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Fight rehearsal in a nutshell, with Kate Waters

November 29, 2018

It’s not weird that I was browsing the National Theatre Live website today instead of doing something productive — what’s weird is that I’d never checked out their “behind the scenes” material before. Is there anything about fighting? Yes, there is! ::click::

The video below shows fight director Kate Waters rehearsing the tavern brawl in a 2013 production of Othello. If you want to know what a fight rehearsal is like, this is it, distilled into three minutes: Kate starts off by emphasizing safety and spatial awareness, then she collaborates with the actors, changes the choreography around as they work out what the scene needs, reminds everyone to go slow and stay loose, steps in and demonstrates what she wants, teaches new techniques as needed, and cheers when something works out. As a bonus, some footage from the finished production is cut in, so you can see what this rehearsal will eventually become. It looks great, as well it should: there are only two women in the UK who are Equity Registered Fight Directors, and Kate Waters is one of them.

 

Aside from it being a great video, I found it unexpectedly affecting to watch a fairly petite woman run a fight rehearsal of all men, because that’s usually me — but I’ve never seen it from the outside before. I literally just realized that I’ve never worked with another female fight director. I know several, I take class with or from them all the time, but when I was a cast member, my fight directors were all men; so were my two co-fight-directors; so were the fight directors of the shows I teched; and when I was an assistant fight director, so was the boss. (For the record, Dave is amazing and I wouldn’t trade him for anything, but my point remains.) In a parallel universe where I have free time, I should seek out female fight directors to assist — or, given how much I loved watching Kate work for three short minutes — to observe.

As I said, I’ve taken class with female fight directors (ask me what my face did when I met Ricki Ravitts), but there’s a difference between a class and a show. Test fights for class have to demonstrate the techniques the class covered; fights for shows are whatever you want them to be, and the process of working with a team to create a finished product is really special. There’s so much room for creativity and whimsy, like at 1:44 when Kate, just for fun, tells the actor to stand up straight so that she has to jump to head-butt him. (As someone who’s 5’4″ on a tall day, I extra loved it.) That move doesn’t make it into the fight or anything, since the actors are close in height, but everyone laughs together, and that kind of playfulness, that energy of discovery, really makes me light up while I’m working. Also, shows have a lot of moving parts — time constraints, other people and departments with their own priorities — so the fight director’s job is to collaborate not only with the actors, but with the director, the costumer, the sets, and the very script and the performance space itself. It can be a pain, but I actually like that part of the job, because things that seem like constraints are also inspirations (necessity, invention, etc.). And I think it was seeing Kate navigate all those elements at once that made my heart go, yes, this.

I worry sometimes that I won’t get to fight direct shows again. Classes are easier to fit into my insane school schedule, plus I keep moving away from the theater companies I work with, and it takes time to establish those relationships. I don’t mean to be down on classes or informal fight jams — stage combat is joy and I’ll do it any time, anywhere! — but I hope once things get a little more regular, in six or seven years, that I can dip a toe back into fight directing.

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TOM HANKS IS MY FALSTAFF

October 27, 2018

henry-iv-tom-hanks-falstaff

This summer, Tom Hanks made his LA stage debut in Henry IV, parts I and II combined and abridged, in a Shakespeare Center of LA production also starring Hamish Linklater as Prince Hal, directed by Daniel Sullivan, and housed at the mini-amphitheater in the Japanese Gardens of the West LA VA Hospital. Casting Tom Hanks as Falstaff is brilliant: he’s a character who only does unlikable things and yet has to remain likable throughout the play(s) or the ending doesn’t work. And you have to like Tom Hanks.

The venue was pretty… but it was also confusing, and even after we parked we had to take a shuttle to the path that would take us to the theater… long story short, we were at the entrance literally 30 seconds after 8:00, and they said we would have to wait for late seating. I’ve never met a show that didn’t habitually hold for two or three minutes! The “cell phones” announcement hadn’t even started yet! So I was standing there, being mad, because I’m late for literally everything in life EXCEPT theater… listening to Hal and Falstaff’s first scene, you know, “what the devil has thou to do with the time of day”…  Well, Tom Hanks’s exit from that scene was down the aisle and out the back exactly where we were standing. He looked at the handful of us dejected souls, grinned under the big fake beard, jerked a thumb toward the entrance, and stage-whispered, “Go on, get in there!” before disappearing under the curtained-off bleachers to his next entrance.

