A wise professor of mine was once asking around for advice about filming people. A technician told him that the most important piece of equipment he should make sure to buy, the one thing that would make everything more professional, was none other than a good microphone. A good microphone produces such clear sound that it tricks us into thinking that the quality of the video is better, while a bad one can make any video seem amateur. People of the theatre world, I would like to let you in on a little secret: fight choreography is our microphone.
Fight choreography is an aspect of actor training that too many take for granted. Back in the days of "classical" training, every actor was trained in sword fighting, horseback riding, and the like. Nowadays, our film actors have stunt doubles, and our stage actors rarely are called upon to perform such actions. Yet stage combat is an important skill, as it is, in my opinion, something that too often disrupts the flow of a play.
A few weeks ago I saw a generally fantastic show called She Kills Monsters that had some unfortunate stage combat. Even though I was completely engrossed in the acting and the plot, every time a fight occurred -- which was quite often, actually -- I was taken out of the action. It was hard for me to be impressed with the heroines, as their attackers seemed to be waiting for them to strike. The saving grace came when they staged a fight with a dragon, brilliantly rendered by several of the actors wielding parts of a giant puppet. My belief was willfully suspended at this moment, and I had a much easier time accepting that a "real" fight was happening here, even though this fight was far more abstracted than the others.
The danger is that there are two major ways for a stage fight to fall short. The first is what I have described above: a confrontation so slowed down and non-threatening that it reads as obviously false. Yet the second way that a fight can fail is perhaps counter-intuitive: it can seem too real. A real fight is out of control, it's messy, and people get hurt. As much as we are disappointed or bored when watching the first kind of stage fight, we are equally frightened and confused when watching the second.
This second principle also applies to guns on stage. A gun that looks too real is entirely distracting to an audience. If people are thinking about their safety, or the safety of the actors, they are certainly not watching or listening to the play. This is why a prop gun should never, under any circumstance be pointed at a live person or animal. Stage managers, directors, and actors are meant to be in control of the situations, the implication being that they should worry about safety so the audience does not have to.
It is this trust that is shattered when a fight gets too real for comfort. Therefore, a fight has to look just real enough. Enter the fight choreographer. Perhaps the word "choreographer" is surprising to some of you, but it is entirely appropriate. As a scene in Sarah Ruhl's play Stage Kiss shows, and any actor who has ever been involved in a "fight call" will tell you, every fight sequence is run in its entirety before every performance of a play with a staged fight. It is the fight choreographer's job to block these scenes down to each infinitesimal detail, so that they can be run through without danger to the actors or audience. They have the fun job of deciding whether an actor will actually slap their scene partner or if they will "nap" it -- which means that one actor creates the sound of a slap or punch by tapping a part of their own body.
The result can be wonderful. I recently saw the world premiere of Samuel Brett Williams' Derby Day, and I was very impressed with Alberto Bonilla's fight choreography. Visceral, but completely devoid of actual danger, they convey the violence with a responsibility that allows the audience member to stay engaged with the play. Well-angled fights are combined with breakaway and fake props to create some beautiful tableaus of carnage. Because it was done so well, the fights drew me further into the play, rather than distancing me from it.
Fight choreography is just one of the many behind-the-scene jobs in the theatre that I have come to appreciate. In a perfect world, all actors and directors would know stage combat, but in the real world we are sometimes let down by these aspects of a performance. But, just like a good microphone, going through the trouble of getting a good fight choreographer can improve the overall quality of a play exponentially.