Get It Together and Hire a Fight Director

As many of you know by now, I’ve been teaching at the Berkeley Digital Film Institute since its founding. Many film directors have passed through my classes, and exactly . . . um, carry the two, OK, FOUR PERCENT of them understand when they start my class that staged violence needs a fight director. And before you start congratulating yourself for being in theatre and therefore knowing better, easily half of all stage violence is blocked without a fight director. Maybe more. Here’s why you need to hire a fight director for your film or theatre violence.

Impact's Romeo and Juliet. Seth Thygesen as Benvolio, Marilet Martinez as Mercutio, Michael Garrett McDonald as Romeo. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Fights by Dave Maier.

Impact’s Romeo and Juliet. Seth Thygesen as Benvolio, Marilet Martinez as Mercutio, Michael Garrett McDonald as Romeo. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Violence by Dave Maier.

They’re better at it than you are. I know you totally think you can stage that fist fight based on your many viewings of Star Trek TOS, but believe me, you can’t. Or, rather, you CAN; it just won’t be safe or look anywhere near as good as if you had brought in a professional. Here’s the deal: Ideally, you know the look that you want. But the road to get there is not necessarily a straight line. You don’t, for example, set up a stage punch exactly in the same way you’d set up a real punch. It’s not as simple as just not landing your punch. Additionally, every fight has a narrative. Do you know what the story of your fight should be? Do you know how to tell that story clearly? A fight director does. Nothing is more annoying, or pulls you out of a moment faster, than watching badly done violence. It can take a beautifully acted scene and throw it straight down the toilet. You can have all the honesty you want, but if your violence looks cheap and crappy, it’s going to obliterate all that honesty immediately.  So, for the same reason you hire any other designer whose entire job is to know more about their area of design than you do, hire a fight director. It’s the difference between a badass fight and this.

…….or you could just use your phaser. Still: KIRK RULES.

Fight Director Christopher Morrison:

“The fights are integral to the story. A fight happens when the characters run out of language to pursue their objectives and their choices become physical. Block/direct accordingly. Also understand a fight is a DESIGN element. As a director you should understand what KIND of violence you want, how that violence fits into the world of the play/spine of the story, and what tone the violence should be (i.e. cartoon, filmic, epic, comic book, intimate, ‘fake,’ dirty, etc.) and be prepared to speak to your fight lady as you would another designer on the team.”

Christopher Morrison getting thrown by Cara Gilson in Impact's production of Zay Amsbury's The Wake Up Crew. Fights by Christopher Morrison.

Christopher Morrison getting thrown by Cara Gilson in Impact’s production of Zay Amsbury’s The Wake Up Crew. Violence by Christopher Morrison.

They’ll keep you, your actors, and your audience safe. Apart from the obvious first thought– you want the people around you to remain unharmed because you’re not a psychopath– I’m guessing that you, like me, are someone who enjoys staying out of prison and avoiding lawsuits. An excellent way to do that is to hire a professional to stage your fights safely. Fight Director and actor Carla Pantoja:

“I can’t tell you how many stories I have heard or been privy to of actors getting physically injured because someone didn’t use a respectable fight director. Now when I say ‘respectable fight director,’ I mean someone with reasonable and up-to-date training, or even hiring someone in the first place. [Name] shared a story awhile back of a nonunion (sadly, most of these horror stories are peopled with nonunion folk) actor who had her arm broken and dislocated because the director didn’t hire someone and wanted an arm lock that was ‘real’ (ugh, I hate that term used in relationship to theatrical violence– you want ‘real,’ start a fight club). This director demonstrated on her and snapped her arm. She required surgery.

Part of using a respectable and up-to-date fight director is getting the up-to-date knowledge. There are techniques that are outdated. Just like acting, techniques change. “

All fights, no matter how well-choreographed or rehearsed, carry some measure of risk, like everything in life, but the better choreographed and rehearsed they are, the lower that risk is. If you’ve ever lived through an actor getting injured on your stage, knowing you did everything in your power to prevent that is a world of difference from knowing your actor has a puncture wound because you couldn’t be arsed to hire a professional.

