The Art of Fight Direction

The stage is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life.”

Oscar Wilde

Theatre is a very collaborative art form – and I think Oscar Wilde sums it up nicely. Many art forms are combined in theatre, and when these jobs are done properly, the individual elements disappear into something bigger: a living breathing story.

There is an art to each element – be it lighting, props, or costumes – but all are designed to serve the story. This is also true for fight direction: as one of the great Masters of Fight Direction, William Hobbs, says: a “fight must grow out of the whole, and not be a mini-spectacle divorced from the rest of the piece.” (Fight Direction for Stage and Screen, William Hobbs).

Many people, even within the theatre industry, do not understand the role of a Fight Director. Often, directors will look to individuals with martial arts backgrounds to choreograph staged violence. But there is much more to creating stage fights than knowing how to fight. Let me show you some of the elements that influence a Fight Director”s choreography.

1) The Play.

  • Plot. As we all know (because our teachers and parents are always telling us) Violence Has Consequences. Exciting though it may be, if a story is well written, there has to be a reason for the fight: it is there to add to the development of the plot. It”s a juicy part of the story when characters can no longer articulate their conflict and it must play out physically: “I have no words, my voice is in my sword” (Macbeth V/viii). And when the fight is done, things have shifted: characters die, get wounded, discover hidden strengths, friends become enemies, enemies – friends, monarchies fall and rise – all of which must choreographed into the fight in the form of story beats.

  • Character. A Fight Director must read the play to understand the motivations of the characters, how the fight evolves from their conflicts and where it needs to take them. The text contains all sorts of clues to characterization: “if careful consideration is given to a man”s physique, intellect and personality, an idea will be formed of the probable way he will move and fight” (Hobbs). To pick a fairly obvious example: Tybalt is described as the “Good King of Cats… that fights by the book of arithmetic” (Romeo and Juliet III/i). Shakespeare is telling us that Tybalt is a well trained, agile, cool-headed, strategic fighter. One can also deduce that he studies the latest martial school of the time focusing on thrusting attacks over cuts, (as the shortest distance between two points is a line therefore a thrust is more efficient). To make a slightly more contemporary analogy – if they were characters from Top Gun, Tybalt would be the Iceman to Romeo”s Maverick (probably making Mercutio the ill-fated Goose… though one could argue he”s more casino online the Maverick… but I digress, you get the point). So you see how the skill level and the emotional state of the characters influence the fight choreography.

2) The Director. The Fight Director must understand how the Director wishes to stage the play. What period will they set the play? In the period it”s written? The future? An imagined world? What is the Tone? Comic? Stylized? Flashy? Realistic? Fantastical? All this will affect how the fight will be staged.

  • Time Period. The time and place will dictate the weapon system and much of the style and technique: i.e. will they use 17th century French smallsword, or Roman gladius and scutum? Each weapon system has it”s own movement style and strategy. It is the Fight Director”s job to instruct the actors as to how they would stand, how they would draw their blades and the combat etiquette and tactics. Not all productions strive for historical authenticity, but as an actor myself it is always delicious to learn about period movement and incorporate it”s meaning into my characterization, and in this way a fight director can be quite valuable.

Once the Fight Director understands the play and the directors vision, they can choose appropriate weapons and meet the actors.

3) The Actors.

  • Skill Level. It”s important to know the skill level of your actors. The more training an actor has, the more complex, stylized or athletic a fight can be. Untrained actors can be taught, but this will take more time, and time is a valuable commodity in theatre and film. On the other hand, if your actors have unique skills it”s great to incorporate them into the fight! Therefore, the choreography must be adapted and/or simplified, so that the actors can master it and infuse it with enough speed and intensity to make it believable.

  • Characterization. Not every actor performs “Hamlet” the same way, that”s why everyone wants to do it. The fight director may know how the character is written, but they must also consider the actor”s interpretation of the role. I will refer again to William Hobbs, as he says it best: “People who behave in a distinctly individual way throughout the play” must continue to do so in the fight. Most fight directors I know are very good at creating choreography from a character perspective. And often the best results will come from getting input from the actor playing the role: what is their instinct? In this way the fight will evolve seamlessly out of the actor”s characterization. After all, they are the ones who must perform it night after night.

4) Storytelling/ Drama

A fight scene is just that – a scene – and like any scene it is a little story with a beginning a middle and an end. You may have noticed by now that I think story is very important to choreography (and in general :) and even Hobbs writes his fights out in story beats. The most exciting fights have a shifting jeopardy, as a one sided fight does not put audiences on the edge of their seats. It gets boring to cheer for a hero that is never in danger. A hero is not someone who always wins; a hero is someone who overcomes hardship, and stands up to evil in the face of possible defeat. Vulnerability is just as important as Strength when acting a fight, and equally dramatic. By this I don”t mean to limit the heroic journey to only one character, because, of course, to each actor – their character is the hero.

Every story beat must be choreographed – every movement from the moment before weapons are drawn, even the stillnesses, are created to build the dramatic tension and take you along on the character”s journey.

5) Visual Impact

Not unlike dance, fights can also be choreographed with an eye for shape and rhythm. It is important, I think, to keep changing up the cadence of a fight – combining sharp, direct motion with large sweeping, circular movement – both for individual fight techniques as well as in terms of moving the fighters around the stage. This always helps make a fight dynamic, especially when it evolves out of the emotional score of the characters.

Visual impact can also involve the various special effects related to stage combat – like bone cracking sound effects, blood effects, dismemberment, and so on!

So, hopefully I have impressed upon you the fact that fight directing is more than just stringing techniques together. It”s translating the text into action, it”s putting the director”s vision on it”s feet, it”s flavouring the fight technique with the characters” unique style and intention, it”s incorporating the actors skills and instincts, it”s pulling from authentic historical and contemporary fight styles, it”s factoring in rhythm and flow and, oh yes, safety. This is why I call Fight Directing an Art.

These first two blogs were packed with technical information to orient you as to what it is that I do. My future blogs will be less formal, though I plan to keep educating the masses about the Art of Action! Thanks so much for checking in! More to come!

Got Questions? Tweet me @TemperArts!

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