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Here’s a fight club worth talking about, Utah Shakespeare says

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A fight scene in "Henry IV, Part One," now playing at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City.

By Ellen Fagg Weist

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Aug 15 2014 11:15AM
Updated Aug 20, 2014 10:45AM

Sure, Shakespeare plays employ elevated language and explore big themes, but stage fights are one of the additional pleasures for actors and audiences alike.

"It’s always great to have a sword in your hand or a dagger or a rapier, because we don’t do that anymore. Or I don’t do that anymore," actor Jason Michael Spelbring says with a laugh.

Staging fights adds another layer of storytelling to a show, and actors "learn the choreography, like you do a dance," Spelbring says.

This season, Spelbring performs in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s "Measure for Measure," "Into the Woods" and "Henry IV Part One," for which he serves as fight captain, running a fight call before each performance to ensure the actors’ safety.

Choreographer Christopher DuVal created the fights in this season’s plays. He’s earning rave reviews for his storytelling from the company’s fight captains, designated to maintain the precision and safety of the movements throughout the run.

At fight calls before "Henry IV Part One," the cast runs through the battles twice, once at half speed and once at three-quarters speed, which is performance speed. At fight calls for "The Comedy of Errors," which in this production is set during the Gold Rush, the cast runs through the scenes of physical violence, which include whips and firearms.

In "Comedy," one actor is hogtied while another is used as a battering ram. If one of the actors holding the servant trips in that scene, there’s the possibility of three people being injured, says actor Michael A. Harding, the show’s fight captain. The movements onstage might look spontaneous, but the choreography is "very, very precise, planned out to the smallest movements for safety," he says.

Actors settle into their performances over the course of a season, and rehearsed movements become muscle memory. So pre-show fight calls offer a chance for fine-tuning. "I give a lot of notes like this: ‘Watch your thumbs in the hogtie, because he’s in danger of breaking his thumbs,’ " Harding says.

When fights serve the play, the layers of storytelling aren’t immediately apparent to the audience, but the movements are enhanced by technical elements such as fog and the musical transitions created by Joe Payne.

Audience members are given much to watch during the combat scenes in the history play. DuVal staged the show’s first major fight by teaching fights individually to seven pairs of actors, gradually adding each pair to the action. "At least seven fights are happening at the exact same time," Spelbring says. "He was able to track seven pairs of actors with very few run-ins."

Theatergoers also should be able to track what’s happening. "You can watch and see who’s winning, who’s losing and who gets an extra bunch of energy," Harding says. "The fight tells a good story. It’s not just a good bunch of fight moves."

In rehearsals, after learning the choreography, actors were encouraged to vocalize, yelling "die" when they made the first cut, and then yelling "no" when they received a cut. Over time, those words evolved into guttural sounds and yells. "A fight isn’t believable until an actor is vocally invested as well as physically," Spelbring says.

Audiences at talkbacks always ask about the train wrecks, if actors have been hurt or have broken a sword. As a precaution, Spelbring says there’s an extra sword hidden onstage out of the audience’s sight for use, if needed, in the history play’s dramatic last duel. So far, the actors haven’t had to use it.

Through attention to safety, the Utah Shakespeare Festival and other major regional theater companies have avoided major injuries from onstage swordfighting. "But sit in the green room of any production of Shakespeare, and the stories go on for hours," Spelbring says, laughing.

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