Being Taken For A Ride

As trends in theatre go, the immersive genre just keeps expanding and redefining itself. This week, some of my own students staged a piece called The Ward which entailed masked audiences, elevators, stairs, four different spaces, touch, taste, smell, specially created video and a cast of 24. It was risky, edgy and played with the form very successfully. We were all delighted with piece and no more so than its creators, deservedly so.

Rift's Macbeth posterIt is seems hardly a week goes by now where I don’t read about a piece of immersive theatre playing somewhere in the world, and this week was no exception. The first I’d like to share is news of a UK company, Rift, who are planning to stage a version of Macbeth. The company have a reputation for staging immersive reinterpretations of classic pieces of theatre. Theatre Critic, Matt Trueman, wrote about this new work in progress in The Guardian.  What caught my eye, however, was that their version comes with a twist – it will take place overnight and the audience will be invited, encouraged even, to go to sleep during the performance. You don’t just by a ticket, you buy a bed and meal and there are 3 levels of ‘package‘ available, depending on the amount of comfort you want to enjoy during the ‘show’. The company says of its plans:

Face-to-face with witches in an underground car park. Feasting with the Macbeths. Bedding down for the night on the 27th floor as a siege rages around you. Characters sleepwalking through the walls: confiding plots, summoning apparitions and conspiring murder. In the morning waking to find the battle lost or won.

This is William Shakespeare’s Macbeth seen from the inside out. This production like a fever-dream leaves you questioning ideas of space and status; dystopia and utopia; waking and sleeping.

This production scatters the story of Macbeth over one night. From Dusk till Dawn

Felix Mortimer, artistic director of Rift talks in this documentary about how they work – in this case on a production of Kafka’s The Trial.

Meanwhile in Australia, the Perth Festival International Arts Festival is in full swing and immersive is clearly the order of the day with Punchdrunk, Look Left Look Right and Rimini Protokoll are all presenting wildly different immersive work. Punchdrunk’s The House Where Winter Lives is for 3 to 6 year olds,  Look Right Look Left are performing a reworking of their city-specific work, You Once Said Yes originally made for Edinburgh and Rimini Protokoll are staging Situation Rooms which requires its audience of 20 to wear headphones and carry iPads.

Australian writer and critic, Jane Howard, wrote about all three shows in her article for the Australia Culture Blog, The Guardian. In it she talks to the creatives behind the pieces.

Perth festival’s immersive theatre: ‘being confused is perfect’

While the headline shows of the Perth festival may be playing to hundreds at a time, in pockets all around the city this week performances are happening on a much smaller scale. These immersive theatre pieces are reliant on the actions of audience members to stage the work: from the solo audience of You Once Said Yes to the tightly choreographed interaction of audience members in Situation Rooms to the rambunctious collaboration of children in The House Where Winter Lives.

Kathryn McGarr, one of the performers with Punchdrunk’s The House Where Winter Lives, tells me that immersive theatre “inspires people a bit more”. And then there’s the practical consideration: even with the best will in the world, faced with a comfy chair in a warm, dark room it’s sometimes hard to stay awake. “People do fall asleep. Whereas there is no way you could fall asleep in a show like this.”

The House Where Winter Lives

The House Where Winter Lives

That much is certainly true. The adventure sees Mr and Mrs Winter take the audience of three to six-year-olds on a journey to discover the lost key to the larder. While Punchdrunk have created many immersive works for adults and even older children, this is the first time the company has pitched at such a young age group – and when you see their reactions it’s easy to think that this audience is perhaps the perfect age to be experiencing this work. Entirely without ideas of what “theatre” should be or how you should behave when watching it, they fully invest in the world.

Punchdrunk give the children a high degree of autonomy in their reactions. “We’ve got the script and we’ve got the structure and we’ve got certain things that we can do, and then we know when we can riff a bit and let them fill in the answers,” says performer and co-creator Matthew Blake.

Co-creator and performer Frances Moulds agrees. “There is a journey we need to go on,” she says, “but we can go with whatever they give us … That we’re open is actually a key thing: we’re open to anything they say and we want to hear what they’re saying.”

Allowing for audience response and choice is also central to You Once Said Yes, a show performed on the streets of Northbridge for an audience of one. That person has to be directed to a certain extent, concedes production manager Rosalyn Newbery, but “that has to be done sensitively and without dictating, because their responses and their reactions are very important, and they will change certain things”.

