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Hiring a Fight Director

Your theatre company is doing Romeo and Juliet for the next show in your season. Shakespeare wrote multiple fights in the play, so you’ve wisely hired a fight director to choreograph them. The following show has only a couple of slaps, a push, and a fall. One of the actors cast in Romeo and Juliet is also cast in that show. He’s had a little stage combat training over the years, so you wonder if you really need to hire a fight director since he can probably choreograph those minor incidents, and will do it for much less? The answer is simple:

You Should Always Hire a Highly Qualified Fight Director

That actor you cast whose only exposure to stage combat is through the two or three regional workshops, or who attended a three-week intensive workshop—such as the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD) National Stage Combat Workshop—last year, earned a recommended pass in one weapon discipline, but barely passing the other two…This actor is not qualified to choreograph fights. However, the teachers at those regional and national workshops are the highly qualified people you should hire. They’re the ones who have not only honed their skills in the various weapons disciplines, but also assisted several certified teachers and fight directors of national stage combat organizations, such as the SAFD, or Dueling Arts International (DAI), in the classroom and/or the rehearsal halls—learning from the best so they can be the best. They then have taught their own classes and choreographed shows, while continuing to assist their mentors. After several years of honing, teaching, and fight directing, they applied for, and were accepted, into an intense certification process to become a certified teacher and/or fight director of at least one of those national organizations. Passing that process, they were recognized as qualified professionals by those organizations. Finally, they continue honing their skills as teachers and fight directors.

Where the fight director contributes the most to the production is, of course, creating the fights and, if necessary, training the actors.

They’re the ones you want to choreograph the simple slap, push, or fall just as well as the more fight-heavy plays. Fight directors are full of stories about the times they were called into a production that opened last night because an actress sprained her wrist from a fall the director choreographed, and either the understudy isn’t ready to go on, or there’s no understudy at all. The first thing one fight director did was charge the theatre company a huge fee for:

  1. Not calling them in in the first place.
  2. Allowing the director, who is unqualified, to choreograph the fall.
  3. Getting an actress hurt.
  4. Having to work around the actress’s injury so she can fall, safely, at tonight’s performance.
  5. Making the fight director rearrange their schedule to fix a problem that should have never occurred.

The company also had to provide two comp tickets that night, in the best seats, for the fight director and a date, to make sure the actress was able to incorporate the revised choreography well.

The wiser choice is to hire a fight director, beforehand, so that accident never happens. Speaking of which…

When Should You Hire the Fight Director?

Hire them before pre-production starts. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to hire a fight director at the last minute and discovering no one in your area is available because they’re all booked. You then have to decide whether to book someone from a different area, or use that actor with minimal skills and experience to work on the violence in Hamlet, which started rehearsal last week.

Another reason to hire a fight director before pre-production is because the director of Hamlet wants to use their favorite fight director. More than likely that particular fight director gets lots of work and will be booked for most of the season long before it starts. Hiring them early saves the headache of choosing someone that is not compatible with your director. Win-win. Since you’ve hired a fight director early, they are now…

A Valuable Member of the Design Team

They will then be privy to the director’s vision of the show, the set and costume designs, and can consult on what weapons will be used during each fight as well as what potential props can be used as found weapons. Knowing the construction of set walls and what set pieces will be in the scene can help a fight director determine if any of them can be used to enhance the fight choreography.

Costumes, wigs, and make-up will also dictate the shape of the fights. If an actor is wearing a wig, hair pulls are out of the question unless the play dictates it. Wearing a mask while fighting with weapons is difficult at best and hazardous at worst. If the script calls for the actor/character to fight with a mask, the fight director can choreograph moves that will keep the actors safe while still telling the story.

It’s not uncommon for a fight director to don a mask to see what the actor sees while fighting. In fact, some of the best fight directors are also actors, or have been for many years before switching to their current profession. The empathy they share with the actors goes a long way toward creating the best fights possible for the production.

It’s also not uncommon for the fight director to visit the costume shop for fittings with actors who participate in the fights. Looking at the construction of the costumes and the materials they’re made from can help them determine if their choreography needs changing, modifying, or should be completely scrapped and redone. The costume designer and builders will also need to know how the fight choreography looks so that they can either adapt to the choreography while building, or suggest changes that have to be made.

