Fighting the Cause: tips on stage combat 24 February 2017

What can you do to confidently bring stage combat into the classroom? Christopher Moon-Little shares tips to build your assurance and widen your kowledge.

‘It’s just a flesh wound’ – this is the famous joke from the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and a significant amount of entertainment does rely on characters sustaining injuries. As teachers, injury is something anathema to our professional interests, but many a play requires some form of violence – be it a comical slap or a full-blown battle scene. The challenge at such moments is always how to make the fight look exciting and real without any of the actors actually getting a black eye or being turned into a kebab. As such, taking a course or two in stage combat can provide a very useful tool.

You may think that taking a course is costly and time consuming – and in many cases, you’d be right. In this case, though, being able to prove your competence in terms of legality and for insurance purposes is important – particularly if an injury does occur, and even for securing a venue. Furthermore, a good stage fight is a work of craft and more difficult than it looks. ‘Anyone can choreograph a fight, I was doing it at school – but that’s not to say they will be any good,’ says Dan Styles, the fight coordinator and sword master at Independent Drama. ‘Fights need to have martial or character logic, they need to have a story arc, they need to work (sell) for an audience (camera) and, most importantly, be safe and repeatable.’

Both the British Academy of Stage and Screen Combat, and the British Academy of Dramatic Combat offer industry-recognised accreditations in stage fighting in a deadly arsenal of weapons systems. However, the best starting point is the basic accreditation from both in unarmed and rapier, and dagger _ fighting. These give you a good instruction in a sword system and offer thrust and cut actions with relatively easy footwork – even if crouching for a few hours can be rather achy.

A good stage fight should be safe, efficient and effective, and to be so it’s necessary to learn the basic elements of a chosen weapons system, and to perfect those before working them into increasingly complex pieces of choreography. This way, you learn to fight safely, with balance, good distance and confidence. During this process you will also discuss how character choices should affect your fight – from how well you are able to throw a punch, to whether the weapons you’re fighting with are appropriate to your character’s status and training; a drunken punch will be sloppy, while a superhero’s blow will be a knockout.

These courses finish with a two-part exam: a scene from a play or movie that features a number of fight sequences, followed by a workshop to assess your technical skills in isolation. The rest of the course is usually spent learning the choreography and adapting it to your scene, working with a partner to find ways to develop the speed, varied rhythm and trust you should feel for a well-executed stage fight.

A key aspect of perfecting the act of attacking and blocking (known as parrying when weapons are involved), is the ‘queuing system’, a fundamental sequence to any fight. This is especially important in sword fighting for avoiding accidental injury and involves the attacker showing their attack, the defender retreating, the attacker pursuing and the defender parrying. From this point, the fight can continue in a variety of ways – but always in that order.

In the rehearsal room, this sequence is slow. When I first started stage combat 13 years ago at the City Lit, I was taught to practise the fight like it was a sequence of tai chi: slow, controlled and perfectly even. From here you can build up to battle speed.

There are some great courses around the UK for those looking even to cover the basics at a beginners’ level:

  • The City Lit in Holborn runs a course with a BASSC accreditation
  • Independent Drama in Bethnal Green offers a wide range of courses, including BADC at standard, intermediate and advanced levels
  • Rose Bruford, Central School of Speech and Drama, Guildford School of Acting and East 15 offer courses of varying lengths in a range of weapons systems
  • In Liverpool and Exeter, RC Annie runs occasional courses
  • For those interested in stage combat, True Edge runs workshops for students in drama departments, and there are Saturday schools such as the Pauline Quirk Academy and Stagecoach
  • For the meantime, I recommend taking a look at Roger Bartlett’s new book, Stage Combat: Unarmed, available at www.stagecombatbook.co.uk

Theatre Workout’s Adam Millford will present ‘The Art of Stage Combat’ on 10 February 2017 at Music & Drama Education Expo. Book your free ticket.

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