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Blow by Blow: The Tragedy of Macbeth, Macbeth vs. Young Siward

August 10, 2022

I was obviously excited for this movie as soon as I heard about it. I will refrain from an excruciatingly detailed review, but if I can exorcise just a few non-fight thoughts before we get to the swordplay…

I couldn’t decide if Denzel Washington was less comfortable at first and then settled into the role, or if, early on, he was doing an acting and giving us a restrained performance on purpose. I tried to google if it had been filmed in order and was, let’s say, rewarded with this set of autocompletes…

Either way, I didn’t feel like first-half Macbeth really connected with Lady M, which was one of my favorite things about Frances McDormand’s Lady M on stage at Berkeley Rep.

There were some great choices, like having Macbeth kill Duncan’s servants in front of everyone, having the witches be one person who also showed up as the old man with the portents, and some (but not all!) of the extra uses of Ross. I wish Lady M had gotten more bits of business, as long as we were handing them out to random thanes. I sometimes found the cinematography off-putting, most of all when the black-and-white film and stark set combined to produce a flat, almost fake appearance with the actors floating in the frame. But at other times, the look was spectacular, especially with the witch(es) and in this fight.

I love Macbeth vs. Young Siward, and I was worried that at a tight 1:45, the movie was going to leave it out as some productions do. But we get to see it — And. It. Is. So. Good. No shade to the duel that comes after, but I think the secret of this fight’s success, and the reason that I’m always glad to see it, is the strong but simple set-up. (I have long maintained that my favorite motivation in all of acting is, “I want to go over there,” so you see why this fight appeals!)

The main thing I look for is how Macbeth’s contempt is conveyed; that’s what makes it so fun to choreograph. I am interested in Macbeth being a warrior who really does live up to the Bloody Sergeant’s hype, because the contrast between his martial prowess and his essential weakness of character is unusual, and I like the point it makes. On the flip side, how good is Young Siward — is he decent but outclassed, or is he a total redshirt? And is he young only by comparison to his father, or is he Malcolm’s age? Or Fleance’s? They all offer opportunities for storytelling; in this version, he is credited as “Siward” and played by the 46-year-old Richard Short, so about 20 years younger than our Macbeth.

And after seeing a few good variations on stage, I also like to see how and when Macbeth delivers “Thou wast born of woman.”

Reminder that choreography is copyright to the choreographer unless other legal whatchamacallits have taken place, so I hope Matthew Rugetti and/or Chad Dashnaw don’t mind me notating their choreography here for the purpose of analysis, and please don’t reproduce it in whole or in large chunks anywhere.

I’m calling the throne stage left and the exit stage right, so that most of the time, the camera is watching from downstage.

Macbeth has just shouted for the alarum bells while being buffeted by an improbable, Coen-esque shower of swirling leaves. He slumps into his throne. As the last leaves drift to the ground, Siward appears at the other end of the hall.

Read on…

Fun double fight scene

August 3, 2021

I spent my pre-residency vacation ripping through all three seasons of the BBC comedy Upstart Crow in two weeks, no regrets. It’s written by Blackadder’s Ben Elton, and it’s basically if Blackadder were all about Shakespeare. David Mitchell stars and is perfect, equal parts self-righteous and self-conscious, and the supporting cast is just ::chef’s kiss:: — his loyal-ish servants, his family back in Stratford, and series nemesis Robert Greene, who was a real guy who really called Shakespeare an “upstart crow” in a 1592 pamphlet. In the show, Greene resents the playwright’s flourishing career while his own “sublime” play, Friar Bacon & Friar Bungay, “languishes in obscurity.”

So I googled.

David Mitchell as Shakespeare and Mark Heap as Robert Greene

David Mitchell as Shakespeare and Mark Heap as Robert Greene

Turns out, Bacon & Bungay is not only a real play, but it was actually pretty popular in its day. (And perhaps after? At least enough that a teenage Ian McKellen played the fair Margaret in 1953.) Also, it has a very weird fight scene that might make a good double act in a skills test, with one set of actors looking through a picture frame “magic mirror” at the first fight before getting into the second themselves. You can find the full text of the scene here, along with the rest of the play, but it definitely needs some cuts to be suitable for a skills test; here’s more or less what I would do (SAFD time limits notwithstanding):

Who’s that knocks?