You Once Said Yes

You Once Said Yes

The title, she says, strongly suggests to the audience how to respond. Yet they can still say no, they can take an alternative route from that which is expected of them and the performers and production team must know how to be responsive to that.

James Rowland, one of the performers who travelled with the piece from the UK to join a local cast, says “no one show with one character will ever be the same, just because of the way people talk to them. The number of shows we’ve done is the number of shows there’s been.”

Many immersive theatre pieces rely on these interactions between the audience and performers and the self-direction and personality the audience invests into the work and the world. Rimini Protokoll’s Situation Rooms is the exception to this rule.

The documentary theatre piece invites the audience to step into the shoes of 10 people each as they talk about their relationship with the weapons industry. Following instructions on an iPad mini, with the world on the screen mirroring the environment built by the company, the audience move and silently interact in the exact place of the person whose story they’re hearing.

One of the creators, Helgard Haug, says the precision of the work is integral. “I think everybody understands that it’s perfect if it works, if you’re following it precisely. If you are in a space and you’re sitting at a table and you’re in the story of a person, and in the film you see a door opening and a person entering the space, and if that repeats in the real environment, in the real space where you are that’s the fun of it.”

While they walk through the space Haug wants the audience to question how these people fit into our society and why we each exist in the reality we exist in. After seeing the show, she says “to be confused is very productive. After half an hour leaving this building and being confused is perfect. Being exhausted is perfect. Needing a cup of coffee and a deep breath to then find your own skin again is just a very good thing to do with that content.”

Situation Rooms

Situation Rooms

While Situation Rooms aims to highlight the realities of a wider world, You Once Said Yes is about highlighting the realities and personality of the participant. Being involved in the presentation of such immersive work holds “massive privilege” for an actor, says Rowland.

“It’s pretty much the only arena in one-on-one performance where you really get that opportunity [to really meet the audience]: without lights, without a stage, in a situation where you just say, ‘No, go do whatever you want to do. Do your thing within the parameters of the show,’ which is lovely.”

That is one of reasons that people have responded so well to the show, he argues.

“By the end they feel they are, and they have been, valued, and it is about them as much as it is about the stories they’re unwrapping.”

Voices Within

A quick little post from me today. An episode from a BBC World Service programme called  The Why Factor.

Untitled_FotorFrom sub Saharan Africa to the west coast tribes of Canada to the Mardi Gras of Rio, New Orleans and Venice, masks define realities – of religious belief, of healing power, of theatre and entertainment, of concealment and of memorialisation in death. They have been around as long as humanity and they evoke both fascination and fear. Mike Williams traces the power and culture of masks and asks why we have them and what they mean for us.

Click the icon below to listen to the podcast. Not entirely related to theatre but fascinating none-the-less.

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A group wearing masks of legendary heroes as they perform a dance in Minhe County of Qinghai Province, north-west China

A Cultural Democracy

For those of you who read Theatre Room regularly you will have noticed my preoccupation of late with the developments, and debate,  surrounding live streaming. Now of course this deals with how we consume theatre, not how we make it and this got me thinking about how this technology becomes part of the creative act itself. I know that there have been experiments in the field, and this piece by Jessica Holland, published in The National, an english language newspaper from Abu Dhabi, lays out some of the exciting possibilities:

Internet theatre – immersive, real-time shows with actors from all over the world

The answer is a brand-new art form that is being pioneered by performers in cities such as Tunis, Beirut and Dubai.

“It’s the future,” says the Lebanese writer, actor and director Lucien Bourjeily, who lives and works in Beirut. “At the moment it’s avant-garde, but it will become the norm.”

Lucien Bourjeily

Lucien Bourjeily

Last July, Bourjeily collaborated with Elastic Future, an experimental theatre company that started in San Francisco but is now based in London, on a play called Peek A Boo for the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). Five actors, playing spies, programmers and online peep-show entertainers, were divided between New York, London and Beirut, improvising dialogue as they interacted via streaming video. Audience members around the world watched in real-time by signing into Google Hangouts or watching the feed on Elastic Future’s web page. They also interacted with characters on Twitter and took part in a post-show Q&A.