I like to think he did that every night for the late-seaters.

Stage-combat wise, the show was good, thanks to the work of fight director Steve Rankin. I liked Hal and Hotspur’s fight at the end, in which Hal was very clearly outclassed until he got his hands on a fallen soldier’s spear. (I’m a sucker for the underdog victorious.) The only distracting thing, at least to me, was that the spear had a collapsing tip, so when he killed Hotspur it actually did the sinking-into-his-body illusion. It looked good, but it also threw me out of the moment. The general wisdom is that collapsing blades aren’t reliable enough for stage, because if the mechanism sticks, hoo boy. But I think the spear tip was conical and only maybe 6 inches long, so that should be more reliable than a similar mechanism on a blade, i.e., anything long, flat, or thin enough to get bent and foul up the telescoping effect. Still, I would be very nervous aiming that thing at someone’s chest. o_O

I also noticed, for the first time, that although Joan of Arc remains the only canonical female sword fighter in Shakespeare, our girl Doll Tearsheet isn’t exactly helpless: she threatens Falstaff, “by this wine, I’ll thrust my knife in your mouldy chaps”! Opportunity for a drunken knife vs tankard fight?

And finally, one night, a couple weeks after we were there, an audience member needed medical attention and they stopped the show — well, they stopped the play. Tom Hanks filled in the time by improvising in character and upbraiding all the people who were leaving: “Get back here, or find this sword, and many a dagger, placed neatly in the tires of your carriage!” The audience member was fine, and yes, there is video.

So long, summer!

September 24, 2018

It was a good one! If I can stretch the definition of “summer” to include late May, I kicked things off at BayCon, the Bay Area’s longest-running science fiction and fantasy convention, where in addition to being on some traditional panels, I taught an Intro to Unarmed Combat workshop. It was geared toward writers who want to write about fighting and LARPers who don’t do boffer-type combat but might want to work in a stage slap here and there, and it was super fun. I even took a new “stage combat profile pic” for the con promotional materials:

broadsword headshot bw edit

LOOKETH AT MY SWORD! (Lutel, model 12003)

Later in the summer, I TA’d an intensive unarmed class with Dave Maier at ACT. I love unarmed for a few reasons: it’s much more a game of misdirection and angles than weapons-work, you don’t need to buy anything to do it, and it is maybe the most visceral and intimate of all combat styles. And in both of my teaching opportunities this summer, there was a student who said they had been afraid to come learn it. I’m so glad they came anyway. The trust they placed in us to take them through something scary is the most precious gift of teaching, and much as I hope they learned a technique or two, more than anything I hope they came away knowing that they can and should be safe doing this work.

I also got to see some shows: Titus Andronicus in Griffith Park; Othello at the Delacorte, my first NYC Shakespeare in the Park in seven years; and Tom Hanks, actual Tom actual Hanks, as Falstaff in a Henry IV mash-up. I’m working on a separate post about that, but while we’re on the subject of fear, a word on Titus…

I was, let’s say, surprised not to see a fight director listed in the program, but not surprised at the result: the fighting itself was fine, but I counted three contact slaps, the swords they were using proved pointy enough to stand upright on their own when thrust into the wooden stage, and the same was true of the knife they used to slit Lavinia’s throat.

I say again: that knife was on an actress’s NECK, and two seconds later, they stuck it point-first in the table. I’m confident they did not swap out the knife.

This is the sort of thing people don’t think about when they’re trying to decide if they need a fight director. It seems so reasonable to save yourself the time and trouble if you have actors with stage combat experience who can put together a short sword fight, like the one between Demetrius and Chiron, but I would bet money that someone got stuck by one of those weapons during rehearsals, and it’s barely more than chance that nothing more serious happened. (See also: Sweeney Todd, the “just a slap” fallacy, and Megan’s mango rule.) I think this casual or slap-dash attitude towards staging violence is what makes people afraid of doing it; stories get around, and gruesome stories and near-misses have more legs than “yeah, our show was so safe, it was great.” I will sign off with my by-now traditional plea: I beg you, hire a fight director. I promise we are not a conspiracy bent on ruining your fun.

