Monday, 21 June 2021
Tuesday, 1 June 2021
Also Published on the ART of Fighting blog
Another slightly later slice of history
Extracted from Norrie Epsteins Book; The Friendly Shakespeare, Published 1993
Again, looking at how things have both moved and things have stayed the same.We must keep what works, while looking to see how we can make things achieve the outcomes better
John Waller: Swordplay and Dueling
Is it enough that a Shakespearean actor speak the lines and act; he must also appear to be an accomplished duelist. As a choreographer of combat, a fight director must make terrified actors look like fierce adversaries. John Waller has been directing fights, battles, and duels for over twenty-five years, and his numerous credits include Ian McKellen's 1989 Richard III at the National Theatre in London and the films Anne of the Thousand Days and The French Lieutenant's Woman.
NE: What is a fight director's goal?
JW: To have an actor do ten blows and have the audience believes that the characters are trying to kill each other. Too much stylistic choreography isn't convincing. It must be a matter of life and death.
NE: How do you get an actor to want to kill someone and at the same time, hold back?
JW: The actor should not feel like killing; the character they play should. Actors are not all that physical, so someone who is really aggressive and strong can be truly frightening. Though one opponent may be baring their teeth and flashing their eyes, the partner should be able to see that they are in control. But all the audience should see is the aggression that's the hard bit
NE: How do you go about staging a fight?
JW: What you first do is assess an actor's physical presence, and then you try to persuade them that the character would have been good at fighting. If they are big and heavy, then you choreograph in character. You combine the actual fight with the actor's physique and choreograph around that.
NE: How about staging big battle scenes?
JW: You just have to get everybody moving to fill all the spaces. If you get three people fighting, two against one, and they're the main focus, then you get them to hold center stage. When it's time for them to move, their space is immediately filled by another couple. The other characters fight, but they put slightly less intensity into their movements; otherwise, the audience's eyes would stray from the central actors. If you have two young spear carriers swashbuckling away on stage and you find yourself looking at them instead of the main actors, well, that's wrong. That's not where the emphasis should be.
NE: What sort of fights do you think Shakespeare staged?
JW: They must have been phenomenal, and he always put them at the end of the play as a climax. The actors would have been laughed off the stage if they weren't any good. He wrote at a time when nearly all men fought with swords, from the aristocrats who knew all the newfangled Italian fencing styles and terms, to the apprentice boys who fought with sword and buckler in the English manner. Shakespeare even has Mercutio poking fun of Tybalt's Italian techniques in Romeo and Juliet. What Shakespeare seems to be saying is, it’s all a bit fancy for us English.
NE: How can Richard be a great warrior if he's handicapped?
JW: That's always a problem with Richard III. All actors want to play him with a deformity. But the play is set in about 1480, when the essence of being a knight was to ride horses - the knight on horseback was the equivalent of a tank. When a person is as deformed as Richard is portrayed as being, with a withered arm and a gamey leg, then he logically wouldn't be able to ride a medieval war-horse, which you ride with your left hand because your right hand is the one you fight with.
NE: So how did the real Richard III fight?
JW: It's Olivier's portrayal that everyone copies. Richard had been fighting hand to hand for years and was still fighting when he was killed. Though an actor can play him with some deformity, it shouldn't hinder him from proving what a great warrior he was. If he is too deformed he wouldn't be able to ride a medieval war-horse, so there would be little point in him saying, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
NE: What's your opinion of the famous duel in Olivier's Hamlet ?
JW: It's exciting. But if you ask me if I believe in it, well, not completely. It does not tell the story of Hamlet as much as it should. Hamlets duel is a very difficult thing to direct. Hamlet sets out to patch up the argument with Laertes, and he thinks the duel is just an ordinary fencing match. But Laertes intends to cheat him with a poisoned sword. So they begin to fence, and Hamlet keeps scoring the points, and Laertes can't get him with the sharp sword. So when Hamlet finally is hit and sees his blood, he becomes upset, because he's trying to be a nice guy and his opponent is going for him with a sharp sword. But he still doesn't realize he's dying. So he tries to get the sword away from Laertes, and then he goes for him with it. Now he thinks Laertes is frightened because he has a sharp sword, but he doesn't know that Laertes is frightened because he's got a poisoned sharp sword! Do you see what I mean? It's quite complicated to dramatize. And then, of course, the match turns into a brawl. So you've got an ordinary fencing match and then an aggressive fencing match with Laertes actually fighting for his life. All the while Hamlet never knows that he's also fighting for his life. Although Olivier's duel is exciting, it didn't show all of this.
