Fight Choreography is designed to create the illusion of physical combat without causing harm to the performers. It is employed in live stage plays as operatic & ballet productions and media productions including film & television. Stunts, actors, dancers & martial artist are in field of study fight choreography worldwide.
Stage combat training includes unarmed combat skills such as illusory slaps, punches, kicks, throwing and holding techniques; theatrical adaptations of various forms of fencing such as rapier and dagger, small sword and broadsword, as well as the use of other weapons, notably the quarterstaff and knives; and more specialized skills such as professional wrestling and different styles of martial arts. However, stage combat can include any form of choreographed violence and the options are limited only by safety concerns, and the ability of the participants involved. As a note, most of these techniques are drawn from actual fighting techniques, but modified to be safer for actors. For example, although there are a number of ways of creating the safe illusion of a slap to the face (which is obviously something that could really be done in combat), none of these involve making actual contact with the victim's face.
The over-riding concern is for the safety of the actors and audience. This requirement has led to the adaptation of many standard martial arts and fencing skills specifically for performance. For example, many basic sword attacks and parries must be modified to ensure that the actors do not bring the points of their weapons past their partner's face or otherwise inadvertently risk the other actor's health and well-being. Attacking actions in stage combat are extended past the performance partner's body, or aimed short of their apparent targets. Likewise, whereas their characters may be trying to violently twist each others limbs, slap, or punch, or grapple, and engaging in vicious unarmed combat, the actors must operate at a high level of complicity and communication to ensure a safe, exciting fight scene. Considerable professional judgement is called upon to determine what technical level may be appropriate for a given performer, taking into account allotted rehearsal time, and the expectations of the director.
The combat phase of a play rehearsal is referred to as a fight rehearsal. Choreography is typically learned step by step, and practiced at first very slowly before increasing to a speed that is both dramatically convincing and safe for the performers and their audience. Even stage combat is risky, and it is preferable for actors to have as much training and experience as possible. A "fight call" or a brief rehearsal before the show is performed each time, set aside for the actors to "mark" through the fight to increase their muscle memory.
A show which includes a great deal of fighting will typically be trained and supervised by a professional fight choreographer and may also include a fight captain, who runs fight calls and ensures that actors are remaining safe throughout the duration of the show.
Why get certified?
Why should I certify in stage combat?
So that it is easier to hire you. And because you deserve to have a certificate as evidence of your skills.
Certificates exist to make it easier for producers & directors to cut the chase. They are a proof of who is actually trained and experienced at stage fighting and who isn’t. “Who in my list of choices will give me the physical scenes this show needs in a decent amount of rehearsal time?” Questions like this effect quality, budget & casting.
When you consider the safety and performance needs of the industry, your skills in stage combat become much more sell-able when they have been assessed and verified to a recognised industry standard.
How do you know you are good enough to list ‘Stage Combat’ as a sell-able skill, if it’s not really been tested out?
What does stage combat certification qualify me to do?
- Perform fights safely and effectively.
- Communicate effectively with a fight director and follow his/her choreographic choices with confidence.
Basic certificate in stage combat means that you should be safe and consistent when performing basic fight techniques in basic routines. You should also have a basic facility to communicate with a fight director, and to learn and retain choreography.
An intermediate certificate would mean that you have studied further in a broader range of weapon systems or fighting styles. You can deliver a quality pathos and performance in sustained fight scenes.
Advanced should mean that you have trained & tested yourself as far as any standard performing artist is required. You are highly capable of performing with genuine honesty in the most complex of physical scenes. You can retain longer sequences and manage the stress and pressure of performance; which is why the exam process for advanced has traditionally been very demanding.
What’s wrong with me choreographing or fight directing if all I have is an actor/combatant certificate?
An actor/combatant certificate in stage combat is about performance and your ability to follow direction and recreate choreography safely.
It often takes a decade for a practitioner to qualify as a fight director. Why? – The number and variety of risk elements, performance conditions and artistic demands is absolutely limitless. A fight director has to safely travel this territory, while maintaining the confidence of both the director and the actors. This training takes a great deal of time.
The role of Fight Director bears great responsibility, not only for the artistic content of their work but for the safety of many people. As an actor, you do not want to be held responsible for a fellow actors broken arm, teeth, eardrums, or career. Don’t be that actor. This is why Equity has a basic instruction that you should not undertake work you are not competent to perform, especially when it involves risk.
Plenty of people list stage combat as a skill who aren’t certified, don’t they?
Plenty of actors can be held guilty of the “sure I can horse ride” lie at some stage. Keep in mind is that the tendency for actors to lie about their skill sets undermines the validity of all hard-working actors and the skills they have acquired.