Untitled“It was a breakthrough,” says Bourjeily of the performance, which followed just a week of online workshops and involved some quick thinking from the actors when there were glitches in the internet connection from New York. “It opened my eyes to so many possibilities for how to create a new type of immersive theatre.”

Erin Gilley, Elastic Future’s artistic director, says she learnt a lot from the experience and is eager to keep stretching the limits of the medium. She’s planning another work for this year’s Lift to be streamed online in July, with actors performing live via webcam from Ghana, Portugal and the United Kingdom.

“Theatre can’t exist without an audience and we’re trying to creatively explore what that means,” says Gilley of the work-in-progress. “The goal is for it to feel like you’re sitting in a theatre with other people, even though watching it will be a private experience.”

Gilley is avoiding screening the feed in an auditorium, in case the process prevents her from “discovering ways to create that feeling online”.

Much like Bourjeily, Gilley is evangelical about the benefits of this new, hybrid art form. For starters, it can bypass censors in countries such as Lebanon, where playwrights are required to submit their work to a bureau for approval. Performing online is cheaper than renting a space and flying in actors and it grants access to audiences from all over the world. It creates novel ways for artists scattered all over the globe to cooperate and to interact with viewers.

It can also turn practical constraints into aesthetic virtues….

As technology develops, the artistic possibilities multiply. “We have new ways of getting emotionally connected to our audience,” is how Bourjeily puts it. “The sky is the limit.”

Lucien Bourjeily is a fascinating man, as his website attests. So much so that Index On Censorship – a global NGO that fights for freedom of expression – has made him one of their four nominees for the Freedom of Expression awards for his play Would It Pass Or Not?, which is about censorship in Lebanon.The play was banned – by the censors, thus forcing them to justify their actions in public.

You can watch Peek-A -Boo here. It makes interesting viewing.

Elastic Future have been commissioned by LIFT to create a piece for this year’s festival, called Longitude, which will be streamed online on 9, 16, and 23 June. Indeed LIFT and it’s artistic director Mark Ball clearly see this kind of work as vital, linking the digital (stage) space with a wider cultural democracy – which is another blog post entirely.

David Cecil

David Cecil

As a post script, one of the other nominees for the Index Freedom Of Expression awards, which are in their 14th year and honour people around the world fighting for free expression, is David Cecil. Cecil is the British theatre producer who was jailed in Uganda for staging a play about homosexuality and whom I wrote about in the posts Stonewalled and A ruling for common sense over a year ago. Appallingly, a month ago the Ugandan parliament passed an anti-homosexuality law which, amongst other things, included punishments of up to life imprisonment. David Cecil is not gay. In fact when he was deported he was forced to leave behind his partner and their two young children. As I write, he has not been allowed to return.  The man deserves to be honoured.

A Shared Experience

Continuing on from my last post about the experience of watching a piece of live theatre, with Twitter as my fellow audience members, I was delighted to read this, written by Catherine Love for WhatsOnStage.com

Sharing the live experience

As debate about the live streaming of theatre productions continues, Catherine Love asks whether recorded performances can still unite an audience

As I logged into Twitter on Saturday evening, the tweets cluttering my timeline were, unusually, united in startling agreement. Nearly everyone I follow seemed to be watching the same thing……an online live stream of Forced Entertainment’s six-hour durational show 12AM: Awake & Looking Down.

twitter-iconEveryone who tweeted was watching it in a different place, from their bed or sofa or desk, but these scattered individuals were also watching the show together, as part of a separate but collective audience meeting in an online space.

This observation feels significant in light of renewed debate around the increasing practice of streaming theatre productions, be it huge operations like NT Live screening in cinemas across the country or modest webcasts of experimental performance. A number of theatre makers have expressed concern about these recordings replacing live performance, while Lyn Gardner  recently mounted a persuasive defence for the expansion of audience reach that these screenings allow.

Both sides of the argument make valid enough points. Those who take issue with the recording of performances protest that it somehow pollutes or detracts from the uniqueness of the live event, releasing viewers from the attention that is required of them in the theatre and encouraging audiences to retreat further and further into their screens, while live performance withers away. Icon for Streaming(2)The digital advocates, on the other hand, argue that screening theatre events can take them to a bigger audience in just one night than they might otherwise reach during a whole run, not to mention offering an opportunity for those without easy access to a theatre to engage with an art form that might otherwise be unavailable to them.

