What does a Fight Sound Like?

I had a great term teaching at the Randolph Academy this year! I have been focusing very hard on getting students to use their entire bodies to create the illusion of force and power. I find, especially in basic stage combat, that it’s easy for students to only use their limbs for strikes, rather than letting the power travel through the legs, hips and core first.

This term my attention to this detail paid off: students were really powerful!

However, as always, as soon as you focus on one thing, other things get left behind. And in this case the note that kept coming up was VOCALS. Have you ever watched a fight in a movie with the sound off? It’s pretty lame, and if there are mistakes, they become more apparent. In theatre we don’t get to add the soundtrack in post – we have to create the vocal score live – and if we fail to do so, the fight suffers considerably.

Sounds of effort and pain are crucial to making a stage combat fight more exciting. It makes it seem faster, harder, and full of intention. In fact, making sound does make you more powerful and intimidating – just look at any martial art – they pretty much all use some form of battle cry (i.e. the Japanese: Kiai) and for us (actors) they can be as useful as a piece of text!

Once they are making sound, fighters then need to be careful not to always make the SAME sound. A joint lock pain vocal is different than a knee-to-the-face pain vocal, is different than a hair pull, or a stomach punch pain vocal… you get the idea. Vocal variety is important to tell the most specific story possible. Just as vocalizing effort shows power, vocalizing pain shows us vulnerability – both necessary parts of fights. I also like to remind fighters to leave space for surprise in their vocalization – sometimes the severity of pain is unexpected – and that’s fun for the audience to hear. This opens the door for endless emotional possibilities to be layered into pain performance!


Finally if fighters are also speaking through the fight – the physical struggle has to be matched vocally. An actor’s voice can’t be casual, relaxed and melodious when they’re in a life or death clinch, struggling to direct a knife away from their face. Their voices have to contain the effort and struggle that their bodies are displaying.

Unlocking the voice can be tricky for young actors (and old!). My general rule is to tell students to make more noise than they think is necessary, and let me pull them back. (It’s always easier to subtract than to add vocals to a fight). Usually once they start to make noise the fight becomes easier to perform because they are actually BREATHING (also a tricky thing for some!) and I find I rarely have to reign it in.

Here are some exercises I use for those who are insecure about not making the ‘right’ sound, or do not want to make sound at all:

  1. Silly Vocal Run: Go big, be silly, see what you discover – you might actually want to keep a lot of it!
  2. Choreographed Vocals: look at the choreography and decide where there definitely needs to be sound (i.e. large exhale on a stomach punch) and add it to your choreography. If it’s not coming naturally, sometimes you just need to plan it. Generally joint locks, groin attacks, hair pulls need higher toned vocals than kicks or punches or knees. It’s also important to make sure you are making noise at the beginning of a sequence: a) to make sure you are breathing and to encourage that to continue, b) to make sure you don’t ease into the fight but that you start it with intensity.
  3. Radio Play Test: I am a big supporter of having students watch each others fights – so they can develop their eye, but also because they can get a better understanding of some of their own challenges as well. This can get silly, but get the audience to close their eyes and see if they can still picture the fight. Without the visual, does the fight disappear? Or is the vocal story as clear as the physical story?

Did you find putting the fight in your voice difficult? Do you have any exercises that helped you? I’d love to know! Tweet me @TemperArts

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