And please be prepared to trust that professional and follow his directives. A safe fight will not remain safe if you throw all the fight director’s instructions out the window. Fight Director and actor Andrew Rodgers:

This show is about as bad as it can get for a fight director.  The company called and asked if I’d choreograph the violence and the description of the play didn’t seem so bad.  But then I saw the publicity photos– the sole actress of the production (let’s call her ‘Jenny’) had a knife in her hand in the pictures.  I came to a rehearsal to see what was going on and I discovered that ‘Jenny’ had NO IDEA what safety meant.  The knife she was using was a dulled-down butcher knife, and my heart stopped when she first brought it out.  The blade was dull but it still had a point on it, and she was playing with it like it was a teddy bear– rubbing it on her face, putting it in her mouth, holding it by the blade or with two fingers.  I nearly exploded.  To complicate things, there was no structural, dramatic or narrative reason for the knife to be in the show– the playwright thought it’d be cool and edgy, and he refused to do rewrites until opening week.  I had to explain to ‘Jenny’ that all weapons, dull or not, should be treated as though they are sharp, and that the knife that she was futzing with could actually kill her or another actor.  I thought she had it, then my stage manager called to say she was doing it again.”

I’ve been lucky at my theatre to have worked with many wonderful actors who would never dream of ignoring a fight director’s instructions, but of course we always reinforce that with support from the director, fight captain, and stage manager. Everyone needs to be on board.

Stacz Sadowski and Anna Ishida in Impact's Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Fights by Dave Maier.

Stacz Sadowski and Anna Ishida in Impact’s Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Violence by Dave Maier.

Yes, you can afford it. Carla makes an excellent point that nonunion actors bear the brunt of the foolery of the producers and directors who don’t want to hire a fight director. Why is that? Because the small theatres who work with nonunion actors are always looking for ways to keep costs down. I’m right there with you in the trenches. My company is the smallest of the small. No one at my company draws a salary. But we wouldn’t dream of doing a show with fights without hiring a fight director. We build it into the budget from the start along with every other design element. If I can do it with my microbudget, so can you.

Obviously you want a trained, professional, certified fight director, but can you afford one? YES, dammit. A little research will show you who the big theatres in your area are using. While a small theatre is unlikely to be able to afford the kinds of rates paid by a LORT, perhaps that LORT fight director is willing to work with you on a sliding scale. If not, it’s almost certain she has a highly-trained associate or star student who’s qualified and talented but is early in his career and looking to build his professional resume. Is there an organization in your area that trains fight directors and actor combatants? Is there a university in your area that offers stage combat training? A little sleuthing will reveal who teaches those classes. Don’t just assume that these professionals are out of your price range, even if your price range is $100 and a sixer of Pyramid Hef. YOU NEVER KNOW. No asky, no gety. But don’t skimp. Pay your fight director what every other designer is getting, because that’s what a fight director is: part of your design team.

Carla Pantoja:

“For those who believe it is too expensive to hire a fight director, did you know that most of us are willing to talk about prices? Sure, there are price points I can’t go below due to commute, etc., however, I know people and I will point you in the direction of someone who may be in your price point.”

Bring your fight director into the process in preproduction, not during tech week. Again, a fight director is part of your design team. You should be meeting with your fight director before rehearsals even begin. Even if the violence is nothing but a single punch, talk to your fight director in advance, let her know who the actors are and what skills they have, discuss the fight narrative and style with her, and ask her how much rehearsal time she’ll need and where in the process she needs that time to be. Fight director Alaric Toy:

“The sooner you include the fight director in the show the better. If the fight director can be part of the audition process, even better. That way s/he can get a good idea of each actor’s true performing capability then and there. Listing ‘gymnastics’ and not being able to perform a cartwheel is just bad. I speak from personal experience looking at some actors’ supposed resumes and the reality of their movement capability doesn’t match when I have to choreograph the fight.”