As Gardner points out, it doesn’t have to be a case of either/or; enjoying a performance online or in the cinema does not preclude the possibility of also taking a trip to the theatre. The two experiences offer different benefits. What I’d rather focus on, however, is the accusation – often levelled at streamed theatre – that it removes the collective, live experience of being part of an audience. It is implied that this is one of the key reasons for attending theatre rather than watching TV or sitting in front of a computer screen. In the modern world, the theatre is one of the few places where we can still have a live, unmediated experience, surrounded by other human beings. And this is, to an extent, true.

Forced Entertainment's 12AM: Awake & Looking Down. © Hugo Glendinning

Forced Entertainment’s 12AM: Awake & Looking Down.
© Hugo Glendinning

But what I witnessed on Saturday night looked an awful lot like an audience all having an experience together, even if that experience wasn’t in the same room. The same thing happened to an even greater extent throughout the 24 hours of Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola!, live streamed from the Barbican last year, and a similar online buzz has attended other webcasts by theatres such as the National Theatre of Wales and Hampstead Theatre.

On these various occasions, I have experienced a rare feeling of real community online, as a wide range of people all gather round one enthusiasm and exchange thoughts and responses. Sure, it’s not quite the same as having those reactions while sitting in the same space and breathing the same air, but the feelings and thoughts that the online experience provokes belong to the same family as those encountered in a theatre. And once audiences are hooked on the shared experience, who’s to say that they won’t seek it out again and again, both on and offline?

I couldn’t agree more. On the other hand, I was also interested to read this this by Ryan Gilby, for The Guardian, where he reflects on a different kind of live broadcast theatre event.

Coriolanus at National Theatre Live: cut the chat and get on with the show

The Donmar’s production starring Tom Hiddleston was a thriller in the cinema but it didn’t need all the DVD extras with it

Stage productions broadcast live in cinemas have been a fixture in the UK since 2009, when the National Theatre’s Phèdre was seen by more than 50,000 people. Numbers now tend to be far higher (the audience for The Audience was around 180,000) and reach beyond the UK. Last night was the first time I had attended a play in a cinema. The difference from theatre was apparent immediately: I was wearing a shabby jumper rather than a shirt. (I always try to wear a shirt to the theatre. I can’t help it. It’s an occasion.)

The next shock was finding that I had come to see Coriolanus starring Emma Freud. Cinema audiences have long suffered all manner of irritating pre-film ads, but the appearance of Ms Freud on screen, whipping us into a frenzy about what we were about to see, was at best superfluous (we didn’t need persuading: we’d already bought our tickets) and at worst obstructive. None of us were under the illusion that we were actually at the Donmar Warehouse where the play was staged, or that the actors would be with us in the flesh. Nor did we want to be made to feel we were watching an early-evening relay from the Big Brother house.

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar. Photograph: Johan Persson

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar. Photograph: Johan Persson

Next came a short film in which the lead actors, Tom Hiddleston (Coriolanus) and Mark Gatiss (Menenius), contextualised the play. The director, Josie Rourke, popped up to comment on the Donmar’s history, while the designer, Lucy Osborne, showed some examples of Roman graffiti on her iPad. I rarely bother with the featurettes that are routinely found among DVD extras and here was a reminder why. Such items can get in the way of our interpretation rather than enhancing it. The effect here evoked neither theatre nor cinema but bad arts television.

It was even worse at the end of the interval when the two-minute bell urged us back to our seats and we were shown an interview with Rourke during which Freud reminded her that Hiddleston had been named “the sexiest actor on the planet” by MTV. Hardly the words you want ringing in your ears as Act Two begins. My advice for the NT is to cut the chat and get on with the show. Suspension of disbelief in a play is not hard to achieve but it deserves to be given a fighting chance.

Thankfully the dynamism of the production was irresistible. Rourke’s staging made judicious use of minimal props – chairs, mainly – and a set that was effectively one brick wall, half of it painted a richly stewed burgundy. My concern going in was that performances pitched at theatre level might seem overblown on a cinema screen; these are, after all, two entirely different forms of acting. I had reckoned without the cast’s combined experience of calibrating performance for contrasting art forms. That Hiddleston chap, he’s done bits and bobs on film as well as on stage, hasn’t he? And Gatiss – he’s been before a camera once or twice. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, who plays Coriolanus’s wife Virgilia, has a fair bit of Borgen under her belt. They’re getting the hang of it by now.

