Stage combat: a clash of craft and magic

"Turn around, hellhound!" Rochelle Malter '18 (left) and Maria Signorelli '17 fight to the death in a scene from "Macbeth."

By Sasha Nyary

Act I: Prologue

On an afternoon in early May, two blond women dressed in loose clothing and white T-shirts stood arguing on the bare stage of the Rooke Theatre at Mount Holyoke College.

“Molly,” said one, “there can only be one blond ingenue in this apartment.”

“Grace, I’m not even an ingenue,” said the other.

“It doesn’t matter. There can only be one,” said Grace, picking up a rapier and dagger conveniently stashed nearby. “Fight me!”

“Grace, what the hell! I’ll just dye my hair back!”

The small audience watching from the house burst out laughing. Molly also grabbed weapons and the two parried and thrust.

“Grace, what’s your problem?” said Molly as she blocked the blows.

“I’m going to play Frankenstein’s wife!” Grace announced triumphantly as their swords clanged.

“I don’t even want that part!” said Molly, pushing back.

“Nobody does! It’s a matter of principle!” The two circled each other deliberately, almost balletically, occasionally landing a blow and drawing bright red stage blood.

Suddenly, Grace was weaponless. Molly saw her chance.

“Now you’ll be a redhead!” she said with a final lash of her sword. More stage blood — Reel Blood, professional-quality fake blood that comes out of clothing — appeared to burst from Grace’s throat and she dropped to the floor for a dramatic death. Molly looked down at her vanquished opponent, dropped her sword and walked away.

Act II: Why learn stage combat?

Theatre arts majors Grace Brunson ’19 and Molly Paige FP’18 had just completed their final presentations for their Choreography of Violence class, where they were learning to fight safely on stage.

While universities often offer a course in stage combat, such a class is less likely at a small liberal arts college — and even rarer at a women’s college. That’s in part because finding a certified teacher can be challenging. Safety is paramount in theatrical stage fights. And the community of international fight directors and fight teachers — those who are allowed to choreograph and teach stage combat, according to strict controls — is tiny and almost entirely male.

This class was taught by Noah Tuleja, director of the Rooke Theatre and a visiting lecturer in theatre arts, who is certified as a fight teacher with both the Society of American Fight Directors and the British Academy of Stage and Screen Combat.

The weapons the students use are real but not sharp, and every blow, thrust, parry, feint and dodge is carefully choreographed and rehearsed. The fights increased in complexity over the course of the semester, beginning with an introduction to martial arts, moving to hand-to-hand combat to a knife fight, and ending with the final battle, with rapier and knife.

“When I watch a performance, I’m looking first for how my students execute the moves, how safe they are,” said Tuleja. He noted that in his four years at Mount Holyoke, he has offered a January Intersession course in stage combat but never a full course — and never with stage blood.

He decided to offer this class in part because the need for women to learn what the Society of American Fight Directors calls “safe and effective violence for the stage” has significantly increased.

“Ten years ago, if you were a guy and you wanted to be a stage actor, you would definitely need to have a background in stage combat,” he said. “Now it’s almost as important — if not just as important — for women. That line has blurred a lot. There’s a lot more cross-gender casting, a lot of fights written specifically for women in mind.”

Act III: Fighting to become a better actor

Brunson and Paige have both taken courses with Tuleja in the past and when he decided to offer a full course in stage combat, they jumped at the chance.

“I was one of the murderers in our production of ‘Macbeth’ last year, and Noah choreographed that fight,” Brunson said. “I really enjoyed it. Noah loves stage combat and we’re really lucky to have him — it’s very hard to get the certifications he has. It takes a long time and a lot of training.”

In addition to fighting believably and safely, stage combat skills teach students how to be better actors, Tuleja said. All the students were required to act out a scene during their fights, and they chose selections from classic plays such as “Macbeth,” or wrote original scenes such as the one Brunson and Paige performed.

“Stage combat helps you understand how your body works, how you tell a story on stage,” he said. “A scene is always about conflict. If there’s no conflict, there’s no scene. In most scenes, the level of conflict, even if it’s emotional, is similar to the level of conflict of a sword fight.”

Finally, they all agreed, learning to do stage combat is a lot of fun.

“Nothing feels better than pretend-punching Noah and he actually has such a good reaction it feels like you’ve actually hit him,” Paige said. “It releases so much tension, even though you’re not actually punching anyone. No one’s getting hurt.”

Act IV: Meanwhile, backstage ...

Stage combat is complicated, even before the addition of blood and other special effects. Offstage, the class got help from Elaine Bergeron, the costume shop manager, and two student interns.

“Stage combat is like magic and it’s important not to give it away,” Bergeron said. “It takes a lot of rehearsal to make it happen, to do it safely and make it look realistic. It’s all about discipline. It’s a true craft.”

While students fought onstage, Bergeron and her interns helped the next pair get ready. They taped small packets of the stage blood — made from Seal-a-Meal vacuum bags — onto various parts of the actors’ bodies. One ran a tube from an actor’s back to her mouth so it would look like she was spurting blood — Karo Syrup and food coloring when it’s near the mouth — when she was stabbed. Onstage the students who had finished their scenes posed for photographs while an intern mopped up the stage blood.

Working with blood is complicated, Bergeron said, and being able to use it was an unusual opportunity.

“Just think of all the different mixtures for the different kinds of bloods — old blood and new blood and gelled blood and scratches,” Bergeron said. “We had to figure out how to make the blood packs, how to do the lines, how to rig the clothing. These are important skills to learn.”

Act IV: “A million creative jobs in the theater”

Bergeron was quick to note that students who are focusing on acting careers aren’t the only ones who might want to take the class.

“Theater is more than acting and directing,” she said. “There are a million really creative jobs in theater. And don’t forget, special effects pays. You can get a lot of work doing special effects.”

She also pointed out that not every student taking the class was majoring in theatre arts.

“This is the kind of class that shows you can have an incredible experience outside your major,” Bergeron said. “You get to study math and chemistry and physics and trajectories. Mount Holyoke students take this because they want that liberal arts experience of trying something really different and new.”

Act V: Epilogue

Brunson will be a junior in the fall and with a concentration in acting, she wants to work in films after she’s graduated. She hopes to have many more opportunities to do battle onstage. 

Paige, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in directing after she graduates, will be directing the College’s mainstage production of “Bull in a China Shop” in the fall.

Written by Bryna Taylor ’12, the play tells the story of the romance between Mary Woolley, who served as the College’s president in the early part of the 20th century, and Jeannette Marks, a writer and chair of the English department. The play premiered at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City in March 2017.

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