Carla Pantoja:

“Producers, please call us in early to the rehearsal process. I can’t tell you how many calls I get to stage something like R & J two weeks before opening and none of the actors have ever held a weapon. I’m not kidding. You are setting us all up for failure. When you call me the first time INTO TECH! to help stage a fall or a hit and the actor can’t do it fluidly and it looks clunky, it isn’t the fight director or the actor’s fault. I am not a miracle worker; I can’t magically give that actor the time it takes to incorporate the moves into their body. BTW, falls are the hardest things to sell, I have found. They are the hardest thing to get right technically while visually looking convincing. I don’t do these last minute calls anymore, they hurt my soul.”

Reggie White and Cassie Rosenbrock in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Violence by Dave Maier.

Reggie White and Cassie Rosenbrock in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Violence by Dave Maier.

What the hell do you mean by a “fight narrative”? Isn’t it just a fight? Ow, even typing that hurt me. This kind of attitude is all too common, and makes as much sense as asking why you should hire a lighting designer, because can’t you just turn the lights on and off yourself?

Andrew Rodgers:

“That is the key to good choreography– thought. The actors MUST be thinking or the fight turns into empty steps.  The fight MUST have a purpose, just like any other scene in the play, otherwise it’s an uncomfortable dance break (and I’m usually a fan of dance breaks.) The actors MUST be processing what the characters are thinking.  It’s the simple things like this that make good combat– not speed or big shiny weapons– although those have their place.  It’s about thought.”

Carla Pantoja:

“I remember one of my mentors, Richard Lane, tell someone: ‘Would you do Oklahoma and not hire a music director? Or would you hire actors to do a play, just give them a script and have them direct themselves?'”

Don’t avoid hiring a fight director because you think your actors don’t have the training to pull off a professional fight. A trained professional fight director will work with your actors’ capabilities.

Carla Pantoja:

“While actors are amazing, we need direction. We need an outside eye to tell us if what we are doing is working. Safety is also nice. Fear is detrimental to our work as actors, not only fear of ‘is this working?’ but fear of being hurt physically.

As a fight director, I am an actor advocate. My job is to help you portray violence in a convincing way in a safe manner, creating a fight with you and for you. A fight you will enjoy to do and can do well within your own abilities. It doesn’t behoove me to make you do a move you physically cannot do, a move you are fearful of, or hold you back if there is a special move you can do that can be highlighted in the fight.

I have sadly worked with too many actors who have been injured and left distrustful of theatrical violence.”

Rehearsing the Hotspur/Hal fight for Impact's Henry IV: The Impact Remix. Violcen by Christopher Morrison.

Rehearsing the Hotspur/Hal fight for Impact’s Henry IV: The Impact Remix. Violence by Christopher Morrison.

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PLEASE TREAT YOUR WEAPONS LIKE WEAPONS. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever allow an actor to point a gun loaded with blanks at someone, or at himself, and pull the trigger. A blank is not a NOTHING. That noise is made by a violent discharge that can seriously hurt someone. Just because it’s not propelling a bullet through the air does not mean it is a fluffy puppy. (Personally, I use sound cues for gunshots. A sound cue will recreate the sound of the gun in the setting. Is your play set outdoors? In close quarters? Is that gun supposed to be a hunting rifle, a shotgun, a .22? A blank fired in your theatre will always sound like nothing other than a blank fired in your theatre, and yes, all blanks of all sizes and types sound like blanks fired in your theatre, not like a bullet fired in your setting. That is, IF the blank even goes off. I’ve been through far too much “click click click click POP” to rely on blanks. And again, they sound like crap. An excellent sound designer is worth every blank in the world put together.)

A dulled blade is not magically prevented from doing any harm to anyone. It’s still a hunk of metal that can penetrate a squishy human body rather easily.

MORBO LAUGHS AT SQUISHY HUMANS

MORBO LAUGHS AT SQUISHY HUMANS

And NEVER take your weapons out of the theatre unless they’re in some kind of case or containing device. Do you want three uniformed police officers and one plainclothesman charging downstairs into your theatre five minutes before curtain? Then make sure your actor leave his weapon on the prop table when he runs to the bathroom, not shoved down the back of his pants.

