The Story in Blades
[Plug: Come see 4615 Theatre's Macbeth for some examples of what I write about in this post, as well as some sharp classical acting!]
An outsize segment of human storytelling relies on a simple quirk of the human mind: Violence is hideous, terrifying, the source of so much of our pain and sadness... and we love it.
We know why this quirk exists. Fighting to survive is the most biologically meaningful action a being can take. The rush you get from staving off graving off has no peer. And it's not just a rush of adrenaline, it's a rush of significance. The feeling that what you just did in saving your own or someone else's life truly, deeply meant something. That timelines and histories have changed because of it.
What's been more of an issue is what we do with it now that we're all civilized. As with a lot of human impulse, this has generally fallen into the ascetic/introspective/fanatic triangle: Those who think we can suppress and extinguish the fighting impulse, those who accept its validity and seek to use it in meaningful and productive ways, and those who take it as proof that we're meant to sprinkle the blood of our enemies on our eggs every morning like the most metal sriracha.
I fall squarely in the introspective camp. That's why I like to examine and express my own fighting instincts both in martial arts - usually sword-based ones, because swords are cool - and in choreographing fights for the stage. I'm going to write out a short lesson for the beginning fight choreographer drawing on what I've learned from years of helping people stab each other for applause.
My aim here is to get people thinking specifically about the storytelling aspect of a stage fight. To that end, I pose a series of questions below that I hope will help anyone who's putting a fight together. Research and answer these questions to give your fight the depth it deserves. I've italicized a couple that I think are particularly important and often overlooked.
The most important part of creating a fight is that you do not think of the fight as a physical diversion from the story of a play. Not only is the fight as much a part of the story as any other, it is more so, because the same characters with all of their wants, needs, and pressures are now skirting the edge of death, right along that bright ley line of meaning I talked about earlier.
Characters as Fighters - Everyone fights differently, and several key factors inform this.
Skill - How well does this person fight? Did they learn from training, experience, or both? What weapons are they better with? If unarmed, do they favor striking or grappling? Are they in practice at the time of the fight, or are their skills a little rusty with disuse?
Temperament - Is this person angry and impulsive, nervous and skittish, cold and calculating? How willing are they to actually hurt or kill someone, and under what circumstances?
Backstory - Has this person seen battles? Been in street fights? Bar brawls? Have they ever killed anyone?
Style - Somewhere in the combination of skill, temperament and backstory, a character develops a style. Are they more aggressive or defensive? More showy or efficient? More lethal or merciful? What weapon/s reflect their personality?
Story Circumstances of a Fight - When, where, and why the fight is happening.
Setting - Is there a battle raging all around this particular fight? Is the fight legal? Are we in the open air or a cramped room? Are there objects around that could be used as weapons? If the fight makes too much noise, will someone come running either to break it up or join in?
Relationships - Are the combatants mortal enemies? Horsing around? Friendly but fierce rivals? Drunk? Is one person fighting for their life against someone just doing a job?
Powder/Spark - What is the larger series of events and tensions that led to this fight taking place, and then what specific event set it off?
Stay tuned for Part II for an example of text research and combat storytelling in Shakespeare!