It helps that these broadcasts are geared toward the cinema experience; the theatre audience for Coriolanus last night paid reduced ticket prices on the understanding that cameras would be getting in their way now and then. For one night only, the popcorn-munchers took priority.

Not that any of us were actually eating. The mood of the audience was just as it would have been in a theatre: hushed, respectful, even tense at times. There were gasps during Coriolanus’s death scene, elegantly staged in a beam of light and a spray of red – an image foreshadowed earlier in the show when the gruesomely scarred warrior showers in a trickle of water before shaking himself like a sheepdog, sending bloody droplets flying about the stage (and screen).

Though lighting can alter the emphasis of a scene, theatre has no equivalent to the close-up, and the camera positions respected that fact: we never felt artificially intimate with the actors, but nor was there a sense that we were too far from the action. With one exception: the curtain call. Here a chasm opened up between the theatre and cinema audiences. There was some confusion over how best to respond. Most people in the packed cinema applauded.

Did they think the actors could hear them?

For clarity’s sake, Emma Freud is what is perhaps best described as a cultural commentator well-known in the UK, and fronts arts and cultural shows on both television and radio. I can but only sympathise with Gilbey – perhaps the solution is to simply give the  broadcast audiences the same programme/play bill that the ‘live’ audience get, then if they want to know more, they can read quietly, to themselves.

Something Else To Stream About

Yesterday morning, at 5.00am, I found myself watching live theatre. It had started at 1.00am and I was just tuning in. It was a live stream of a durational work,  12AM: Awake & Looking Down, by Forced Entertainment. And what a joy it was – my insomniac self isn’t normally this productive. To put it in context,

12am is a physical and visual performance that explores the relation between object and label, image and text…..The piece lasts anywhere between 6 and 11 hours and…..the audience are free to arrive, depart and return at any point.

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Although this will be the basis of another post, just for the sake of understanding this one, durational theatre is defined as:

a form through which TIME is manifested in its original (natural) purity and brought to the forefront as pivotal to the experience. The performance is designed so that time, as the primary theme of the piece, physically affects and mentally transforms the performer, the audience, and the space

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The particular production lasted 6 hours and although I only watched for just over an hour (the stream to Hong Kong was a little too stuttering to sustain more than that) it was an event that I enjoyed being part of. Both Forced Entertainment and Tim Etchells were live tweeting alongside it, as were people around the globe who were watching too, which added to the experience. It felt very ‘live’, but it was the fact that it was a new ‘experience’, a new type of theatre, that I think I enjoyed it more.

Untitled 4_FotorThese tweets give you a flavour of ‘how’ people were watching and interacting, and they themselves, for me at least, became part of the narrative as it unfolded.

Untitled 3_FotorOther people, as the tweet above shows, were clearly having the same experience. But it was the one below that really made me sit up and realise what I was actually witnessing.

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I got more excited by the fact that Tim Etchells, artistic director of Forced Entertainment then tweeted the following in conversation with Matt Trueman, a theatre critic:

Untitled 2_Fotor Untitled_FotorIt is Etchells’ words about context that really struck home. Having written recently, and at length, in my post Something to Stream About about the emergence of live streaming and broadcasting of theatre, this was adding another layer. The day before I had read a piece, Filmed theatre: a new art form in itself?by Racheal Castell who is Head of Screenings at Digital Theatre.  In it she covers some of the ground I had in my post, but she also observed that

The stage is indeed a precious space, and what happens between actor and audience member therein is both magic and real. But we mustn’t forget that plays are both ephemeral and eternal. A play is written to be performed, but performed again and again on new sets by different actors in reimagined contexts. The tension between the live and the repeated is inherent to most theatre.

Although the point isn’t entirely relevant to this post, the last sentence does connect. However, this second point by Castell is very relevant:

It was more gratifying to witness the responses to our watch-alongs, where people around the globe tune in and press play on a production at the same time and are suddenly able to visit the West End, albeit virtually. It’s as though the breath formed to articulate a Shakespearean monologue, the energy emitted between an ensemble, the tear that falls from a performer’s eye, is the butterfly’s wing and we – with all our technology, our media, our distance, our global experience – are the hurricane.