Now it’s “toward school with heavy looks” for me–but I do have the Dueling Arts SF Rapier Extravaganza to look forward to! 🙂

William Hobbs (1939-2018)

July 27, 2018

Legendary fight director William Hobbs has passed away at the age of 79, according to his son, who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter last week. If you’ve made your way to this blog, I guarantee you’ve seen his work: Shakespeare in Love, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Man in the Iron Mask, Dangerous Liaisons, Excalibur, The Duellists, Ladyhawke, The Three Musketeers (1973)and so many more–and theater, of course! Here’s a 1995 NYT article about his choreography for a production of Hamlet.

I watched Hobbs’s work over and over again as a middle- and high-schooler, especially The Man in the Iron Mask and Shakespeare in Love, when my enjoyment of period pieces was starting to crystallize into a particular love and appreciation for stage combat. I remember ordering his Fight Direction for Stage and Screen through the school library system, and it remains a great example of what I think a useful stage combat book should be, not so much trying to teach technique on paper and more about sharing a point of view. In its earlier incarnation as Stage Combat: Word to the Action, the book was also special to British fight director Tony Wolf, who shares some thoughts and anecdotes over on his blog,

There’s a 14-minute compilation of Hobbs’s fights on YouTube, and here are two of my favorites: the delightful, protean fight between Will and Lord Wessex, from Shakespeare in Love:

 

And possibly the best study in pitting contrasting styles against each other on film, the duel from Rob Roy:

 

Beautiful, thoughtful work — not clashing swords for the sake of clashing swords, but using the fight to tell a story and showing us who the people are by how they fight. Bravo, sir, and thank you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time for a movie marathon….

Fight Fashion: 2018 Met Gala

May 29, 2018

The theme of this year’s Met Gala was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Out of all the outrageous outfits and ostentatious bling, my favorites were the fashionable takes on armor. Insider claims “3 celebrities basically wore the same outfit at the Met Gala—and you probably didn’t even notice,” but a) they were not the same outfit at all, and b) if you think I didn’t notice three amazing women wearing armor on the red carpet, you don’t know me very well! All three seem to have taken their cue from Joan of Arc, the Catholic Church’s most famous battle maiden and the only woman to have a canonical sword fight in Shakespeare (Henry VI, part 1; I play her all the time in skills tests!).

There was Shailene Woodley, in Ralph Lauren:

Shailene-Woodley-Met-Gala-2018

I like the minidress length, but the conquistador vibe is not my favorite, and whatever stiff vinyl-y fabric it’s made out of isn’t moving with her at all; there’s a reason real armor like that is done in jointed segments! And then they ruined the illusion of having segments by running those two middle seams straight from the breastplate up over the pauldrons. Maybe it was on purpose?

Then we have Michelle Williams, in Louis Vuitton:

michelle-williams-met-gala-2018-e1526074796951.jpg

You had me at studded leather. I think I would have liked to see this short, too? From waist to floor, it’s a lot of unbroken extreme shininess—but then again, that was definitely the order of the day. I like the texture in the silver fabric—is it sequined?—that gives the rippling look of chainmail.

And, finally, there was Zendaya, in my dreams forever…

Zendaya-Met-Gala-2018

…j/k, it’s Versace. Seriously, though, I feel like this look was the most successful at marrying the armor inspiration with a flattering silhouette and drape (shut up, I watch a lot of Project Runway!)—plus the red hair feels like an Alanna of Trebond reference to me, so I’m extra on board! Let’s look at a close-up:

00-story-zendaya-hair-met-gala-2018

It looks like the fabric is a beaded silver chiffon, and the larger beads around her wrists must have been done by hand. I am dying of how much I love this look! Not practical for the battlefield, of course—more Eleanor of Aquitaine on her way to the Second Crusade than Joan of Arc—but either way, I’m going to call this fight fashion at its finest.

Anthony De Longis and F. Braun McAsh: A Lifetong Love Affair

February 23, 2018

broadsword stage and screenIn the fall of 2004, while working on a college production of Macbeth, I heard about Anthony De Longis’s instructional video series Broadsword For The Stage and Screen. It was exactly what we needed, but getting the tapes took some finagling; we finally got them on VHS via interlibrary loan from the Yale Drama School and watched them in the Barnard Media Center. (An outtake from those videos, if memory serves, provides the title for this post; it’s been a while!) It can’t be a coincidence that 2004 was also the year I fell headfirst into Highlander, but at this point I don’t remember which came first, Jamie’s DVD box sets or those afternoons sitting with Michael in the library carrels with our giant headphones on….