More to the point, this little lie can become a much bigger problem when you consider that stage combat involves substantial physical risk.
In fight situations you are not just responsible for yourself but the safety of those around you. You are also responsible to ensure the the production at hand continues to go on unhindered.
For this reason directors and producers are increasingly asking for some kind of verification of stage combat skills. Asking for a valid certificate bypasses these ‘little’ lies and helps guarantee quality. If they need to have someone who can actually deliver the skills, they will probably ask for a certificate. Certification cuts through the crap.
But on Casting Call Pro and Spotlight I can just click a box? I don’t need a certificate there do I?
The thing to consider here is that Directors and Casting Directors don’t like having their time wasted.
Spotlight does have an area that stipulates advanced proficiency level, and suggest that it should be from a legitimate stage combat association. Casting Call Pro provides an additional skills area as well as a training background area where qualifications and certificates can be made explicit.
It comes down to your personal integrity.
We all know how directors feel when you don’t look like your head shot at the audition. It is even worse when you don’t fully have skills that you have laid claim to.
How long are stage combat certificates good for?
A stage combat certificate is valid for three years. Like a first aid certificate. The thinking behind three years is that the performer is not likely to keep a firm grasp of the skills that he or she demonstrated in the exam if there is no evidence of further activity.
Certificates can be revalidated in many organisations by attending top up workshops that cater for this. Better yet, simply by jump into the next level and furthering your skills. Even if your previous certificate has expired.
So what companies have actually asked for fight certification when they hire actors?
The Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe, National Theatre, the Royal Opera, physical theatre companies have all requested certification in their casting briefs. The higher quality the production company, the more they are likely to require qualifications.
The YB Fight Directors have been repeatedly hired by clients to audition actors purely on their stage combat capabilities when the production has called for it.
I’m pretty physical and can pick up things quick. Won’t the production just hire someone else to teach me anyway?
While we can’t really speak for all productions, we can certainly say that companies that hire specifically trained actors save themselves substantial time and money in rehearsals. They also generally get a better product.
Fighting skills aren’t likely to make up 100% of why an actor is cast, but in competitive audition for a physical role, a fight qualification it can be very relevant indeed.
You will also find that if you are cast in a principal role you may not have time to learn a new skill and you may not perform to your best ability in the fight scenes. These scenes are often the most memorable and dramatically critical scenes in the play. If you let the audience down in these moments they will probably remember your unfavourably.
Have your skills in place and the most exciting moments of the play will be your best moments.
Who else gets trains in stage combat?
Aside from actors… directors, movement directors, trainee stunt performers, dancers. Basically people who feel an understanding of stage combat will improve their work. Some people just do it because it’s fun and challenging. We encourage stage managers to dip their toe in so that they can support fight heavy plays by better understanding what actors go through in fight scenes. Anyone who trains with YoungBlood will be expected to train as an actor.
If I do martial arts, doesn’t that count as fighting? That’s real- isn’t it better than stage combat?
We love it when an actor rocks up with martial arts skills. They often bring with them superb body control, real martial insight and countless other transferable skills. But to be honest, there are an equal number of transferable skills in dance, if not more. And dancers are rarely trained to ACTUALLY hit people. Martial artists who come to us to learn how to make their fights work for the audience, how to use their martial skills to protect their fight partners, and to keep their work safe and repeatable when it comes to theatre or film- we get on with them very well.
Real fight training is not the answer to all problems and can even introduce a few of its own. The truth about a real fight is that it just isn’t up to the optics of film or theatre. When someone witnesses a real fight they often are left wondering ‘What happened?’ It is almost always impossible to see a story. The audience must witness what happens to become invested in the story unfolding in front of them.
Isn’t stage combat swordplay just watered down fencing? Can’t I just do fencing?
Just like martial artists, we love actors who have fenced. Modern fencing is a sport. In the Hollywood ‘Golden Age’ Swashbuckling films the fencing on screen was a distillation of Sabre fencing.
Times have changed though, and now theatrical swordplay is more closely related to historical fencing (western martial arts) However most historical fencers will be the first to say that then many of their techniques are not repeatable with safety in a theatrical context, nor are they necessarily readable when it comes to story.
Stage combat pays homage to sport fencing and historical martial arts. Those martial experts help keep us real, and inspire us to express the sublime.
Stage combat is a set of physical skills and principals applied while acting. You can learn many of these skills and principals by doing martial arts, fencing, tumbling classes, and acting classes. And you may be pretty confident that you can perform them onstage.
But if you want to convince people who hire actors, then you should train with the best teachers and become a certified actor combatant.