Stage Combat: Making the Fight Look Right

Stage Combat - making onstage fights look real. Hill Street Studios

Conflict is the essence of drama.  Onstage, many characters will fight with words only up to a certain point before physically expressing their frustration on something or someone.  Most plays include some element of violence: a slap, a punch, a stab or just attempts at these types of strikes.  Some plays, especially classics, have complicated sword fights and mass battles. 

To present such scenes—called “fight scenes”—on stage so that they look realistic, but do not actually harm the participants, actors learn and practice stage combat. No matter the number of moves in the fight scene—one move or fifty—stage combat is the term used for any act of violence done or attempted on another character.

Armed and Unarmed

Armed stage combat involves weapons, any type of weapon—rapiers, daggers, broadswords, quarterstaves, knives, guns, or found weapons. (Found weapons are exactly as they sound—an actor uses whatever is in reach to threaten, defend, or attack. This includes anything from a cushion to a clip board to a broom.)

Weapons made especially for the stage.  The steel and other metals used in stage weapons like swords are forged especially to avoid burrs, keep their shine, and make a satisfying clang when clashed against another metal weapon.  The tips will be shaped so as to look sharp and pointed from the audience’s perspective, but up close, it’s clear that they are actually rounded and dull for safety reasons. Stage knives are often made of aluminum since they aren’t supposed to encounter resistance and since the shine that comes off the lightweight material works well underneath stage lights.

For the use of each weapon, there are many combinations of footwork, defensive, and offensive moves compiled from instructional texts from the weapon’s time period and translated to the stage. If you want to learn these moves, there is an entire organization devoted to training and certification in the theatrical art of stage combat—The Society of American Fight Directors. The SAFD also offers training and testing that lead to credentials for people who wish to become teachers and fight choreographers or fight directors.

Unarmed stage combat refers to any and all moves that do not involve weapons: punches, kicks, slaps, grappling, and falls.  Actors and directors often mishandle unarmed moves because they appear less dangerous than armed attacks.  Unarmed fight scenes, however, are where most injuries occur. Slaps in particular have earned themselves a reputation as the most dangerous move in stage combat circles. In the hands of untrained actors, they can hurt when performed hand to cheek and leave giant red marks on faces.

Just as with armed stage combat, behind each punch, kick, and slap, there are whole sets of moves and methods developed to produce a believable act of violence on stage. 

A fight director is someone who has studied and trained in all or most of the stage combat disciplines. Fight directors can evaluate the actors, stage or performance space, and audience angles to plan and teach the best way to provide a realistic scene or moment of violence.  Like a choreographer who brings dance expertise, a fight director brings realistic looking combat moves and safety to stage performances.

The most dramatic and poignant moments in a play often involve elements of stage combat. A good fight director can heighten those important climatic scenes and keep the audience thoroughly engaged in the dramatic action. Without a the guidance of a fight director, two actors in a heated debate may be too obvious as they pull their punches (not hit as hard as possible), the actor who performs a crucial stabbing can clearly miss his mark, or an actor who has been shot in the back can fall the wrong way.  Fight directors know how to blend these combative moments believably into the audience’s experience.

Stage combat is a fascinating and fun element of theatre.  Like many other aspects of theatre, its rich background and methods require study and dedication—all of which go completely unnoticed when a fight scene is done well!

For a close-up look at actors practicing fight moves, watch this Stage Combat Techniques video.