Hand me my sword!

This semester, the first-year MFA students are learning stage combat. Their focus is on fighting with Single Sword and Rapier and Dagger—two of the more common styles of swordplay on the classical stage. The end goal is to have good stage combat skills for work and careers in theatre and also to be certified as an Actor Combatant through the Society of American Fight Directors. Here, two students discuss their experiences.

What is your experience with stage combat?

Suzelle: Well, I did stage combat in my undergraduate program. My movement teacher at the University of Houston was Adam Noble, and he trained my class in Unarmed Combat, Single Sword, and Knife. I was able to test in all three with the Society of American Fight Directors and get certified. It’s been really great to revisit Single Sword, as well as getting to learn Rapier and Dagger. This time around, I have been able to learn the finer details of the skill, because I’m not worrying about swinging a pointy sharp sword. To get better at anything you often have to go back to the basics and master the small details. Brian Byrnes, who's is training us here, is one of seventeen Fight Masters with the SAFD, so to get to learn from him at such a specific level is really exciting. My goal is to not only be able to sling steal safely and with precision, but also believably.

Talley Beth: In undergrad, I had a semester-long stage combat class. We spent half the semester on Unarmed combat and half on Rapier and Dagger work. Other than that, this semester is my first in-depth work with stage combat. It’s been incredibly illuminating and challenging, in a good way.

How do you think stage combat supports your acting work?

Suzelle: I think it supports it in every way you can think. You have to be precise, active, believable. Every moment must be filled. You have to be connected with your partner. It requires concentration and fluidity of actions. Most of all, you have to tell the best story possible. I think the most valuable thing that I’m learning from stage combat—and am trying to implement into my acting—is how to make something precisely choreographed look believably spontaneous.

Talley Beth: Stage combat requires everything that acting normally requires, only you really could get hurt—or just look silly—if you aren’t incredibly clear and precise. Just as in all acting, combat requires intense accuracy and connection with your partner. There’s no room for “shmackting” in combat work, so the actions—and acting—become simple and clear.

Combat work is also great for practicing physical listening. Your whole body has to be aware of the other people and the pointy pieces of metal moving about the space. This awareness is essential for the actor at all times. When you have to do it for safety measures, though, you can’t cheat. Again, you have to really do it.

What other benefits do you get from stage combat?

Suzelle: It’s a really great workout. You gain strength and stamina with the drills. I think that it has helped me become more aware of my whole body and how to efficiently use it. You have to learn all the moving parts: swing the sword, hit the target, move your feet, breath, say your lines, fill the movement with intension. It also is very beneficial when you’re looking for jobs. If a casting director sees you have fight experience and you’re auditioning for a show like Game of Thrones, that’s going to be a leg up on those who don’t have any combat experience. Also, it just makes you feel confident and fierce.

Talley Beth: This is a great form of full-body exercise. We lift pieces of metal, we lunge, we squat, we duck, we stabilize our cores as we make a chop at the enemy’s head. We have to be lithe with it all, too—not just strong! We also learn some of the history of combat and fencing, as well as what styles of fighting align with particular time periods and cultures. It’s essential info for building the world of the play, and it’s fun to nerd out over it.

What two characters from the Shakespearean canon would you like to see in a duel?

Suzelle: Well at first, I wanted to say Macbeth and Hotspur, but I think it would be far more awesome to see their wives, Lady Macbeth and Lady Percy, duel. Both are strong, fiery women and fight for what they believe. I think that would be really amazing to see. I don’t think I know who would win. We should try it, Talley Beth.

Talley Beth: Sir John Falstaff and Juliet’s Nurse! If they didn’t just break down into a verbal banter and make peace and then go to the tavern. Volumnia (Coriolanus) and Margaret (Henry VIs and Richard III). Talk about two ladies who loved war! I bet, had they the training, they could have put the Hotspurs and Tybalts of the canon to shame.

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