NE: Wouldn't this be lost on an audience?
JW: If it's done properly and they know the story, no. The movement and the choreography should tell the story of the play. Most of all, the audience has to believe that the characters are fulfilling the demands of the plot. At no time must the audience believe that the actor is in danger. That's the hard part.
Also Published on the ART of Fighting blog
A slice of History on what we teach and where it has come from.
Any approach should, or must evolve, we need to consider where it comes from, examine and maintain that things that are effective, and look to improve things, while not just changing for the sake of changing.
John Waller is Combat Master at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Arts Educational School, the Drama Studio, and the British and European Studies Group. He is a founder member of the British Society of Fight Directors. M r: Waller's stage work includes choreographing sword fights and stage combat at the Royal Court Theatre, Regent's Park Theatre, and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera.
Mr Waller is also an expert horseman, archer, and falconer and has worked on many films, including Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Anne of the Thousand Days, and The French Lieutenant's Woman. His television work spans a wide range of projects from TV movies and BBC series, such as Dr. Who and Bleak House, to commercials and documentaries on archery and weapons. M r Waller has had a lifelong interest in ancient weapons and medieval customs and is a frequent consultant on historical film projects.
The course I teach is called Stage Combat, but the same techniques are used in film and television as well as on stage. What I try to do is choreograph a sword fight to look as it would have in the period in which the play takes place. If a play is set in the nineteenth century, for example, I will base the fight scenes on how people fought at that time.
If you were producing Romeo and Juliet and you wanted it set in sixteenth-century Italy, you would expect your choreographer to choreograph a pavane or a galliard for the dance scenes; you'd want your lighting designer to create the effect of candlelight instead of oil lamps, and you'd expect the set design and costumes to be of that period as well. Why shouldn't you expect the fight director to create the combat scenes using all the shapes of that period, which are, in my opinion, more beautiful than any contrived modern theatrical shapes. If you changed the setting of the play to nineteenth-century England , then I would choreograph a nineteenth-century fight. Of course, I take certain liberties. It is not always possible to be a purist, but it is something to strive for.
How has the approach to stage combat changed?
Most contemporary fight directors choreograph combat scenes using modern fencing techniques, regardless of the period the play is set in. Originally, English actors just learned contemporary fencing with masks. Then Bill Hobbs, who was instrumental in upgrading the idea of stage fight, turned it into a balletic form of swordplay while using some period shapes. But I believe his emphasis is more on movement than authentic shapes. In drama schools today there are two schools of thought. Some schools teach this form of balletic swordplay, but in the twelve schools where I and my colleagues teach, students are taught through my historic "shapes" approach.
Sword fighting is not what you see in Hollywood movies, which do not use period fighting styles. What we do is teach the actor how to move like a swordsman of a specific period as much as possible. Then I incorporate certain techniques to develop the actor's stage awareness. I don't just teach Elizabethan or Georgian sword fighting. I teach actors certain moves that denote the style of the period in which the play takes place. In addition, students learn how to maintain eye contact, how to develop their peripheral vision, their sense of balance, and sense of center; all of which makes the fight appear motivated and authentic. I teach the student to move in ways that are, according to my research, Elizabethan or Georgian, etc., and these moves lend a certain authentic shape to the fight.
Could You Give Me an Example of the Difference Between the Elizabethan Shape and Some Other Period?
In the Elizabethan period, swords were much longer and heavier than they are in modem fencing, as a visit to any museum will show. Therefore, if I impose a modem fencing stance on an actor using Elizabethan weapons, it changes their sense of center and sense of balance, and alters the intention they will convey to an audience. Modern swords are lighter and enable the actor to stand much more square on and use more arm movements. An eighteenth-century or Georgian swordsman is more like the modern fencer except that he still had vestiges of movement left over from earlier times. People today are preoccupied with Eastern martial arts because they find them so graceful. In my opinion Elizabethan sword fighting is just as graceful because, given the size and shape of the weapons, these movements are the most efficient ways to defend yourself. There are no extraneous movements and its simplicity gives it a pure and elegant form.