(I don’t need to tell you that an actor who plays with the prop weapons backstage is an actor you should NEVER HIRE AGAIN, right? If an actor can’t follow the simple directive of “don’t fuck with dangerous props (or any props, really)” then that lack of concern for professionalism and safety is bound to carry over into other areas of his work.)

All good troopers know to put their weapons back on the prop table when they're off stage, and never touch anyone else's props.

All good troopers know to put their weapons back on the prop table when they’re off stage, and never touch anyone else’s props.

So please hire a fight director. You CAN afford it. A qualified fight director will enormously enhance the quality of your show, keep everyone in your building safe, and open your eyes to new perspectives on work that you may, in many cases, have been turning over in your mind for years. When you finally get your hands on Lear (and by “you,” I mean “me”), a fresh perspective on those scenes you’ve been dreaming about blocking for a decade will not only make the violence better, but will provide fresh insights into the entire piece– narrative, themes, and characters.

Stacz Sadowski and Miyaka Cochrane in Impact's As You Like It. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Violence by Dave Maier.

Stacz Sadowski and Miyaka Cochrane in Impact’s As You Like It. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Violence by Dave Maier.

This piece wouldn’t be complete without a shout out to the fight director Impact Theatre works with– Dave Maier. Dave is brilliant. He and I see eye-to-eye about violence and tend to exacerbate each other’s love for stage combat when we’re working together as director and fight director.  We’ve been known to turn the simple direction “they fight” into scenes that say as much about the characters as the dialogue, maybe more, and that’s something I would never, ever be able to do on my own. Working with Dave is a joy. I learn something every time I work with him, and his ideas about character and narrative are always fantastic.

So hire a fight director. Be safe. Be a better artist. Be awesome.

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19 thoughts on “Get It Together and Hire a Fight Director

  1. usermattw says:

    One of my favorite parts of the rehearsal process is when an expert (fight director, dialect coach, etc.) shows up to add his/her expertise into the mix. In my last play, my character stabbed another character to death with a pair of scissors that had already been established onstage as real scissors. It was enormously satisfying to get gasps and even screams from the audience. But the only reason a part of my brain could be available to enjoy that moment, rather than being overwhelmed with fear for the other actor’s safety, or consumed with embarrassment over the potential phoniness of the moment, was because we had worked with a fight director.

  2. Alex Farrington says:

    As a Fight Director based out of Chicago, I thank you deeply.

    Thank you for the post!

  3. Megan says:

    I got linked here and can’t believe I haven’t found your blog before now — I just moved to the Bay Area, really enjoyed Impact’s As You Like It, and write about stage combat over at Not Gonna Hit You, including a recent post along similar lines. 🙂

    I second Carla on the sliding scale! All the fight directors I know really, really love to keep people from getting hurt, and most can be flexible in order to make that happen.

  4. Nancy Sale says:

    Need an excellent Fight Director? Check out Cyle Swanstrom (conley.cyle@gmail.com)
    His work in Richard III at Diablo Valley College was exemplary!

  5. Lara Fury says:

    Boston stage/screen fight/stunt choreographer here saying “THANK YOU!” I’ve seen so many injuries because they “couldn’t be bothered” or it was “cheaper” to do a stunt or fight without professional help. Yeah, most of us work to scale for the project, it’s our job to keep you safe!

  6. David W. Potter says:

    As a fight Director for stage and Film based out of MN I thank you too. I have said these same things many times as I am sure we all have. I can’t tell you how many times I have been told by directors that they were going to “Just Wing It” when it came to the fights. All of them have thanked me afterward for insisting on letting me do my job to make their film better. I have never had any director wish they had just winged it.The only thing I would add is this your Editor will thank you for hiring a Fight Director too as it makes cutting a fight scene so much easier when they are doing the same thing in each take.

    David W. Potter
    Fight Director

  7. Nice piece!
    -Rick Gilbert, Violence Designer, R&D Choreography in Chicago

  8. B H Barry says:

    For further information on stage combat buy books written by
    B.H Barry, Tony, Obie and Drama desk award winning Fight Director.

