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Stage Combat 101: Actions & Reactions

Stage combat is more than simply memorizing choreography and learning proper technique. Yes, those are extremely important for ensuring that the stage combat is safely and properly executed. But remember, stage combat is a form of storytelling. The fights need to continue the story that the actors are telling through their lines and scene work. And what makes a fight look even better is the performers’ actions and reactions to the fight. If a character resorts to violence, they’re obviously feeling strong emotions. Students need to know exactly how the fight affects their character physically and mentally, how the fight tells the story, and how they will portray these feelings.

Physical actions and reactions include:
  • Sounds and vocalizations (exclamations of pain, aggression, or fear, grunts, moans, groans, screams)
  • Body language (fists clenched, beckoning someone to “bring it,” hands held out)
  • Posture (standing tall, cowering, bent over in pain, martial arts poses)
  • Facial expressions (avoid hiding your face — students often want to hide or cover their faces when they’re trying to portray fear or sadness)
  • Movements prior to the fight and after the fight
  • Breathing (out of breath, barely exerting themselves)
  • Changes throughout the fight (showing pain after giving/receiving a blow, being wounded)
Mental actions and reactions include:
  • Why is your character fighting?
  • How skilled or unskilled is your character at fighting?
  • Does your character want to fight or not want to fight?
  • What was your character doing just prior to the fight? 
  • What will your character be doing after the fight?
  • How does the fight affect your character mentally? (Are they fired up, avenged, frightened, traumatized, unconscious?)
  • How does the fight affect the action of the show as a whole?

That’s a lot to think about, isn’t it? Students are likely familiar with creating a character profile when they’re getting to know their role. It’s useful for students to complete a fight analysis (you’ll find a free worksheet below) when participating in stage combat. This will give students a deeper understanding of the fight itself, their character’s role within the fight, and the purpose of the fight within the greater context of the show. 

When performing, once students have learned their choreography and can present it correctly, they can add on all these additional layers. Don’t forget to portray the pain in their exit and their next scenes as well. (A pet peeve of mine is when actors perform an incredible fight with tons of hits and wounds… and then walk away like they’re perfectly fine afterwards — not even out of breath!)

You can use the fight analysis worksheet in class if you’re studying a show with fights in it, such as Romeo & Juliet or Hamlet. Students can compare and contrast how they think different characters would act and react in fights. It’s also interesting to consider how different students might imagine the same character reacting in a fight. One student might envision Tybalt yelling and screaming while leaping and brandishing his sword with flourishes, while another student might envision Tybalt whispering his lines and attacking silently, like a snake.

You can also use the worksheet to practice analysing famous film fights, such as Inigo Montoya versus the Man in Black in The Princess Bride or Captain Jack Sparrow versus Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Have half the class observe one character and half the class observe the other, and create a fight analysis based on what they see. For an added challenge, ask your students what would change if they tried to do those fights live on stage instead of on film.

Click here for a free fight analysis worksheet.
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