Actors learn stage combat for winter production

Alekya Raghavan | Staff Writer

Mason Drama Club is proving that the pen and the sword go hand-in-hand with its winter production of Cyrano de Bergerac.

In the play, which opens on January 26, seniors Gerardo Contreras and Liz Rivers engage in a dramatic duel to the death in the large and elegant Parisian theater of the Hotel de Bourgogne. Contreras’ character, the titular Cyrano de Bergerac, provokes Rivers’ Valvert into a gripping sword fight, all while delivering an impromptu poem. And in true theatrical fashion, his last line is accompanied by a striking sword thrust.      

In charge of composing this scene, down to the last parry, is Jonn Baca. Baca is a professional fight choreographer with Cease and Desist, a Cincinnati-based stage combat workshop. Stage combat is a form of theatrical choreography that involves any act of conflict, danger, or violence performed for entertainment. The complexity of the routine can range from something a simple as slipping on a banana peel to fighting Darth Vader with a three-foot lightsaber.

“What we’re doing is a movement discipline for acting; it’s to tell a story,” Baca said. “Actual combat is designed to hurt, stop, kill, maim. Most actual fights are dirty, they’re ugly, they’re not fun to watch, and they’re over very quickly. Theatrically, you’re going to want something that lasts a little longer. You want to be able to see the conflict between the characters. It’s all about telling the story of violence; whereas, actual combat is about hurting the other person.”

Stage combat is more comparable to a dance routine than a legitimate fighting discipline. Actors convey a narrative, or extend one, through clear and deliberate actions. A scripted fight may take longer to read than perform, but the effect is the same. Contreras said that the scene serves to introduce the duality of the character and as well as the basis of the play’s plot.      

“[Cyrano] can do everything: he’s a poet, he’s a super-skilled sword fighter,” Contreras said. “He only has one major flaw, his nose, which makes him ugly. The role of this particular scene with the sword duel is to display Cyrano’s skills with a sword as well as his skills with his mouth and what he can say. It’s one of the opening scenes, so it shows you, from the get go, how amazing he is. After that, he goes into a monologue about his nose. It’s a comparison of the two aspects of him.”

Depending on the production, stage combat can include both real and fantasy choreography. Generally, fight directors tend not to compose scenes with the actions that actual fighters would use. This is usually for dramatic effect as well as to help the audience better follow the scene. According to Baca, what goes into a scene is determined by a number of factors.

“It’s multi-faceted,” Baca said. “You have to take into account what show you’re doing, what the stage looks like, what the audience is willing to put up with violence-wise, what the actors are capable of, what the set is capable of, what the budget can handle, and how much time you have in rehearsal. Depending on all of that, you have to tinker with the story of the fights. My goal is to tell a good story with clean technique that is safe and doesn’t necessarily have to be flashy, but it does have to be well done.”

The major concern with stage combat is actor safety. For this reason, many real combat techniques are modified to make sure that actors do not risk each other’s health and well-being. Often, a movement is aimed short of or extended past the scene partner’s body during attacking actions. Trust and communication during the scene is key. Largely, the safety of a particular routine depends on the combined professional judgement of the performer, trainer, and director.

“Safety is first and foremost in theatrical combat because you don’t want your actors getting hurt and you don’t want your audience members getting hurt,” Baca said. “Everything you see on stage from a slap, a sword fight, gun fights, domestic violence, pratfalls, everything has to be meticulously choreographed to keep the audience safe but also make sure that it looks real to them. You have to make sure (the actors) understand the techniques that are going to keep them safe and realizing that there is no safe weapon, just safe ways of handling it.”

Contreras said one of the challenges he faced was delivering the movements and his lines at the same time.

“I have a poem that I say while I’m fighting that definitely makes it a lot harder,” Contreras said. “Not only am I concentrating on what I’m doing next with the sword, but I also have to concentrate on what to say next. It’s kind of like patting your head and rubbing your stomach, one of those things. It’s a challenge, but it makes it that much more fun.”

Rivers said that additional challenges of stage combat include its memorization and physicality.

“Memorization was really hard for me, personally,” Rivers said. “You have to think about your lines and then you have to think about a whole fight, and it’s really important that you do things correctly so that you’re not hurting the other person. It’s also physically taxing; it’s cardio as you’re running around and jumping.”    

Baca, who has directed fights for several theatre companies, colleges, and high schools across the country over the past 14 years, said that he enjoys working with high school actors because of their openness and desire to learn.

“(High school students) are some of the most enthusiastic actors that you’re ever going to find,” Baca said. “I find that I can get a lot more out of high school actors than some professionals that have been in the business for years. I love that sense of enthusiasm and the willingness to try. It’s the fun that they bring into every rehearsal that I really enjoy working with.”