been??” grew and grew. Finally, at the FDC Nationals last year, these cries became impossible to ignore as I was told by eight Fight Masters and the rest of the teaching staff that this was no longer a networking and learning opportunity I could afford to miss.

I have been to many workshops, but this one was always held above the others it seemed. It always came at a difficult time of year for me – after Christmas, over New Years. It was also quite a significant financial commitment – not only for the training but the flight to Banff. I wondered at how people returned for every workshop.

I don”t wonder anymore.

This workshop is special.

It began as a workshop to raise money for Paddy Crean. If you don”t know him, I encourage you to learn a bit about him, for example here or here.  A Fencer, an Actor and a Fight Director, Paddy comes from the world of Lawrence Olivier, Alec Guinness and Errol Flynn. As well as being heralded as the kind of gentleman one wishes still existed today (a treasured relic of a more chivalrous time), he is, in many ways, one of the fathers of modern stage combat and fight direction.

His dream was to create a gathering place for artists of all kinds: theatrical fight directors, historical re-creators, stunt performers, dancers, clowns, scholars and fighters. A round table where everyone could come as equals, free from ranking and certification, and share the love of their art form.

I believe the organizers, The International Organization of the Sword and Pen, have achieved this with the Paddy Crean Workshop. And it is a beautiful thing.

This workshop brings together all stage combat organizations from around the world, as well as martial artists, historical martial artists, and more. Everyone is regarded as having something of value to contribute, and the atmosphere is downright joyous. 

As a newly made FDC Fight Director, and a Paddy Crean Newbie, I came simply to learn, meet others who share my love of this diverse and rich art form, and “fill the cup.” I was a bit nervous too – I had not been a stage combat student in a long time, and I wasn”t sure what to expect. When I recieved the class descriptions I was immediately overwhelmed and over-the-moon excited. There are SO MANY classes to take, from so many amazing people I would never have the oppotunity to work with otherwise (without a significant amount of traveling).

You can”t take ALL the classes (there are often eight classes happening simultaneously), and not getting the class you want can be a great source of stress to some. But the truth is, there are no bad classes. So I made a point of meeting as many people as possible, and taking as many diverse classes as I could. I had nothing to be nervous about – everyone was very approachable and welcoming. If I couldn”t take their class I would ask them about it – and I had some truly fabulous discussions.

I started with a class I knew – Smallsword with Ian Rose. Smallsword is a great love of mine, and Ian”s blend of casino history and athleticism is always delicious. I thought it would be a good way to throw myself back into my fighting form – nothing is more exhilarating than the lighting quick specificity of advanced smallsword. And I was not disappointed.

The room itself took my breath away: a full wall of windows looking out on a vista of snowy mountains. I cannot think of a better place to learn anything than the Banff Centre – nestled in a National Park in the Rockies – nothing but trees and mountains and sky wherever you look. If you”ve never been – go! Or at least check out their website here.

From then on every single class held nuggets of gold that inspired me as a teacher, as a fight director, as a performer or just as someone who loves learning cool stuff. I went from Tactical Knife, to Flexible Weapons, to historical Spanish Rapier, to Motion Capture each taught by a passionate and knowledgeable instructor – sometimes two! The days were punctuated by the Banff Centre”s Buffet: food as diverse and plentiful as the classes.

It was like Hogwarts for Actor Combatants.

It”s just what Paddy dreamed about: all kinds of scholars and fighters meeting as equals, and sharing their love of their art form. And the result is a palpable expansion – a special alchemy – as each participant goes back to their part of the world, their minds more open, their creativity sparked. This workshop cannot help but deepen and improve the art of stage combat the world over.

I have only been once, but I have met new role models, collaborators and fight partners that have changed some of the ways I want to approach teaching and performing.

My cup runneth over.

I hope to be at the next one!

(As Anyone who has seen a Mountain and is not a photographer probably knows – it”s impossible to fully capture the awesomeness of a mountain view with an iPhone – but I figure you”ll get a bit of an appreciation this way).

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Knifeplay at Bond vs. Bourne!

So this past November I had the pleasure and honour of being invited to DC to teach at Tooth and Claw“s Bond vs. Bourne workshop. It was an awesome workshop that focused on guns, knives, close quarter combat and parkour.

Those students were so lucky! They got to fire at least a hundred rounds of blanks each over the course of the weekend, got parkour lessons at Primal Fitness, learned all sorts of knife, gun and unarmed techniques and then applied everything they learned by creating a four-on-four throw down.

 

This was awesome stuff that you dream of doing: firing two guns at once, scaling a six foot wall by yourself, knife submissions, unloading an automatic, and then putting all those skills together in a performance.

I really appreciated that part of the weekend. So often when you take specialty workshops you get a few hours to play and learn but you never get to revisit it. Casey Kaleba and Matt Wilson designed the weekend so once all the classes were done, the last afternoon was spent putting a performance together. We choreographed a gun battle and then let them finish each other off with the knife and unarmed techniques they”d learned. It was a very satisfying way to end the weekend.

I went down to teach the knife class, and I had a lot I wanted to teach them. I am currently assisting Simon Fon put together a knife syllabus for FDC, so I am full of excitement for the material. Bourne and the new Bond have extremely efficient fight styles, so we focused on fast, effective and brutal techniques. We started simple, but we moved very quickly through probing to trapping and grappling distances – cutting, flaying, stabbing, checking and zoning all the way. I think I represented FDC well to the SAFD crowd, and apparently I only said “eh” once, at the end of the last day (I didn”t notice). Here are some shots from the workshop – and all the silly faces I make while I teach – courtesy of Craig Lawrence”s Fight Guy Photography. (sorry that link won”t last forever, as he”s moving his site soon).

Dealing with a Knife attack from behind – without your hands:

The Lazy “S” Knife Strip:

Bargaining Position:

And More….

Want to know more? Tweet me @TemperArts!

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