Between the broadsword videos and the many, many hours I’ve spent enjoying Highlander, I’m something of a fangirl for both Anthony De Longis and Highlander sword master and actor F. Braun McAsh. And when I saw that the 2017 Highlander Worldwide Convention was going to be held right here in L.A., and included a day of fight workshops, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hang with these guys. I mean, look at these guys:

 

duendeTHIS ANTHONY DE LONGIS (right) EPISODE WAS LIKE 90% SWORDFIGHT

 

modernprometheusF. BRAUN MCASH (left) WAS IN THE MOTHER%&$#ING BYRON EPISODE

 

thequickeningMY HEAD LITERALLY FIGURATIVELY EXPLODING

 

So I was definitely going to the con. My exam schedule meant that I could juuuust squeak out half a day away from school, and I knew exactly what I wanted it to be: on Friday morning, October 20th, I caught the bus into the city for their joint workshop “Katana vs. German Longsword.”

Yes, you read that right. You see why it had to happen. (You also read the date right. Yes, that’s how long it takes me to finish a blog post these days.)

(And on a note slightly separate from fight direction, this is one reason why I love speculative fiction in all its forms: when else would you actually pit these weapons against each other? A little googling shows me that comparing the two styles comes up occasionally with martial arts enthusiasts, but it’s definitely an infrequent challenge for a fight choregrapher.)

Tony and Braun—if I may be so familiar!—are both consummate scholars of their art, and the class largely consisted of them comparing and contrasting the two weapons, with Tony on katana duty and Braun repping the German longsword. More importantly, they talked about why each weapon works the way it does. Differences came down to the shape, weight, and edge of the sword and the style of armor it was used against, but there is also a certain universality in the attempt to get at another human being with a sharp metal stick: physics dictates some constants, physiology the rest.

 

Left: Ochs guard, from Joachim Meyer’s 1570 fencing manual
Right: Ko gasumi, from a contemporaneous work of the Shinkage Ryu school
Both images via this blog post comparing the two styles

 

These weapons are evenly matched in a way that not all pairings can be; roughly the same length and heft and both held in a two-handed grip, neither sword is going to cleave straight through the other or blow past it as a matter of course. (Obviously you can pit any weapon against any other weapon, but try a smallsword parry of 6 against a longsword cut, or see if you can stab a spear-wielder with your knife. I’ll wait.) When weapons have wildly different strengths and weaknesses, I find that it’s harder to use the fight theatrically.

Because that’s my perennial question: how do you translate faithfully-reconstructed or living-tradition martial arts into fight choreography, particularly for the stage? I’ve never worked on film; I imagine there’s more freedom to be martially accurate in your storytelling, given that the action is playing to a single point, the camera, which has a limited and adjustable frame; you have the ability to cut from shot to shot; and you only have to get it right once, not at every show for a full run. I’m not saying film is easier, just that some of the challenges of live theater are accounted for! But the street-to-stage “translation” issue is one reason I’ve never gotten super deep into any particular martial art. Martiality for its own sake doesn’t hold my interest; the whole time I’m just thinking, “Would it be safe on stage?” and “What story does it tell?” Maybe I started my love affair with stage combat too early, and maybe my interests are too narrow… I’m glad that there are people like Braun out there, who, chatting after the workshop, groused that not enough people read Capo Ferro in the original Italian, but that’s never going to be me.

Tony’s wife Mary was also there. I knew she’d handled some of the workshop logistics, but I didn’t expect that she would also have a Ph.D. in cell biology, wear awesome armor-patterned leggings, and, acting as a third teacher when we broke off into pairs to swing weapons, matter-of-factly rescue my neighbor from her mansplaining partner. So, basically, #lifegoals.

And, yes, we did partner up and move around, but with 25 mostly-inexperienced people in a space never meant for it, the experience was somewhat, if you’ll excuse the pun, blunted. Still, it was more fighting than I’ve been getting in lately, and I had to frequently remind myself to relax and have fun in the moment instead of getting distracted thinking about how much I miss this part of my life.

