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Writing the Fight

What Playwrights and Dramaturgs Need to Know About Staging Violence—Part 2

“Be well versed in the arts of pen and sword.” – Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

In part one, I discussed fightaturgy. Now, I’d like to bring up staging concerns.

Before I go into depth, I want to say upfront that I am dealing with what happens in the rehearsal room under what is usually limited time and with what is usually a limited budget.  There are those who have seen this discussion as a threat to creativity and said that “playwrights should write what they want” and that “anything can be staged.” I agree on both counts. But theater happens in real space with real actors, and some things can be more easily staged than others. 

I also want to say early on that if there is violence in your play, you should heed Melissa Hilman’s advice and “Get it Together and Hire a Fight Director.” This goes for everything from a slap to an all out battle. And, your fight director should be treated as part of the design staff. I am assuming that your play is well crafted and that if the piece of violence consists of one slap, that slap is a major turning point in the storyline and should be treated as such.

Now, moving on to stagecraft. Stage combat is the art of creating the illusion of violence for the sake of storytelling. Some illusions are easier and/or less expensive than others. One thing I’ve found myself saying many times is that the difference between one character pulling a knife on another versus breaking a bottle and threatening to attack them with the broken base is hundreds of dollars. The knife is far preferable. You may have heard this concern answered with, “Oh, we’ll just get sugar glass.” Think of how many times you’ve actually seen breakaway bottles in live theater.  I have only had them used in a show I’ve fight directed once, for A Streetcar Named Desire, and at a theater with a seven figure annual budget. I would also add that I’ve heard of theaters with smaller budgets substituting another, less expensive, prop for the Stanley/Blanche confrontation as well. 

If a broken bottle is the only way that your story can be told, by all means write in a broken bottle. But if you would rather have your production staff put time and money into other areas, perhaps another way of articulating the conflict might serve the scene as well if not better.

That is one example. Over the years I’ve asked many of my fight directing colleagues about some of the most difficult/impossible things they’ve seen written into new plays and how they’ve dealt with them.

A few memorable examples are:

Blows to the back of the head with a significant object. These are difficult because they require non-visual cues.  They are not impossible, but they require more rehearsal and training time to get right than other options.

Multiple and complex gun fights. Firearms going off in a play create technical requirements. If the production insists on using blanks, there is additional expense and far more safety concerns and regulations to deal with. If they are using sound effects without blanks, then there are other technical requirements. In either case the results are rarely what people think they want based on their experience with mass media.

Whipping of naked actors in small spaces. This is a problem because of both safety and sightlines. How it would be solved is entirely dependent on the actors and the space.

Throwing of objects meant to shatter on another character.  This is another issue that comes from playwrights being unduly influenced by film.  Breakaway glass is expensive and not entirely reliable. 

Lassos and/or whips—because the training to use them properly is not common in most performer’s educations. Whips especially can be extremely dangerous to a novice.

Fire—This one should be self-explanatory. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I acknowledge that a creative and resourceful production team can make anything happen. I also welcome additions to this list. I must also state that a competent production team will change a scene if it is a question of actor safety, and that some acts of violence take more rehearsal time to create properly than others, and that sometimes you might be giving away more creative license in calling for difficult scenes that you intend to have (I’ve had to take a certain amount of license in execution scenes for example, especially crucifixions). 

My recommendation, other than the study of stage combat, is to have someone in the development process familiar with staging fights. One thing I have done with new plays in development is show the playwright multiple ways in which the violence might be staged, and then have them articulate which was the closest to their vision and why. A slap can range in intensity from One to Audience in Therapy for Life. Not all conflict is life or death, not all violence will have the same consequences, but the more conversant playwrights and dramaturgs are in how the illusions of violence are created, the better they will be able to articulate their needs to their cast and production staff.

Some disclaimers: The work of companies like The Vampire Cowboys (of which I am a huge fan) are outside the scope of this article, as are plays like Sarah Kane’s Blasted and Christopher Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, in that a company working on one of these plays has made a stylistic commitment to physical training and creating illusions of violence beyond one producing say, Albee’s A Delicate Balance (which contains a single slap) or Rent (which contains a mugging in an alley). 

It can be incredibly useful for playwrights and dramaturgs to become familiar with how the illusions of violence are created, as much so as any other design discipline. 


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Difficult and/or impossible:
1. Brawl involving multiple actors, breaking furniture, props thrown, weapon fired...all in a tiny blackbox theatre.