Brevity may indeed be the soul of wit, as the Bard noted. But when a playwright pens the succinct two-word direction "They fight," that economy of words can become the soul of a play-within-a-play. Sometimes it's swordplay. Sometimes it's fisticuffs. Whatever weapons the players wield, odds are they've been carefully trained to make their moves look real.
Like learning lines, stage combat requires practice. That's why Montpelier's City Hall Arts Center is clamorous with the whizzing and clanking of sword blades during a seasonal lull for Lost Nation Theater, the resident troupe. LNT is hosting a three-night workshop series for actors to hone their skills at the hands of fight choreographer Dan Renkin. The New York City-based Renkin is a former student of British stage combat pioneer B.H. Barry, tosses me a sword and invites me to take a swipe at him. "Do you fish?" he asks as I cock the weapon. I pause.
Renkin explains that the best way to simulate an attempt to lop off his arm is to imagine I'm casting a line out the tip of my sword, trying to land it somewhere behind him. Giving it a try, I swing the sword at him in earnest. But I flick my wrist instead of following through - just as I would if I were fishing - and the blade taps his body. "Yesss," Renkin not so much says as growls, with a mirthful, veritably Puckish grin.
Rather than avenge my assault, Renkin turns his attention to 10 actors divided into sword-wielding pairs. "Speed does not equal intention," he tells them. "And acting intention is what the audience is going to get excited about." The simplicity of the concept hits me like a truncheon to the head: Stage combat is not a martial art. It's really just acting according to choreographed moves.
The first sequence of moves is a basic decapitation attack. But its steps are arranged to maximize the effect: The defender ducks the moment the attacker winds up, well before the sword swings forward. In other words, before the aggressor directs weapon at foe, he or she must receive a cue in the form of a decisive defensive maneuver. Once that signal appears, the attacker can slice the air with gusto and an assurance of safety. The audience sees no hesitation, which bolsters the illusion of violence.
Renkin further illustrates the point with an unarmed example. He calls over actor Scott Renzoni and directs Renzoni to pull his hair. An actor in several LNT productions and a stage combat student with the prestigious Shakespeare & Company of Lenox, Massachusetts, Renzoni doesn't miss a beat in clapping his hand to Renkin's head. The two stumble across the floor, Renkin's hands gripping Renzoni's arm in an apparent effort to break his grip. In fact, exactly the opposite is happening: Renzoni is trying to let go, while Renkin is holding his hand fast. What the audience sees is two actors physically exerting themselves, their expressions communicating utter hatred. My head stings just watching them.
That's how you sell a stage fight to an audience - but it's only part of the battle. The fight director is, above all, a member of a storytelling team. Fight scenes must serve the play by advancing the plot and developing character. According to Paul Ugalde, the unrivaled local "go to" guy for fight direction, "It's got to be story-based, or all you have is weapons exchange."
Ugalde is also certified by SAFD and has staged fights for dozens of area troupes and shows, including an LNT production of The Taming of the Shrew in which Renkin acted. He and Renkin cite Shakespeare as an author who offers rich material from which to craft fight choreography. "Shakespeare . . . doesn't exactly tell you what the action is," Renkin says. "He gives you all kinds of clues about what has driven each character to that moment and what they're like after that moment . . . but you know you have to get from point A to point B."
While some thespians may view fight direction as a mere "add-on" to a play's rehearsal process, Ugalde cautions that fight scenes can carry hefty dramatic weight. "You're going to have your actors acting for five acts of the story, and it ends with my fight," he says, addressing himself to directors who might be tempted to give fight rehearsal short shrift.
Just as characters are distinct from one another, so their fight moves should be individualized as well. As the fight director on LNT's 2006 production of Romeo & Juliet, Renkin scripted physical taunts and fancy footwork to depict swaggering lads Mercutio and Tybalt as a wiseass and a poseur, respectively. As LNT co-artistic director Kim Bent recalls, Renkin also designed the opening brawl to highlight the show's unique casting - high-school-age actors playing the Capulets, elementary schoolers playing the rival Montagues - to dramatic effect. "We had the audience cheering because the younger kids weren't losing the fight," Bent says.
Renkin approached that clash as he does all stage combat scenes: with an eye to telling a fight story that makes sense, given casting choices and the playwright's intentions. "If you have two actors in a fight, and one guy is 7-foot-2 and built like a refrigerator, and the other guy is my size, but the script says my guy wins," he says, "[my] job is to find a story where that happens." The key, he adds, is understanding the results a fight should produce. "Why do they fight?" Renkin says. "If we cut that direction from the play, what don't we get to see?"
For Bent, Renkin's work on Romeo & Juliet really hit its mark. "He made everybody look good and feel confident and safe while they were doing it," Bent says.
Renkin and Ugalde would both consider that high praise, since safety is paramount in good fight choreography. "If we can't do it safely, we can't do it," Ugalde says.
Bona fide fight moves aren't just too dangerous for the stage; they can be too "realistic," as well. Renkin recalls directing an actor who had trained as a boxer and was conditioned to use feints in fights. Such deception, Renkin points out, would most likely deceive the audience, too.
Ugalde finds other good reasons to keep theatrical artifice in mind when fight directing. "Real fights would look like hell on stage," he says. "They'd be very quick and really messy." Those fights might also include blows in what Ugalde calls "the headshot zone." He never choreographs shots above the shoulder. Why not? "An actor with a dueling scar doesn't get a lot of jobs."