I managed not to be a weird fangirl, although when Tony mentioned that he also teaches fighting on horseback, at that point I may have blurted out “BE MY FRIEND.” His combat haven Rancho Indalo is right here in Southern California,  too—tantalizingly close! Also, to my eternal frustration, my copy of Braun’s book is in my storage unit up north, or I would have asked him to sign it! But pictures did happen:

 

With Tony (left) and Braun (right).
I don’t have any Highlander-specific gear,
but a Queen t-shirt comes pretty close, non?

 

I wish I could have stayed for more fight workshops or some of the con events! In particular, I would love to chat with Peter Wingfield, who in addition to playing fan favorite Methos on the show, recently resumed his interrupted medical career and is now a resident down in, I think, San Diego—how wildly cool is that?! #lifegoals part deux! But right after the workshop, it was back on the bus and back to school just in time for my afternoon lab session. I was so, so happy to be able to go at all, though, and as always, I love to take classes on off-the-wall topics that give me something to think about—especially from two (lifetong?) friends who clearly love what they do, and who have made things that are very dear to me. 🙂

For the millionth time, HIRE A FIGHT DIRECTOR

November 8, 2017

I’ve written about why you should hire a fight director even if it’s “just a slap”; I’ve written about the potential benefits of hiring a fight director, even an inexperienced one, instead of hiring nobody. Now I’m going to write about some goddamn common sense.

Last April, though I only saw the article recently, two New Zealand high school students sustained serious injuries during a production of Sweeney Todd, when unsafe props were brought in and then improperly rehearsed and deployed. I’m talking, of course, about the straight razor the Demon Barber uses to dispatch his victims.

Feel that little chill go up your spine at the thought of children slitting each other’s throats? Okay, good. Now, why did the adults in charge of this production not have the same aversion to that scenario?

CNN reported,

In comments broadcast on TVNZ, school head Stephen Cole told reporters Thursday that the students were wounded by a prop razor “covered in all sorts of duct tape and foam and paper.”
“It’s a razor, but it’s been filed down and bound with various things,” he said, adding that the prop did not have a sharp edge and had been used during rehearsals without any problem.
“It was deemed important to make it as realistic as possible,” he told reporters.

Cole sounds like he works for the Trump administration: it was filed down, but also covered, and there was tape and foam and paper, and somehow it still looked more “realistic” than a prop razor?

Right. Okay.

headache

Taping sharp edges works when you’re trying to prevent accidental grazes—not onstage, but in the knife bin at a thrift store or when throwing away X-acto blades. In these scenarios, no one is applying force against the tape with the sharp edge of the knife; when you tape a knife and then use it on someone, you’re doing exactly what the knife needs in order to cut through your “protective” layer. That is how knives work. (Fight directors are not the only keepers of this particular piece of knowledge, or so I thought.)

Asked by a reporter whether a plastic prop blade should have been used instead, [Cole] replied, “In hindsight that may be a reasonable point.”

Hindsight, hell; according to the Theatre People article, the school was warned beforehand by a local prop supplier.

Guys, please, I am begging you, listen to experts.

Say you go to see a doctor because your knee hurts and she asks if you’ve had any blurry vision lately. You have, so you’re like MY KNEE IS NOT EVEN CONNECTED TO MY EYE HOW DID YOU READ MY MIND!?!?! She didn’t. She had special knowledge of what to look for. Any idiot can read the Wikipedia article on reactive arthritis and think, “duh, it’s part of the classic triad of symptoms!”, but the hard part is acquiring and applying a body of knowledge in real time. When you say your knee hurts, a doctor doesn’t look only at your knee; similarly, a fight director isn’t just there for the big set-piece sword fights. When I’m working on a show, I notice every time someone drops or throws a prop, discards a piece of clothing onstage, or stands on a table. If you’re looking at a taped-up razor thinking, “duh, just don’t press too hard,” a fight director will look at the same thing and think of how everyone speeds up and hits harder once there’s an audience. A fight director will think to ask if we’re rehearsing with the actual props. Our body of knowledge allows us to see problems before anyone gets hurt.

A fight director is only a luxury if safety is a luxury.