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Oxford University Theatre Technicians and Designers

Stage Combat Guide

The Stage Combat department is responsible for the design, planning and safe execution of any physical combat, fight or other physically dangerous scenes. 

 

Roles

 

Fight Director

 

A fight director is responsible for the safe and dramatically effective staging of fight scenes. They are thus responsible for choreographing fights, and teaching actors stage combat techniques and choreography. This can be as simple as an onstage fall, or an onstage slap, and as complicated as time, resources, abilities, and experience permit.

 

There are fundamentally three main considerations:

  1. Safety. This includes the safety of not only fighters, but of any other actors onstage, as well as the crew and the audience. All techniques and choreography should be sustainable and repeatable, even those that seem quite basic: while falling haphazardly to the floor once might not hurt too much, doing it thirty or forty times over the course of tech week and several shows might very well lead to injury. A good fight director will be able to judge accurately actors’ ability, and will tailor fights and choreography to the level of the actors they are working with. What one might do easily the first time, another would need hours of practice to get right.

  2. Story. Does the fight contribute to the overall story, to each character’s journey over the course of the show? And is the story of what is happening within each fight clear? It is possible for a good fight to be done too fast for an audience to follow. Is there a clear arc? Do the moves make sense in the context of the fight? It is easy for fights choreographed by an inexperienced director to become repetitive, relying on predictable series of moves. Do the actors know their choreography well enough to be able to act throughout the fight?

  3. Style. Are the techniques and choreography appropriate for the style of fighting that the characters are meant to be portraying? An unarmed brawl in a rough tavern should have a very different feel to it than a rapier and dagger fight between two Elizabethan gentlemen. A character who has never trained in self-defense and is driven to lash out by high emotions should attack in a very different way to a character who has trained in martial arts since childhood. It is thus crucial for the director and fight director to be in constant dialogue, so that the fights ultimately fulfill the director’s vision.

 

Weapons, particularly blades, appropriate for use in stage combat are difficult to come by, and often the fight director will have the right contacts (or own the right equipment!) to be able to provide weapons for a production that they are working on. If weapons are procured elsewhere (for example, by a properties designer or stage manager) the fight director should inspect them before use to determine their suitability, and has the authority to veto any that are unsuitable.

 

Because of the inherently risky nature of stage combat, proper training is essential. Professional fight directors are usually certified as such through one of a number of international organizations: the British Association of Dramatic Combat (BADC), the British Association of Stage and Screen Combat (BASSC), the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD), Fight Directors Canada (FDC), the Nordic Stage Fight Society (NSFS), and the Society of Australian Fight Directors (SAFDi) are some of the most well-known. It is important to understand that a “basic” or “standard” level of certification from one of these organizations does not certify an individual to teach or choreograph stage combat, only to do it themselves.

 

Fight Captain

On shows which - usually for reasons of money or of scheduling - cannot have a fight director present for the duration of the run of the show, a fight captain is often appointed by the fight director to run fight calls and fight warm-ups in their absence. The fight captain may be a member of either the cast or crew, and should be familiar with all of the fight choreography in the show. He/she should also have a solid understanding of stage combat techniques and safety requirements. While it is the responsibility of the fight captain to run fight calls, and to stop anything they believe to be unsafe, it is crucially not within their authorization to alter or create choreography. The fight captain is also responsible for checking the condition of any weapons used in the production before every performance, and pulling from use any that have become damaged in a way that would make them unsafe.

 

Resources

Melissa Hillman (Artistic Director, Impact Theatre), on what a fight director does and why you need one: http://goo.gl/sbx0bc

Training and weapons hire:

 

Buying weapons:

Terminology: