Violence in Theatre: A double-edged sword

The story here is, "What is our choreography?"

The story here is, “What is our choreography?”

A Rapier and Dagger. Violence on stage is a bit of a double-edged sword, if you’ll pardon the pun. When staging a fight for a play or musical, whether it be an old fashioned duel à la Romeo and Juliet or a roll-around-on-the-floor-knock-over-the-furniture brawl as one sees in True West, the Fight Director has to find the happy medium between the safety of the actors and what the scene requires in order to function dramatically.

It’s very important in stage combat that the choreography communicates a specific story to the audience. It’s all very well and good for Shakespeare to write “They fight; TYBALT falls.” but where’s the action? Who controlled the fight? Were there more blows struck than the killing stroke? Was there any deceit or trickery such as a handful of sand to the face Karate Kid style? Was it a come from behind victory for an underdog Romeo, or was he dominant from the word ‘go’? There’s so much freedom in that one stage direction that the fight could go almost anywhere depending on the director’s vision and the actors’ portrayal of their respective characters up to that point. Tybalt might be a bloodthirsty rat bastard when it comes to his views of the “vile Montague(s)”, but perhaps he has a very strong sense of fairness and honesty when it comes to dueling and as a result hands Romeo’s rapier back after he just dropped it. It is almost entirely up to the people working on the individual production to tell that specific story. 

If a Fight Director errs too far on the side of actor safety for any reason (maybe one of them isn’t that great with a sword and the choreography needs to be fairly conservative etc.) then it puts a strain on the audience’s attention because there is no sense of tension or illusion of danger to be observed. On the other hand, if the choreographer or actors decide caution just isn’t their style, then the audience starts to fear for the safety of the actors themselves and not the characters being portrayed. It takes a lot of skill to strike the balance of actor safety and character peril, but when done right, one attains that magical response from the audience which is the suspension of disbelief which allows their brains to say, “No, that actor isn’t really dead, but let’s ignore that for now because I’ll be damned if Tybalt didn’t just get skewered!”

Isaac Spooner

Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Greenblatt. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. Print.

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