EXPLORING COMBAT IN PERFORMANCE
Two well-trained actors circle each other, fencing rapiers in hand and sweat pouring from their foreheads. The director signals for the camera to roll, and these two combatants lunge at each other, wielding their weapons as they come together with a mighty clash. One swings violently around the other, avoiding a harsh blow only to deliver one of his or her own. To someone in the audience, these combat scenes provide the existential action that composes the thrill of theatre.
Stage combat has existed since Shakespeare’s time, and it has carried through to the film industry of the 21st century. However, this perfectly sharp fight scene requires much more correspondence than one would think. It takes weeks of choreography and conditioning training to perfect one of these split-second action sequences.
Fight scenes draw from a broad range of combat techniques, some of the most commonly employed being fencing and martial arts. “Combat for stage and screen does resemble real life fighting,” says Malcolm Masters, a professional fight instructor and graduate of Capilano University’s Acting for Stage and Screen program, “You need the same discipline.” But if a duel were to follow the exact steps and speed of an actual fight, audiences would not be able to follow the rapid sequential action. Spins, jumps and tumbles are all choreographed into a typical scene so that the actor’s movements are slowed down and easier for the audience to follow.
Duelling is very strategic, and will be made out to be more sensational than it actually is. However, hand-to-hand combat is often more difficult to choreograph. Punches, slaps and kicks can be administered safely in a typical fistfight sequence. The camera’s angle allows for actors to mimic the aspect of physical violence, but for the audience to never see the actual contact. “You can always cheat angles with a camera, and never have to come anywhere near your partner to have it look real,” says Masters.
If one actor administers a hard slap to another, they will always have their back turned towards the camera, effectively blocking the audience’s view of their fist supposedly making contact with another actor’s jaw. But on stage, this loud clap could simply be a hidden high-five followed by the actor feigning pain where they were supposedly struck. “For stage, you have to hit things and create the sounds for the audience,” says Masters.
Throughout each scene, safety is the most important factor. “How do you stay safe? With a couple of key elements,” says Masters, “Balance is the first. When you get into choreography you naturally get excited and your adrenaline kicks in.” Keeping energy levels high is crucial, but it has to be kept under control. To avoid injuries during rehearsals, actors learn every step and every movement until it is second nature to them.
Once a scene has been written, the actors learn their footwork step-by-step and how to handle any weapons they may use. “You need to train or practice like you would for a martial art,” says Masters. As actors rehearse, the intensity and speed at which they perform increases until it is dramatically plausible. Before any performance takes place, actors take part in a fight call, a practice of the routine moments before it must be performed on stage. It trains muscle to remember the sequence of steps.
It’s vital for actors to know the choreography of a fight scene very well. “You never, under any circumstance, execute a move without your partner knowing what is going to happen,” says Masters. If one actor is to be tossed to the ground, it is his partner’s responsibility to guide him towards the floor in a controlled manner that can still appear violent to an onlooker. This is where silent cues, forms of body language that indicate an upcoming stunt, become important. “It reminds your partner of the next move,” he adds.
“For stage and screen, you might have to do a fight sequence all day, to rehearse it for a live audience or to get the right takes for a cameraman. You have to look like it’s the first time every time and you can’t hurt one another,” says Masters. It takes a lot to perfect a stunt, but when it is perfected, it is bound to have audiences caught up in it at the edge of their seats.
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