Monday, January 10, 2011

Stage Combat Elements by Caleb Slavens

Stage Combat--- or as I referred to it over the holiday break, “a really neat trick to show my brothers and freak out members of my family and the community.” Let me set the scene; here is me dressed in semi-formal wear, milling about in the waiting area of a mid-sized food chain (lets say Chili’s), over there, about an arms length away, is my youngest brother. He is facing the interior of the restaurant, I’m facing the door. He makes an audible comment about my shirt, I retort with a snide remark about how stupid his hat is, we get into a heated debate about fashion styles, and then out of nowhere he swings at me and punches me in the face with a haymaker that could down a horse. I fall to the ground holding the left side of my face, and contorting the rest into a look of anger/ pain/ and surprise. The restaurant is silent. I slowly wobble to my feet as my brother backs closer to the door. Someone sets a hand on my shoulder and says in my ear ‘let it go, settle down.’ I shrug them off and through gritted teeth, I hiss, “I’m fine. I’m not going to do anything.” I step closer to my brother, until we’re face to face, I can feel the tension in almost every patron in the restaurant rippling through the atmosphere… that’s when I make my move, I pirouette, grab my brothers hand and we both bow to the crowd, he tips his hat, and then we run out the door and across the street giggling like children until we enter the waiting area of the Olive Garden one block over and report to the rest of my obviously bored family ‘how packed the Chili’s is’ and ‘that we had better just wait for a table here.’… Now, you might say that what we did was an immature use of what I’ve learned in stage combat, and I will agree with you to a point, but I have to say that it was actually the perfect opportunity to teach my brother and my family the important elements of the fights they see on stage and in films. Those elements being; control, choreography, the lead-in, distance, timing, perspective, action, re-action, and then resolution.

I learned these elements in the Stage Combat classes I have taken at Freehold, from both Geof Alm, in his annual 3 class series, and Hans Altwies as part of the Ensemble Training Intensive (ETI). Both instructors have helped me discover the necessary tricks needed to captivate an audience with the bait that there just might be a throw-down, and then hold their attention as I gracefully miss my scene partner by mere inches, either with blade, fist, or stick. But from the audiences PERSPECTIVE, if I used my training correctly, it looks like I just sliced through my scene partner with a broadsword. (And even though, in real life, my cut would have left him gasping for air and disemboweled on the floor, in this instance, cause it was stage combat, he is still alive and healthy enough to jump up and stab me in the jugular.) ... I mean there is just a lot to say about the art form of fighting. In the world of visual arts though, it is closest related to dance. It is a dance with your scene partner: a dance where every move is essentially choreographed, and wrapped around ‘words’ and ‘actions’, as a dance is wrapped around measures in a song. But unlike dance, it packs the accepted machismo of the human emotions behind it. Dance is an enlightening art type, meant to lift the spirit, but combat is meant to pull us all back into the animalistic nature that is either hidden or locked up in all of us. When resolutions can’t be found in words, or walking away, but instead your only out is through a release of testosterone and adrenalin into your system and then turning your limbs into a barrage of blunt surfaces. Whew! Let me catch my breath.

Where dance and combat differ though is in the level of control. In dance there typically isn’t a chance that somebody could get stabbed (not counting stilettos, of course). This is a critical point of Stage Combat training; learning about the balance point where your body and appearance can give every impression of delivering a killing blow to your partner, but internally your calm and in control enough to stop the weapon from even touching your partner if they forget their blocking. This level of control doesn’t come easily and requires rigorous training and repetition. For the sword to become a ‘safe’ extension of your arm requires hours swinging it through the air practicing your cuts, parrys’ (blocks), and drilling your body on the techniques needed to move you in and out of the range of your partners weapon. Eventually, you’ll reach that comfort point where you’ll be able to know where the blades are at all times, and then you can start to refine the acting bits needed to fill out the scene. You may ask ‘what does it feel like to be comfortable with a sword’ to which I can say “It’s like when you have been driving the same car, or riding the same bike for many years, and you know just how fast you have to be going to merge into traffic, or park in this or that spot, or just how narrowly you can avoid a disastrous collision and squeeze between two vehicles going the same speed as you. It’s all still really dangerous, and you have to be completely aware of what you’re doing, but you’re comfortable with it because you’ve trained with the right tools and techniques.”

I think having Combat training is necessary for all actors. At the very least it makes one more aware of their body and the things they can do, and is an excellent primer on possible self-defense moves. Plus, you can go home and get in fake fights with your friends and families and with any luck you’ll be able to spice up that boring cocktail party or picnic you get invited to every year.

Freehold's ETI Students will be performing their Solo Performance work in the Solo Performance Showcase on January 27, 28, 29 at 7:30 pm and January 29 at 2:00. To reserve tickets, email us at For more information: Solo Performance Showcase
Photo above: Lori Evans and Caleb Slavens in ETI Stage Combat class

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