She is referring to an experience, not unlike watching 12am for me. Digital Theatre’s watch-alongs are dependent on social media, both to generate an audience all watching remotely at the same time as well allowing for a communal commentary along the way. Twitter replaces the real life audience, so rather than turning to your fellow theatre-goer for affirmation of a shared experience, you tweet it instead.

It’s also just struck me – a little off the point – that watching theatre in this way gets rid of the errant rings and glaring screens of mobile devices, hacking coughs, sweet wrappers being opened and latecomers that pervade the ‘live’ experience.

Castell (and many others I have read recently) are struggling to define this new live theatre experience, let alone give it a name. Whatever we eventually end up labelling this vanguard movement, I know I will be in the front row.

I want finish this post with another comment about 12AM, this time from Instagram. It says it all:

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Violence By Design

One of the smash hits on the London stage at the moment is  Coriolanus. It is one of Shakespeare’s more violent plays with big, bloody battle scenes, riots on the streets of Rome and battles on the Senate floor. This current production, starring Tom Hiddleston  has been roundly applauded.

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Obviously one of the things that this production does well is violence and death, most spectacularly, it would appear, Coriolanus’ own death. Given my comments recently in my post, Dying On StageI was intrigued to read an interview with Richard Ryan, the fight director on the show, who was talking to Frances Wasem in The Telegraph. In it, Ryan talks about how he approached the job:

How to choreograph a theatrical fight scene

’ve worked for 20 years in theatre and film as a fight instructor and stunt coordinator, but I trained as an actor, so in many way, working in theatre always feels like coming home. My part in the production is to create an exciting fight, which has energy and pace, develops the characters and the plot – and to do it all safely.

The fight director is involved from the very beginning of a production. Wherever possible I like to sit in on rehearsals to get a better sense of the world the director is trying to create. For Coriolanus, Josie (Rourke, the director) outlined the contemporary feel of the play and talked about the Roman look. We had to merge those two elements in the fight scenes. The director will tell me if they envisage a more visceral, hard-hitting or a swashbuckling-style fight. We’ll also discuss any specific plot elements that they wish to include. In Coriolanus it was important to establish Coriolanus as a warrior and Tullus Aufidius as a worthy adversary.

Richard Ryan, Tom Hiddleston and Hadley Fraser rehearse a fight scene for Coriolanus Photo: Rich Hardcastle

Richard Ryan, Tom Hiddleston and Hadley Fraser rehearse a fight scene for Coriolanus Photo: Rich Hardcastle

Research is part of how a fight is put together. I might visit museums to look at how a warrior, at that time, would have fought and moved. For Coriolanus, I looked over illustrations of Roman tactics and battles and discussed with Lucy (Osborne, the costume designer) a need for a range of movements (so that skin doesn’t chafe). We make sure the metal of the stage armour is lighter than real armour and the sword blades are made of aluminum, not steel. They would still cause damage if they came into contact with the body, though. We were lucky that Lucy got us the boots early on in rehearsals, as their weight and grip changed the type of choreography.

I also talk to the set designer and lighting technician. Principally, I need to ensure that the actors can move around the stage, can see each other’s movements, and that they won’t slip or fall. The actors need to be able see the swords as they fight. Losing sight of the blade in a beautiful sidelight is dangerous. I’ll ask for areas of the stage, which see heavy fighting, to be reinforced. The safety of the actors is crucial, everything from the type of floor to the consistency of stage blood is thought about (in case the actors slip). If a piece of furniture is going to be slammed into, then you reinforce that particular bit of the set, so no one is hurt.

One can talk a good fight, but it’s in the doing that all the work happens. After discussion with Josie and armed with an idea of costumes and weapons, the next step is to start choreographing – and to put the fight on its feet.

I sketch out on paper what I think the floor pattern of the fight will look like, but that’s just for myself. The fight is crafted in the rehearsal room, with and on the actors. The actors might be left or right-handed or have an old injury that makes them hesitant. I base the fight on the story and what the actors can do. Their involvement is key. I need to create a fight scene that is exciting, but that’s also sustainable for the actors to perform eight times a week.

In rehearsals, safety is very important. I’m a fencing coach and black belt martial artist so I’m aware of potential injury. There are crash pads at the back of the room, for when an actor is thrown. I also have back pads, knee and elbow pads. In one fight, both Hadley Fraser and Tom Hiddleston are thrown as they grapple and the crash mat was used as they learned and became familiar with the mechanics of the throw.