    Go to Lulu.com

    B.H Barry
    Fights for Shakespeare
    Books One ,Romeo and Juliet
    and Book Two,Hamlet and Macbeth.
    and soon to be released
    B H Barry
    Fights for Everyone.
    Keep safe,
    B H Barry

  9. Michael says:

    Thank you for the post. I’m glad that this is making the social networking rounds. Good info to share.

  10. Jill says:

    THANK YOU!

    I’m a non-union actor, and I’ve seen so many directors/producers/other actors disregard their actors’ safety when it comes to fight scenes. (I actually had to tell a director once that if we didn’t have a fight call before every performance, I wouldn’t do the show.) I’ve been punched in the face during a rehearsal because we didn’t hire a fight director. I’ve seen actors get hurt, and actors be too afraid to speak up because they didn’t want to sound whiney. ABOUT THEIR SAFETY.

    And I love what you say about how fight directors are designers. Great fight directors are there to keep actors safe, create good choreography, and push the story forward. They’re invaluable artists and worth the investment.

    Oh, and another note: if you’re doing rapier work, don’t just use someone who has fencing experience. It’s completely different from stage combat rapier work.

    • Thank you SO much for pointing out that actors should feel empowered to speak up about their own safety, and about how different fencing (and martial arts, for that matter) are from stage combat. There are so many more things to say about this subject. I knew I was only scratching the surface, and the post was already crazy long. I’ll need to do a follow-up one day!

  11. Joe Travers says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for your well written, in depth article. You have done a great service by hitting so many points about the importance of fight direction and the use of a professional fight director. As a professional fight director of 25 years, I’ve seen a lt of growth in the industry, but these things still need to be said. We are all in your debt.

    Joe Travers, Fight Director, NYC

  12. Denise Hurd says:

    Thank you for this post. As a fight director, I have been in so many of those situations it breaks my heart sometimes. I always advocate for the actor’s safety while crafting violence, only to hear a story from an actor on a show that …well, had an unnecessarily unsafe fight experience (for example: one where the director just wanted a slap to be “louder” so he directed the actor to slap the other actor really hard to get the right sound…and then got mad that the slapped actor kept flinching…sigh). Good article

    Denise Hurd, Fight Choreographer, NYC

  13. Carole says:

    Thank you for addressing this important issue.

  14. meronlangsner says:

    Thank you for putting this out there.

    My hope is that this gets widely disseminated outside the stage combat community. This needs to be read by producers and directors, as they are usually the ones making the call.

  15. Andrew Sutherland says:

    There is a point of excitation for all human beings that verbal communication becomes the secondary mode of communication and physicality becomes the primary mode of communication. This happens in intimate situations as well as violent situations. To complete the ascending action the playwright was intending in his/her work, the Fight Director ALSO serves as a playwright who writes with physical action. The fight is integral to the plot structure and Vice Versa. Working without a fight director is as bad as telling the actors to paraphrase Shakespeare in performance. This, apart from the safety issues, is just another part of the argument for.hiring a professional.

  16. Have you thought about a more formalized version being submitted to the various theatre journals out there? These kinds of things need to get disseminated to the directors and producers out there, who probably are not directly linked to the fight community.

  17. Gene Schuldt says:

    I’ve been a fight director since 1976, & this post is dead on! I remember years ago when I worked in Chicago, being called in by a theatre company in their final week before tech because their lead actress suffered a chipped tooth during a slap. They were making contact because the director wanted “realism”. I came in to show them how to do the slap safely, & then watched the run through. I was horrified to see another character stick what was a real revolver loaded with .22 blanks into the belly of another character, making contact, & fire. After the run-through I grabbed the director & the actor who was shot & asked the actor, aren’t you feeling any pain when he shoots you? He said, yes, but it helps him “feel the moment” (facepalm) I took the gun & went over to a empty cardboard box, & told the director & actor to watch. I fired a blank at the box & the wadding blew a 3″ hole in the side of the box. I then showed them how to stage the gunshot so the wadding went in a safe direction. That director was an idiot!!!

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