Badassery 101: My Stage Combat Course

Quick, name your favorite fight scene from a movie (To see mine, watch here.).

It looks real, right?

In truth, all these fights are as carefully choreographed as one of George Balanchine’s ballets; they seem real onstage or onscreen, but the actors aren’t really taking punches to the face or knees to the groin.  Most actors, at some point during their training, take a specialized course called stage combat to learn such skills.

I happen to be taking stage combat this very semester at my university.  Among the bevy of new skills I can add to my arsenal: punches, kicks (including roundhouse kicks, which nobody does better than Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow on ALIAS), blocks, hair pulls, bites (vampire, zombie, AND human; bet you didn’t know there were that many varieties!), and knees to the head.  Sounds pretty bad-ass, right?  I’m actually REQUIRED to learn how to fight (safely) for my major!  The only other people I know of who get to do that are probably in this thing called the U.S. Military.

Can I let you into a little acting secret, though?  The real tricks to making these fake fights look real are:

  • Timing.  It’s important to make eye contact with your partner before executing any move.  Once you’ve done that, the punch/kick/etc. must be perfectly timed with the reaction of the person taking that punch/kick/etc.
  • The Reaction. What does it look and sound like when you get kicked in the groin or get a right hook punch to the face?  My stage combat instructor always stresses the importance of making sure the physical reaction and the sound looks as real as possible.  The person executing the fight move generally makes the real sound of the punch or whatever on their own body doing something called a “nap” which adds the realism of the fight onstage.  In film, sound effects are added in later during the fight instead of having actors use the “nap.”
  • Angle. By simply changing the angle of your fight, you’re controlling how your audience sees it, which in turn, makes it look more realistic and less amateurish.

Stage combat, however safely it’s taught, is not without its perils, however.  Just Tuesday, I actually got hit in the eye by the knee of one of my fellow actresses during a rehearsal of our fight choreography. We were practicing a knee-to-the-head move for our scene.  It was purely accidental, of course, and we’re not even sure how it happened (most likely a miscalculation of body angles on my part or her grabbing me in the wrong spot), but things like this DO happen occasionally.  I didn’t cry, though I DID immediately put ice on the injured area after class to alleviate any future swelling or black eye tendencies.  Two days later, I only feel a slight pain/swelling around my eye.

See, kids?  Acting is not as easy as it sounds.

Anyway, stage combat is great because it immediately makes an actor feel like a badass.  Every time I walk into class, I leave feeling as cool as my favorite grad-student superspy, Sydney Bristow.  If you’ve never seen ALIAS, the awesome TV show, I urge you to take it upon yourself to check it out on DVD.  Though it went off the air just a few years ago, it was one of the coolest, best written action dramas on TV from LOST creator J.J. Abrams.  Jennifer Garner  and Victor Garber are amazing, and it was the show that gave The Hangover‘s Bradley Cooper (yummmm!) his start.

Where was I?  Oh yeah.  Badassery.  I realize I have it pretty good that I get to actually spend two hours a week learning fight skills when a lot of my friends are trudging through classes on biological engineering, developmental psychology, and accounting at their respective universities.  Personally, I’d rather get a knee to my eye than sit through any of that, but the world needs sensible people too, I guess…

…and apparently, I’m just not meant to be one of them.  Viva la badass!

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