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

Published August 18, 2014 5:47 pm

Stage • It's the layers of storytelling that make the staged fights so thrilling, say officials at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

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. —

First cut is the deepest

P "Henry IV, Part 1" and "The Comedy of Errors" are playing in repertory through Aug. 30 at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. Also playing: "Measure for Measure," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Into the Woods." "Twelfth Night" will play through Oct. 17.

Also • Additional fall shows are "Boeing Boeing" and "Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure," which will play Sept. 17-Oct. 18.

Where • 351 W. Center St., Cedar City

Tickets • Midweek shows are $28-$73; weekend $32-$77; at bard.org or 800-PLAYTIX or 435-586-7878. Buy early: Prices can increase by as much as $10 as shows begin to sell out.

Tip • On Thursday nights, the festival's acting company shows off as part of a weekly after-hours cabaret show. Proceeds help fund trips by casting directors, agents and artistic directors, in an aim to help USF actors land future jobs. 11 p.m. Thursdays at The Grind Coffee House, 19 N. Main St.; $10 donations at the door.