So that swords don’t actually hit the actors we use a technique called “off-line”. The sword basically makes contact with the area that an actor was previously in. The actors continually watch for spaces to move into. There’s a structure to a fight, which is like a dance; the moves are done over and over until they are second nature. In early rehearsals you see an actor counting out the moves (one, two, three…), but by the time the show opens, they’re invisible.

Photo: Rich Hardcastle

Photo: Rich Hardcastle

Ensuring that the actor is able to convey their character in a fight scene is fundamental to my brief. In Coriolanus I need to establish Coriolanus as a warrior and Tullus Aufidius as a worthy adversary. We also need to confirm Tom as a leader, which is achieved through a combination of what he does, the way others respond to him and using stagecraft to ensure he is in strongest position on stage.

In the action, similar principles apply. Tom (Coriolanus) has minimal, but definite movements, whereas junior warriors would quite simply move more. We’d contrast a confident stillness for Tom, with a more edgy, nervous physicality of a less experienced soldier. Tom and I tried to develop an icon fight style, reflective of his vision for Coriolanus. We settled on a signature low stance, from which he launches into explosive attacks.

The energy of a fight scene should build. You do this by creating the illusion that the fight is picking up pace. You start the fight with the actors doing bigger moves – and reduce them in size as the fight gets more intense. You also reduce the number of pauses in the action, as anger builds. It gives the illusion that the moves are faster and more violent, that tempers have frayed. But it’s an illusion; the reality is it’s very controlled.

I had the good fortune to teach Tom swordplay at RADA. Then, as now, he was diligent, enthusiastic and physically fit. He also contributed ideas – and did so on Coriolanus too. Tom and I had been debating whether to “play” an injury, after he was thrown. I wasn’t convinced it would work. So, in a run through of the fight – with the rest of the cast present, who hadn’t been privy to our conversation – Tom landed from the throw and faked the injury. It worked wonderfully and the rest of the cast liked it, so I conceded that Tom was right. Tom had a broad grin for the rest of the day.

Not surprisingly this set me off on a research trail and I was quite astonished by what I found – mountains of information, societies, guilds, guides, schools and even lesson plans about stage combat. One article from Armour Archive deals specifically with sword fighting, Stage Combat 101.  Meron Langsner, himself a fight director offers loads of links to all things violent on stage. Brigham Young University Theatre Education Database offers four lessons and associated resources, including a great little Terms and Definitions document.

Then there are instructional videos like this one from Armstrong Atlantic State University Drama Professor, Pam Sears, revealing the tricks to the illusions of combat in theatre.

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I also came across the interview from Stage Source in which four practitioners, Angie Jepson, Robert Najarian, Ted Hewlettstage and Meron Langsner talk about stage combat, fight choreography, and something called Violence Design which seems to be a relatively new term that covers everything violent on stage. It is 45 minutes long, but very interesting – click the icon below to listen

There are professional bodies, such as the Society of American Fight Directors and The British Academy of Dramatic Combat who train actors and certificate teachers. There are people who blog about stage combat, my favourite being I’m So Not Going To Hit YouThere are even Facebook groups, such as Girls Fight, which is set up to promote women in stage combat, of which there are few. It seems to be a male dominated profession. Having said that, there is a great little interview here with Alison de Burgh, who was the first ever professional female fight director in the UK.

1267614-kuhn-7-_wide-9391ed2429d5835b9a0681b2c8cf9d8908ce0e10-s40-c85What I started to glean on my quick tour around stage combat was that much of the training has its basis, not surprisingly, in the kind of discipline that comes with martial arts. This article and programme recording from NPR, In Japan, ‘Sliced Up Actors’ Are A Dying Breed, is about a Japanese actor, Seizo Fukumoto, who has been killed more than 50,000 in his career. Although largely on film, Fukumoto, is known as a Kirareyaku, which roughly translates as ‘chopped up actors’. His art is known in Japanese as tate, a stylized sort of stage combat that combines elements of martial arts, dance and kabuki theatre. You can listen to the programme by clicking this icon:

What is clear, and I always knew this of course, is that stage combat is highly skilled and potentially very dangerous if you are not trained properly. There is a scary list of when things have gone wrong here. So as we say in an increasingly litigious world, Don’t try this at home, kids!

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