Actors and fight director rehearsing
Michael Jerome Johnson and actors in rehersal.  Photo courtesy of Michael Jerome Johnson. 

Production meetings are where the fight director can learn of any changes the other designers have made that could affect the choreography. They can also inform their fellow designers of any choreography that may affect their colleagues’ respective designs. These meetings are also the perfect time for the design team to negotiate with each other should the need arise.

Where the fight director contributes the most to the production is, of course, creating the fights and, if necessary, training the actors. In order for him/her to do their best work, the director must:

Give The Fight Director Ample Rehearsal Time

Directors can be notoriously possessive of their rehearsal time and will fight for as much over their allotted time as possible. While they have no problem giving up time for the fight director to create fights for Romeo and Juliet, they can be stingy when it comes to the slaps and pushes in Closer.

The best thing directors can do is to give their fight director ample time to create the fights and, more importantly, get out of their way. Let the fight director work their magic and share their progress with you throughout the rehearsal process, including, tech rehearsals, previews, and opening night.

So how much time should be allotted to the fight director during rehearsal? It depends. If the actors are trained in stage combat—and the specific weapon(s) they’re using in the production—already, they need at least one-third of the rehearsal time up to the first tech rehearsal, plus extra hours during tech and previews as needed. If the actors aren’t trained in stage combat at all, then at least half the rehearsal hours are needed to both train the actors and choreograph the fights. Yes, half the rehearsal time is a lot to share, but there are creative ways to give the fight director the hours they need to train the actors and choreograph the fights.

One way is to reserve a week of training before rehearsals begin for the fight director to train the actors as well as create some rough choreography that may be used in the show. That way, instead of spending half the rehearsal time for fight choreography, only one-third of the time may be needed. Another effective way is to hold concurrent rehearsals. While the director rehearses in one studio, the fight director is teaching untrained actors and choreographing the fights in another one.

The rehearsal time can be scaled down for plays that have the “simple” slaps, pushes, and falls to several days. Still, the ratio of time will be the same—one-third to one-half of that day’s rehearsal time to choreograph the violence, and rehearse until the actors are comfortable. Once again, extra hours must be spent during tech rehearsals and previews for the fights.

Sometime during rehearsals, the fight director will designate a cast member to be the fight captain for the run of the show. That actor will run the fight calls, making sure the choreography is adhered to and any fixes or adjustments are made that don’t compromise the fight director’s work. Should a problem arise that the fight captain can’t solve, calling in the fight director may be the best solution.

All of this in mind, the last, and most important, question is left:

How valuable is the fight director, who not only created exciting fights that enhanced the show, but also made everyone, from the actors, to the playwright, to the director, to the theatre company, look good?

How Much Do You Pay the Fight Director?

Let’s ask it in a different way: What is the worth of a highly qualified fight director who will spend their valuable time as part of the design team from pre-production all the way to opening night, and further, if they must train the understudies as well? How valuable is the fight director, who not only created exciting fights that enhanced the show, but also made everyone, from the actors, to the playwright, to the director, to the theatre company, look good? How much would you pay the fight director for doing all that? At the very least, they should be offered as much as the best of your design team, plus residuals. The operative words being “at the least,” because the best of the best will ask for more, and deservedly so.

As that last paragraph sinks in, consider this: if the fight director has done their job well, they will rarely get any recognition for their choreography. They will have incorporated it into the scenes so seamlessly, that the audience will see the fight as a natural part of the scene.

So be sure you thank the fight director for their work by putting their name on the title page with the rest of the designers and giving them the same amount of space on the bio page as the others. Also, when making a speech at the opening night party thanking the designers and the rest of the production team, individually, for their hard work, do not forget to thank the fight director as well. Nothing is more embarrassing, insulting, or heartbreaking than to come up to the fight director afterwards and apologize, profusely, for forgetting to include them in your meticulously written speech for the occasion.

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Thank you for writing this important article! Taking risks with actors' safety and health is unethical. (It only takes 8 pounds of pressure to break the human jaw or pop an eardrum; I'm always appalled by directors who allow their actors to risk injury.... ) Plus stage combat looks more real than an actual fight--the movement is designed to look better onstage.

