Stage Combat 101: The Broad Strokes for the Uninitiated

Most people who have not worked in the entertainment industry are not very familiar with Stage Combat. Having studied and performed stage combat for almost half my life, it is my mission to spread an understanding of this Art of Action.

The purpose of Stage and Screen Combat is to tell a story. In film, television and theatre, actors must invariably play characters that come into physical conflict. Action scenes are very popular – this was true even in Shakespeare”s day. So whether it be a sword fight between Tybalt and Romeo on the Stratford stage, or a martial arts throwdown between Neo and Morpheus in The Matrix, the actors need to know how to perform their fight scenes so that it is both safe and exciting.

Why safe? Fight scenes must be safe because show after or show, and take after take, they must be repeated exactly; and no production can afford to have their actors constantly injured (and no actor could survive it for long!). The tricky part is that even though actors are not physically in danger – the fight must not look safe – it must appear chaotic, rough, and unplanned.

To create a safe yet exciting fight scene involves a Stunt/Fight Coordinator in film/television, or a Fight Director in Theatre. Beyond the performance of fights, if a sequence requires a technique that is more dangerous or requires a special skill, they will call in a Stunt Performer. I will discuss all these roles in future blog posts.

For now lets clear up what Stage/Screen Combat is and is not. (I will focus on Stage Combat as that is what I teach; however, most of these answers also apply to Screen Action – with some differences that I will discuss in a future blog post). Here are a few frequently asked questions about stage combat:

  1. Are the Fights “Real”?

Without getting existential about what one might mean by “Real,” the simple answer is No, it”s not real. Stage Combat creates the illusion of force and impact. The difference between a “real” punch and a stage combat punch is simply a few inches. Instead of connecting a strike, generally actors will simply direct the strike off target. However, between a “real” fight and a stage combat fight, there is a World of difference.

Stage Combat fights are thoughtfully choreographed from beginning to end. Though stage combat is rooted in real fight technique, these techniques are employed for a completely different purpose than in a real fight. They are used to further the plot, highlight character weaknesses and strengths, and give historical or martial flavour to the world of the characters. These fights are about addressing the details that tell a specific story. The more the fight evolves out of the story, and is not just a vehicle for awesome flashy fight moves, the more invested the audience will be!

As with so much of theatre, stage combat tells the truth through lies – the audience may see characters in vicious conflict, but the reality is in fact the opposite: the actors must be in complete control, working in harmony to create the illusion of casino spiele online chaos and violence. (Of course that doesn”t mean it isn”t real sweaty, exhausting work!)

  1. Are The Swords “Real”?

Again, skipping over any existentialism– they are not imaginary, of course, but nor are they sharp. The edges and points are dulled, and they are often not even steel. Many swords on stage are in fact aluminum, and in most martial arts movies, they might even be bamboo. This helps actors perform the fights at a speed that audiences have come to expect.

On stage, however, they must be durable – because the contact they make with each other is real. A trained actor will know how to control their strikes so as not to put force into their partner”s blade, making light contact look forceful. But even when used correctly, stage weapons must still be constructed properly to be safe. Not any sword taken off a wall is fit to be used in a stage combat fight.

That said, a blunted, light sword can still be dangerous. Mankind has managed to demonstrate an endless capacity for hurting themselves with seemingly safe objects. Which brings us to the next question:

  1. Is Stage Combat Safe? Do people get hurt?

I have been doing stage combat for well over a decade, and I can boast no serious injuries. Of course there is an element of risk. Of course there are bruises – just as bruises can be expected from any contact sport. Stage Combat injuries generally happen the same way most accidents happen: when people are tired, lose focus, or get cocky – this is when mistakes are made. Stage Combat, taught properly, has many safeguards against accidents.

Stage Combat is designed for actors not UFC hopefuls. As an actor, I have no desire to get hurt, and as a teacher I have no desire to put my students in danger. Stage combat is not about taking risks – it is not built on hope – it is built on specific rules, techniques and many hours of rehearsal. As my mentor Daniel Levinson would say – stage combat is a calculated risk the same way driving a car is a calculated risk. It is dangerous for the human body to drive at those speeds, but that is why we have lights, signs, and many rules in place to mitigate that risk.


There you have it: Fake Fighting Fundamentals. But, of course, that is just the tip of the iceberg.

When I first learned how to stab someone with a sword on stage, I will admit – I was disappointed. It”s exactly what you think it is: holding a sword beside your body. The techniques in and of themselves are generally simple enough, but mastering them won”t make you good at stage combat. The audience knows, you see, that what you are doing is not real. The job of the actor combatant, apart from safety, is to make the audience forget what they know. Once your technique is safe and fast you still have to make the audience care. That is where the art comes in! As with any art, once you add a bit of your unique soul, it has the magic to become so much more than the sum of it”s parts! For more on that – and all sorts of delicious fighty factoids and fictions – tune in next time!

Got combat questions? Tweet them to me @TemperArts!

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