Two scholars that desire to speak with you.

Bid them come in.

[Two scholars enter.]

Now, my youths, what would you have?

Read more…

New sword, new me!

May 17, 2021

Big news at Not Gonna Hit You HQ: I’m graduating medical school in less than 48 hours! In mid-June I start my three-year residency — unfortunately that’s yet another training period famously inimical to outside projects. (And to sleep. o_O) But I just want to say, especially for new people finding the blog through Jill Bearup’s video or other links, that I’m still here, I still love stage combat, and I 100% bought myself a sword as a graduation present. (Apparently a sword is de rigeur for doctoral degrees in Finland, representing the fight for knowledge and truth, which I love… although part of the ceremony involves sharpening them yourself?! Absolutely no failure modes there. None at all.)

Photograph of a swept-hilt rapier with curved quillions and an ornate metal grip
New sword! My other schlager finally has a friend 🙂

I also got to spend this morning doing socially-distanced broadsword fighting at the Berkeley Marina. I’ve been dropping in on Dave Maier’s Marina classes whenever I can for years now, ever since I moved away to med school and stopped going every week. Fighting totally out of distance, with no expectation of then moving the fight in distance, is interesting, especially with weapons like broadsword and quarterstaff that rely so much on momentum — but I was just as joyful after this morning as I am after a session that includes the clangy bashy noises. It’s still stage combat, even if it doesn’t “feel” like a “fight,” so I’ll take it as another graduation present: warming up to the familiar strains of “Give Up the Funk,” spending real in-person time with fight folks in a safe and creative space, reawakening old muscle memories, working up a sweat while a breeze comes off the ocean and wild turkeys wander past… Finest kind.

Jill Bearup talks about fights on YouTube!

October 17, 2020

I’ve been away for a bit, posting-wise, but I do pop in once in a while to work on drafts and, I confess, check my stats. When I see a spike in traffic, I know I got a link! This time it was from Jill Bearup, a UK-based stage combatant, who dropped me a line when she first found the blog and we chatted for a bit. But I had no idea she had a popular YouTube channel, and a few months ago she started posting analyses of film fights, including — of course — The Princess Bride duel. She’s got excellent stuff about the super-structure of the fight and how it fits with the rest of the movie, as well as a few details I’d never noticed. Check it out (and then watch the rest of her videos instead of researching residency programs, like I did!):

This was also perfect because I’ve been back in a Princess Bride mood since the almost full-cast reunion reading on September 13th, done as a benefit for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. If you missed it, and if you’re a US citizen or permanent resident, you can catch the replay by donating any amount to the WisDems here. (Am I going to get weird spam for posting political-type links and keywords? We’ll find out!) And if you think you love this movie, trust me, you’ve got nothing on the people who actually worked on it, which makes the reading just the sweetest thing. Hopefully at some point they’ll release it for international fans!

Blow by Blow: The Princess Bride

December 31, 2019

I recently realized that 2019 is the tenth anniversary of this little stage combat blog, and I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. (And I did, albeit squeaked under the wire on the last day of the year!) I think this fits the bill, the most epic post that will ever appear on this blog, about the most epic fight that ever was: the Princess Bride duel between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black. Novelist and screenwriter William Goldman said it should be “the greatest sword fight in modern times,” and, thirty-three years after the film’s release, I’m hard-pressed to argue with him. The film is a touchstone for a whole lot of combat people, but as far as I know, it hasn’t been notated in full anywhere on the internet.



You seem a decent fellow; I hate to kill you.
You seem a decent fellow; I hate to die.

Some ground rules: Attacks are designated by target name rather than number, and I only make note of parries where there’s some ambiguity as to which one would go with the attack. Parries are numbered according to the system used by the Society of American Fight Directors and Dueling Arts International, the organizations I’ve trained with. On screen, Carey Elwes and Mandy Patinkin aren’t always aiming for the deltoid and mid-thigh targets familiar from a lot of stage combat instruction; the lows drift low and the highs drift very high, but for simplicity’s sake I’m sticking with the quadrant system and not splitting hairs about where they’re aiming.