How people fought also depended on the clothes they wore, whether it was armor or Georgian cuffs, and particularly the kind of footwear worn during the period. For instance, during Louis XIV's reign, people in his court walked with big bucket boots. They either had to walk bow-legged like a cowboy, or pass their legs round each other-which is how they danced; hence one of the ballet steps was developed. If the boots can affect the way you dance, and the way you carry a sword can affect the way you bow, then those things can affect the way you sword fight.
How Is Your Class Structured?
Our basic teaching starts from students learning how to maintain eye contact. There isn't a martial art that doesn't work from the eyes. Then we teach the actor how to hit a mark on the floor while maintaining eye contact with their partner, and this helps to develop peripheral vision. The better you get at looking at your opponent's eyes, the better your peripheral vision becomes. This, of course, helps the actor become more sensitive to what is surrounding them on stage.
We start off with a basic choreographed cutting sword routine based on a series of attacks and defenses. The routine is designed to start the students moving together and they learn how to stretch their balance- that is, maintain balance while they lunge. Having mastered a sword fight in a basic style that is suitable for any weapon from a Viking sword to a U.S. Cavalry saber - that is, cuts and defenses with a long cutting weapon - we then add a dagger in the other hand. Then students repeat the basic routine but incorporate a dagger. Now they have to use both hands.
After the simple sword and dagger work we teach a different set of moves that incorporates thrusts and cuts. As we go along we teach stage awareness, how to make the thrusts safe, whether they should be upstage or downstage, and how to move the body, all the while increasing the student's awareness of their center. But it all stems from the very first lesson of looking into each other's eyes and not at the weapons.
Having accomplished a sword routine with Elizabethan sword and dagger, we then teach students how to disarm each other and add this to the fight routine. So they start with a simple sword and dagger fight, then one disarms the other of his dagger and ends up with two weapons against one. Then the other student is disarmed of their dagger and they go back to the basic routine they learned with just swords.
Up till now students have been using large swords, which require what we call "in-distance" fighting. In distance means that I always thrust past your belly, not at you, while you step back or to the side as you naturally would if we were really fighting and the sword were coming at you. The audience doesn't see that the sword actually went past you. They see you withdraw and it looks to them as if I would have stabbed or cut you if you hadn't moved. The illusion of reality is created by your reaction, not just by my thrust.
The next step is to teach eighteenth-century small sword fighting, which requires a completely different technique. These weapons are smaller and lighter and are more like modem fencing swords. Now we teach "out-of distance" fighting, which means that instead of thrusting past your body, the swords are thrust toward the body, but never come closer than eighteen inches. In-distance technique also creates the illusion that the sword would go through the body. Out-of-distance technique creates the illusion that the small sword thrust, which is always made toward the torso, is stopped by the opponent's sword. I teach both in- and out-distance techniques, whereas the traditional approach to sword fighting has emphasized the latter.
Next we teach unarmed combat. Students learn how to roll, swing a punch, and take a slap, etc., without contact by the actors. For example, the noises of the slap can be made either by the deliverer or the receiver. We teach students how to safely throw someone over a table, like they do in cowboy movies. Even if an actor is never called upon to do this, being able to fling someone over a table builds confidence and gives a student the physical courage to try other things.
What we are also trying to teach is a philosophical attitude, not just a technique. We teach theatricality based on reality. By that I mean that the actor should give the audience the impression that they are really trying to kill their opponent, and the opponent should respond as if their life were really in danger. One should always react truthfully. In this way the illusion of reality is created. Since the actor is moving realistically, we believe you don't necessarily have to add theatrical flourishes. It's truth first: move like a swordsman or deliver a punch as you would in reality. The tricks are how you hide it from the audience.
I work with two associates, Rodney Cottier and Mike Loades. Together we teach stage combat at twelve drama schools. Of course, the three of us have slightly different styles, but we all believe in the same basic philosophy. Most of our students study stage combat for the first two years of their three-year course. At the end of the first year's training, students take an exam that is set by the Society of British Fight Directors. If they can perform a fight scene that includes a rapier/dagger fight, a small sword fight , and an unarmed combat sequence all at performance pitch, they receive a certificate. They can then choose to train an additional year to develop their skills with different weapons and learn how to choreograph themselves. LAMDA also has a one-year course for over seas students that includes an intensive course in stage combat, and they take the same exam as well.
