Swishing swords, hard slaps at Shakespeare & Company



Stage fighting is anything but child's play.

With classic techniques like "poop deck cross," the musical clanging of rapiers or the fancy footwork of a well-choreographed fight scene, it's difficult to imagine the amount of work that goes into making even a simple slap on stage look real.

But it is work, a lot of work.

"That's when we're doing our job well, when they don't think about it," said Michael Toomey, actor, educator and Shakespeare & Company member for the last 17 years, of well-done fight scenes. "For every second of fight on stage, there should be an hour of rehearsal. So, for a 60-second fight you should have 60 hours rehearsal for that one fight."

For the actors, directors and fight choreographers of the classical company, the work that goes into the physical acting is just as important as the vocal and text work, said Tony Simotes, Shakespeare & Company artistic director, who also helped shape the company's views and teaching of physical acting, or stage fighting.

When the art of stage fighting was first being taught in colleges and acting programs across the country, it was often, and still sometimes is, called stage combat, a term that Simotes doesn't like to use when talking about the work.

"Combat is what is happening in Afghanistan," he said. "When we call it that, it really turns off a lot of people, especially women who get into the work, because people think of combat as a way to kill people, but really that's just such a small part of the work. When we look at it from the point of view of stage fighting or physical acting, everything we do with any prop -- whether it's a sword, a newspaper, a frying pan, a chair, a stick, a bottle, whatever it might be -- that becomes a kind of weapon."

When you think of each prop as a possible weapon in a scene, that extends physical acting beyond the traditional two-handed broad sword fights often being wielded in one of Shakespeare's classics, like "Henry IV, Parts I & II," which officially opens Friday at the Tina Packer Playhouse.

"There's so much fighting in ‘Henry,' " said Toomey, who is fight choreographer for the show, with a tired laugh.

But there's also "fighting," or physical acting in almost every one of the company's summer season offerings. Simotes points out that in even in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which is running at the playhouse until Aug. 30, there is stage fighting with "found objects."

"It's hard to see the stage fighting in ‘Midsummer,' though there's a lot," he said. "From how we hit, jump, diving into things, there's a lot of physical fight work that's going on in the play, but there's not a sword to be had."

For the actors of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)," there is physical acting in almost every scene -- bridging the gap of comedy to terror at a feverish, often funny, pace. The actors -- Charls Hall, Ryan Winkles and Josh McCabe -- choreographed most of the physical work themselves for the show, which runs through Aug. 24.

"I'm a little beat up," McCabe said, in a recent interview during a break in rehearsals, where a thick gym mat was laid on the floor and a range of swords -- from the heavy broad sword, to the light rapiers that make a whistling sound when whipped through the air, reminding one of a classic "Three Musketeers" scene -- waited for action.

Each movement is precise, planned and done with a breath in between sequences for the actors to make eye contact, to constantly check in with one another silently, before moving on to the next attack. The physical acting ranges from classic hand-to-hand slapstick -- a slap across the face, accentuated with a perfectly timed loud smack of the receiving actor's hands, hidden behind the giving actor's body -- to the silly "poop deck cross" used to fill space and time with the crossing of two actors engaged in simple over-the-head blocking with rapiers, creating a tight ringing of musical, metal-on-metal sounds, similar to what one might see in a classic pirate movie.

But there is also the more serious aspects of violence, dealt with even within the confines of the "Complete Works" comedy.

For McCabe, who in one scene plays Lavinia, -- the daughter of Titus Andronicus, who is brutally raped and disfigured -- finding a way to play her as a man was "uncomfortable."

"Even though ‘Complete Works' is silly and we're having fun, I'm uncomfortable as a man coming off as though I'm making fun of a woman who was raped and brutalized. I said [in rehearsals] ‘I can't get into the human part of that,' " he said.

It's that part of the work -- understanding the emotional toll on the actor going through these sometimes very violent physical actions -- that Simotes tries to focus on and encourages everyone in the company to understand. He wants the actors to be able to live the story, the event, but come out of it on the other side and live healthy lives after the curtain comes down, he said.

"When doing a rape scene, or death scene, or one of great brutality, you cannot throw the actor into the deep end of the pool emotionally and say, ‘Well, it's just movement,' it isn't," he said. "When you feel that weapon in your hand, or you're rushing toward somebody or grabbing them, your body still understands it as an action that is actually happening. To be able to slow the process down by literally spending hours reconditioning your body, and mind, and psyche that this is a creative endeavor and not a destructive endeavor is really key to the work."

Understanding the violence on a deeper level -- why it is happening and what the long-term ramifications are to each character after the act -- is an important part of understanding Shakespeare's work.

"If Shakespeare puts a fight on stage, it's for a very specific reason," said Winkles. "There's always the story of not just someone died, but the cost of that and how the characters deal going forward, in every play."

Simotes quickly agreed.

"Shakespeare almost never uses violence gratuitously, or sensationalizes it. It is always at a point when the textual language can no longer carry the story. The story has to be told physically," he said.

But by conditioning the actors to understand the story, the violence and why it is so important to tell each story, Simotes said they can create meaningful work that doesn't harm the actor physically, or emotionally.

"We immerse ourselves in that ugliness so the audience doesn't have to, but we have to come out of it in a healthy way so we can tell the story the next day," he said. "... We're creating work to understand sometimes the most depraved aspects of who we are as human beings, which are portrayed theatrically and through literature. To be able to process that story so that the audience gets it and understands it, but also so that the actor can actually live through it in a way that's not destructive to themselves -- that's what we do here."


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