I don’t usually get fight directorly in this forum, but a recent resurgence of interest in this portion of my life/training has caused certain issues to be high on my mind. This, in conjunction with seeing a few cringe-worthy safety issues onstage recently, has made me feel like a few things need to be said.
First and foremost: hire a fight director. If you don’t think you need a fight director, I can almost guarantee that you do. Does anyone do any of the following things in your production: slap someone, fall to the ground, faint or otherwise slide out of a chair, drop to his knees, carry someone, come into direct physical contact in any way with another actor, point a gun at someone, use a gun period, pick up a weapon with the intent to use it on another actor, actually use the weapon on another actor, tie someone to a chair, do something to an actor tied to a chair? If any of these things happen, YOU NEED A FIGHT DIRECTOR.
Just this week, I saw a show in which there were several faints, slaps, and physical bits. The program didn’t list an FD working on the project which led me to believe that perhaps the director had some fight training (which is often the case). The slaps and faints looked okay in my book, so besides being slightly grumpy that an FD was out of work I didn’t much mind.
It only made my hackles rise when, in the second act, there was a long drawn out torture scene involving contact gut punches, poorly executed slaps, and (most disturbingly) the use of a heavy-duty wire cutter applied to an actor’s fingers. The victim was tied to a chair and the aggressor held his hand down while hovering with the weapon. The victim’s fingers were BETWEEN THE BLADES of the REAL wire cutters. Despite this being in a frozen tableau, it seriously made me squirm in a “I, as a professional FD, am worried for the safety of these actors” way rather than a “good audience member suspends disbelief” way.
I really can’t stress this enough: weapons are weapons. It doesn’t matter if the weapon is a found weapon, a nonconventional weapon, or a weapon you may think is “safe” (dulled-down razor, etc.). If you pick up an object and intend it to do harm to another living thing, that object becomes a weapon. This is why self-defense classes recommend keeping a heavy duty Maglite by your bed in case of home invasion. Just because you’re not using a sword, gun, or knife does NOT MEAN you are not involved in a weapon combat sequence.
Directors, stage managers, actors: there are ways to keep yourself (and your company)
from getting sued by the union. There are ways to keep yourself (and your actors) safe from any mishap, no matter how unlikely seeming. There are theatre professionals who can help make your violence good, believable, and a lot more brutal than it would look if you were “just doing it”. When people “just do it”, they necessarily pull punches. Most individuals simply aren’t comfortable hitting another person full-force in the face. Thus, your attacks will look stilted, awkward, and frankly sloppy and counter to your artistic intentions.
At the risk of giving up industry secrets, budget concerns are not a factor here. Thing one: it is a LOT cheaper to hire an FD for a few hours than to deal with the legal and insurance fees innate in actually harming an actor working on your project. Thing two: there are many FDs who have students who, while perhaps lacking in experience, do not lack in training. These students will likely be happy to work on your project for no more payment than a resume byline and some good networking. While you won’t get the name-brand association that comes with a fully-fledged FD and you won’t get the complex violence experience/background someone like that can bring to the table, you will definitely get a safe show for your actors, and something much better coordinated than anything that came out of an untrained head.
If you are an actor working on a project and think that your safety may be compromised, SAY SOMETHING. Too many actors are willing to do anything to make the show go on. This is your HEALTH, your physical WELL-BEING that you are gambling with. If that doesn’t matter to you, consider the age-old axiom of “your body is your instrument”. You will not be able to do the same kind of work in the short-term (or even the long-term maybe) if your eardrum is blown out by a full-force contact slap, or you receive a giant powder burn on your face from an improperly used stage revolver (true stories, unfortunately, and ones that happens more often than you would think). You would never stay at a desk job where your coworkers physically abuse you and you come home with injuries every day, why would you stay in an acting job that does the same because your employer (for whatever reason) doesn’t want to hire a safety expert?
Suffering for the sake of art is one thing, putting your life and limb at risk for a show which you probably aren’t even being paid to do is another. Theatre is a collaborative process and the more talented individuals who execute it, the better that the theatre in general becomes. Why wouldn’t we want to keep each other safe and healthy when doing projects together?