At LAM DA we have also started to teach students archery and horseback riding. The training is for theatrical purposes. It helps them overcome any fear they might have and teaches them the different styles of riding. It also helps them learn how to deliver lines on horseback, which they might be asked to do in film.
Although all stage combat is choreographed, there is a certain spontaneity at the end of training when good students can create their own moves, when they know how a sequence should progress logically. It is very exciting when students can do this. They are young and are not yet locked into patterns. My work is then fed and enlarged by watching them create their own moves. I am constantly learning from them.
How Do You Work with Actors in a Production?
How I choreograph a fight will be based on the director's interpretation of the characters. I use my knowledge of the period and weapons and build around what the director wants. My only preconceived ideas are of the shape of the period and how the weapons were used. Then I ask the actor how they see their character and build around that. The fighting style must reflect the character's behavior and motivation, as well as each particular actor's body. I also try to help the actor understand why one particular thrust or blow is stronger or more appropriate than another. For example, the reason Mercutio challenges Tybalt is that he feels ashamed because Romeo won't respond to Tybalt's provocations; he challenges Tybalt in order to get rid of this shame. So it's probably not an all out aggressive challenge, but rather more of a defiant one. Therefore, in the fight Mercutio might not move in too closely or aggressively on Tybalt. He might approach it more as a contest than a blood feud.
When I work with actors I first ask them to read the scene for me and from that I can tell how they view their character. Then I ask them to try certain moves and incorporate what they think they should be doing with my understanding of the weapons and the period.
How Do You Incorporate Acting Techniques into Your Stage Combat Course?
It's a question of motivation. When a student is learning a routine for the first time, I ask them to think of why their opponent might make a specific move. Have you over extended? Has your opponent seen an opening? Are they trying to kill you? When they try to kill you are you expecting it or are you caught unawares? Perhaps you have been caught because your aggression carried you too far or made you back off a bit more than you should have. Those are simple instinctive reactions that are often missing in worked-out routines because the actors have come to believe their fighting is safe. And it's never safe - even when it's choreographed. They must never believe it is safe because then it's not real. You must always jump back as if someone were trying to cut you in half. The audience's belief hinges on your reaction.
Recently a student mentioned that they had seen a particular production that had some very elaborate sword fights. I asked them if they believed the characters were trying to kill each other. They thought for a moment and said, "It was very clever, but no, I didn't." That's the complete opposite of what we teach.-+
Wednesday, 26 May 2021
What a year, and we won't say we are out the other side yet.
However despite all that has happened things are starting to move again. Our different schools and teachers ahve been able to make things happen. We can look forward to things finding a new balance and assessments taking place again in the near future.
Monday, 27 April 2020
The immediate changes were that schools have closwed their doors, with the Easter break this has given schools time to make changes to see what they can provide by way of online training.
Due to the need of space, training partners, equpiment etc, combat along with a number of ther subjects has been ht by Furloughs.
Immediate effects for the BGSC was that the Foundation Course at LAMDA we not able to do their final showings of their fights we can however award them their grades based on the work they had done in class.
LAMDA closing its doors also mean that their was no Easter Fight Factory at LAMDA, the first time in 20 plus years.
Of course there is no teaching face to face in the summer term , so the prep for Fight Night and its assessment have gone.
Its a further shame as it was to be Rodney Cottiers last at LAMDA.
As we al are well see how things develop over the coming months and work to see where thinsg go andn how we can maximise the opportunities that are presented.
Monday, 9 December 2019
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Presented and Assessed on performance of Unarmed combat and sword and dagger.
Sunday, 23 June 2019
LAMDA Combat Assessment Tuesday 11th June
Assessor Jonathan Howell
Teachers Kristina Soeborg, Rodney Cottier Jonathan Waller
Level 1 Standard
Level 2 Intermediate - modules
Level 3 Advanced - modules
13 Distinction *
Level 3 Advanced Completed overall grade
Level 4 Specialisation
Well done to all
Full results to follow.