When the fight begins, both combatants are feigning left-handedness and parries are numbered accordingly, ie, “5a/9” = sword arm across the body = hilt on the right.

I know a riposte is technically a thrust following a parry, but it’s also frequently used as shorthand for an attack to the same target that was just defended, which is how I use it here unless otherwise specified.

The fight is in prose form because it’s easier than charting and because I like to editorialize. Maybe I’ll convert it at some point… or hire an intern. (Now accepting applications!)

Timestamps refer to this video.

Reminder: choreography is copyrighted to the choreographer. I hope Bob Anderson’s estate doesn’t mind my transcribing it, but please don’t use this fight wholesale or in large sections in some other work!


Westley is not exactly inviting, but his guard is low and casual. Inigo strikes left hip, left shoulder, right-to-left downward diagonal slash; Westley parries the cuts with very little body movement and then deigns to juuuust barely lean out of the way. They counter 180 degrees, then Inigo extends his blade and Westley parries in 3 and ripostes to Inigo’s right shoulder, then adds the same diagonal slash. Inigo parries and evades these easily, then smiles — this is going to be fun. Westley still appears watchful but unconcerned, guard low. Inigo is a coiled spring.

Read more…

Stage combat stories with Tom Hiddleston

September 18, 2019

Tom Hiddleston, currently starring in The Betrayal on Broadway, was on The Late Show last night. He and Stephen Colbert are both big theater geeks, and soon the Shakespeare quotes were flying–and then, to my surprise and delight, the talk turned to stage combat: the time Tom Hiddleston broke my #1 rule and told Chris Hemsworth to just hit him, the difference between film and stage, and what happens when your sword breaks and you’re only halfway through the fight:


It’s this. This is 100% what happens.


Or this.

I’ll be sure to tell my next cast to thumb-war each other in case of catastrophic weapons failure!

The full interview:


It was particularly cool to hear him talk about how not to hit your partner with your sword, because I didn’t expect to hear kinda technical stage combat talk on an incredibly popular late-night talk show that I usually watch to get the news in palatable form. It felt like the frisson of recognition when someone on TV names a random date and it’s your birthday. Stunts and film fighting definitely have mass appeal these days, especially since the rise of the DVD special feature and the wide availability of behind-the-scenes footage, but it’s nice to get a shout-out to how we do it when we do it live!

These are a few of my favorite knife flips

May 29, 2019

I try not to fall into the YouTube hole of watching behind-the-scenes fight and stunt videos, because I would NEVER STOP, but this footage of Maisie Williams and Gwendolyn Christie came across my timeline the other day and it’s so much fun:


Arya knife flip.gif


Arya and Brienne’s fight is from last season, but after the Battle of Winterfell, my timeline was all about Arya’s knife skills again!

night king no watermark cut.gif


The funny thing is, we went to the GoT party straight from Avengers: Endgame, and we were talking in the car about where the MCU might go with Bucky Barnes — so, all unknowing that we were about to watch Arya rock an ambidextrous surprise, I brought up the knife fight in Captain America: Winter Soldier where Bucky does this:

Highway_Fight_Scene knife drop slow.gif


I talk about this fight whenever I can find an excuse, I love it so much. It also includes this knife flip:



Maybe I should have slowed that one down, too… good thing there’s rehearsal footage!

Knife flip Captain_America_The_Winter_Soldier.gif


Sloooooow moooooo:

Knife flip Captain_America_The_Winter_Soldier slow.gif

AROUND HIS OWN ARM. A stunt guy is doing Cap’s part, but that actually is Sebastian Stan. Good flipping, Sebastian and Maisie! If you’re like me and assiduously avoiding your real-life to-do list, you can learn Arya’s knife flip here from Michelle Christa Smith.

I can’t conclude a post about knife flips without mentioning the 1974 Shakespeare in the Park production of King Lear starring James Earl Jones, with Raul Julia as Edmund and Rene Auberjonois as Edgar, because I uploaded this gif to the blog six #*&@$ing years ago with the intention of writing about this move, but I never did, so now I am, and it makes me laugh that this is also technically a knife flip:


Knife. Flip! 😀

I’m desperate to try this out some time, just for fun — with a mat, though. Until then, I’ll keep working on Arya’s version.

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.


October 27, 2018


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! 🙂