Course Catalog: Stage Combat/Theatre 318
By Charles Buchanan
The swords are real. That’s the first thing Daniel Warren learned in the Department of Theatre’s Stage Combat course. The tougher lesson was learning how to react when a classmate pointed a weapon in his direction.
“Control is definitely the hardest obstacle, because it goes against every instinct during a fight,” says Warren, a sophomore. “But the attacker is always in control on the stage, and the attacks are agreed upon beforehand. Force is never used.”
Creating the illusion of realistic fighting for plays, TV, and film—and staying safe while performing it—“must be learned slowly,” says Ron Hubbard, Ph.D., the associate professor of theatre who teaches the course. “Movement skills are the most important aspect.” In fact, he begins each class with tai chi, teaching students to make carefully controlled motions with their limbs.
Then comes choreography. Depending on the semester, students master unarmed fighting, Hollywood swordplay, or the use of weapons ranging from the rapier and dagger to the staff, firearms, and the broadsword. “All stage combat is choreographed, and it’s rehearsed more than any other part of the show,” explains Hubbard, who has been a fight choreographer, movement coach, or stuntman on hundreds of productions. “The professional standard is 10 hours of rehearsal for each minute of fight time.” Classwork is about 95 percent physical; for each weapon, students must pass a written test and demonstrate their skills.
"Taking time to develop the fight choreography, not unlike a dance, is the only way to remain within the bounds of technique,” says senior theatre major Josh Butler, who took the class last fall. “It’s also the safest way, and it produces the most believable fight. By the time we perform the fight, nothing should run through our minds but the characters’ motivation or the understanding of the play’s situation.”
Butler and Warren especially enjoyed learning to wield the broadsword—“the sword of history,” as Warren calls it. “I have such respect for medieval broadswordsmen because it requires so much power to fight effectively with it,” says Butler, who used the course as preparation for the role of Macbeth in Theatre UAB’s production of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy.
Warren, a criminal justice major, foresees other applications for his stage combat skills. In addition to control and the safe use of weaponry, Stage Combat has taught him how to work with partners, he says. “The moves can be demanding, but we work together to figure out what each person is best able to do,” he says. “I plan to be in SWAT, where working with a group is essential.”