Thank you Michael!!

Hi Michael! Thanks for this article. As you know--I'm a fan of the fight directors to such a degree I co-founded a company with one. Combat/movement choreographers are integral to shaping heightened moments on stage. I don't think you intended to convey that directors shouldn't be involved with the shaping, or at least I hope not. I've watched many directors "walk away" while the combat person works with the actors, which is a huge missed opportunity. When directors and choreographers are working together with actors, having analyzed/discussed the scene ahead of time, the violence is more organically tied for everyone to the rest of the show and the characters' journey / the actors' work within it. Bonus: directors increase their knowledge of stage violence and movement training.

Good stuff. Their value is undeniable. My issue is with the term: fight director. There is only one director on a show.

You have no more fervent supporter than me. I bring someone in if even the actors spend most of the play sitting. (not likely in our place) Just to have an expert who thinks in terms of physicality is incredibly valuable. And we only hire the real deal. Everyone with a BA in theatre who has taken a fight class thinks they can gaff fights. We have also paid the entire freight for training and certifying a couple of people. Thank you for your reply. Please send me your contact info. I am looking for someone to bring in early for a new play next spring that features a balls out sword fight between 2 women.

Hi Rachel. Hierarchy is a way of putting it I guess. Protocol & principles are the key. In our place there is one director. We are all here to give whoever that is choices. Everyone works for someone. We all work for the writer. As an employer I have a responsibility to make sure that the people I hire with the people's sacred money, know what is expected & required of them. That is one of the many reasons I like unions. That's one thing unions provide for practitioners and producers. Our process of making work is ultra collaborative within that framework. As a producer, the biggest challenge is being the creative cop. There is a delicate balance that has to be maintained between fostering a collaborative environment and doing what's best for the show and the company. It is my job as artistic director to continually define the company's aesthetic (and we are a company, not a producing organization-there is a difference). So. People who work at our place will have a clear understanding of how we do things to make a Purple Rose show; rehearsals, production meetings, etc. We require actors to show up for first rehearsal memorized. Of course we pay them to do that. The union prescribes that. The way we do things and our approach to the work, may not be for everyone, and that is fine. But if you cash the check then we expect you to go for the ride. We strive, everyone in the building is dedicated, to giving every one who works here an opportunity to do their best work. I have encouraged one of my unions; SDC the professional stage director & choreographer's union, to find a place for fight choreographers. I believe that will happen soon. If we hire someone to gaff fights at the Rose, the title will be Fight Choreographer. And hopefully soon, they will be a member of a union.Thank you for responding.

Thanks for explaining, though I'm unsure what clarity comes from the title of "Fight Choreographer" vs "Fight Director." Surely as "Artistic Director" or anyone else with word "director" in their title, when they set foot in the rehearsal room, doesn't send everyone into a tizzy about whether/not that person has directorial authority over the show's "director." As Michael's article points out, and you seem to agree, artists like he are literally directing, not simply giving people a sequence of steps to follow. My 2cents. And you're in Michigan. Yay. My home state.

Right on. No tizzy just clarity. They don't call a person who choreographs dances a dance director. We find the play together. At the end of the day it's the director who decides what stays and what goes. That is more critical to the success of the thing than telling people what to do. At least in our shop. In a perfect world I love to direct a thing and folks to have no idea I was there after they've seen it.

I have worked under the name fight director for best part of 25 years and not encountered anyone with an issue with it. As Michael pointed out the job is more than choreography. There is obviously the director who gives the direction to the play bad a whole. Having a fight director doesn't diminish that role anymore than having a director of photography does when working in film. They only time I was called something different was for productions at the Globe here in London where all the creatives had the period title master.. or mistress... of... so in was master of fight.
I think Guy said that you wouldn't call the person who choreographed the dances the dance director.. but as mentioned. , the fight director does more than choreography. So in a similar way to the person brought in to work on movement is called the movement director...at least here in the UK.

"The wiser choice is to hire a fight director, beforehand, so that accident never happens..."

Important safety tip, Egon. Thanks!

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