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the semantics of stage violence

April 23, 2009
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For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been going back up to Columbia to fight direct my darling KCST’s production of JULIUS CAESAR. While most of the people I knew are gone, there are still four or five I’ve worked with before, and the ones I don’t know are the usual assortment of hyperactive madpersons and geniuses. (“Brutus did actually knee Caesar in the nuts. It’s in Plutarch.”)

On this show, only the second big production I’ve done without a partner-in-violence, I’ve been thinking about the term “fight director.” Some people prefer “fight choreographer,” and in England, I gather that it’s sometimes “master of the fight.” Nice medieval ring to that one, but it’s too authoritative; my progressive-education and feminist-discourse readings ruined me for that sort of thing. And “fight choreographer” only encompasses a tiny part of the job; you choreograph a fight, teach the actors some stage combat and movement basics, teach them the fight, make sure you have safe weapons and a safe stage for them to perform on, and a big et cetera. I spend about twenty times as much time rehearsing as I do choreographing, so by the end of the show, I never feel like a “fight choreographer.” I also don’t make claims about my ability to choreograph a fight — I can count to five, go me! But when I’m working on a production, it means that there’s someone whose whole job is to pay minute attention to the physical violence, just like there’s a costumer and a props master to make those things look good and go smoothly. The term “director” encompasses all of that, but it adds something else that I like — my favorite thing about stage combat, actually.

While I like the challenge of creating a good piece of choreography, my real buzz is working collaboratively with actors. Ideally, there’s a bit of both; I’ll come in with a nearly-complete idea of how it’s going to work, and at the end of the night, some of the scene is new, invented by the actors according to what’s more comfortable for them, what their characters would do, or how the director wants the emotions and intensity to arc. Fight director: one who points fights in a direction. I love that I can’t get too set, that I need three or four ways of doing something, and one of those often works, but it’s great when an actor comes up with a fifth and better way. We create together, and everyone is free to fail and come up with bad ideas until we hammer out something awesome. Fight directing as much about openness and attitude as about skills, and after an evening of it, I feel grounded and energized.

This post was inspired by a particularly fun suicide-and-assassination rehearsal last night. If you’re in the area, come see some outdoor Shakespeare on Columbia’s column-infested campus next week! Thursday and Saturday at 8pm, Friday at midnight, the sundial on college walk.

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