March 17, 2009

Bloody bloody plays

One of the things that has stood out in the past two weeks of tech and previews for The Changeling and Tallgrass Gothic is the focus on stage violence. These plays are full of rage, and swords and daggers, and blood.

Leading to such conversations as:
- "Why does the theatre smell like toothpaste?" "Oh, that's the edible blood."
- "Where's the finger box?" "Sorry, I have it out here-I was putting a bloody rag around the finger."
- "Can you cut some grass with your dagger to give her?" "Well, it's not really 'sharp,' see, because if it could cut grass it could cut flesh." "Right."
- "Be careful not to hit your elbows when you fall. Think about how much you need to reach out to tie your shoes."
- "Does it look gross when she gets stabbed?" "It looks sudsy." "I used too much dishsoap."
- "Work on that choke. Go home and pick up jars."
- "His wound is too pink." "I'll try more chocolate syrup."

So, yes-you can make fake blood at home. Should you? Artistic Director Jennifer Shook interviewed Fight Choreographer Jamie Stires to get a little more of the bloody scoop.
Shook: How did you wind up in the business of choreographing violence?

Stires: When I was in college I was Sabina in a production Skin of our Teeth. I had to do a couple of unarmed fights and shoot a gun. It was interesting to see the fight director talk it through like a dance. Years later in grad school I really started training in all the weapon styles and found it to be exhilarating. I love the choreography side because it combines my favorite parts of theatre...directing the scene, the non-verbal dance between two characters...and swords.

Shook: I love that you added an extra "half-punch" to clear up some storytelling when Tin threatens his pal Scotto. Being a director yourself, of course you know some things about telling a story. But tell us a little about your thoughts on physical storytelling?

Stires: I strongly believe that stage violence, good stage violence, must be a part of the story as physical text and not just a moment shoved between verbal text. Shakespeare writes "they fight" in his plays to indicate physical violence. In reality, if this is the first moment the actors have felt moved to violence, we're not telling the right story. Physical movement can be compelling and speak to an audience in a way the verbal may not. It grabs a viewer and allows them to further understand what is happening to a character. The characters could be speaking a foreign language, but their physical dialogue can assist in telling a clear and moving story.

Shook: Fight folks all seem to know each other--what's that community like? Is there a secret handshake? Or headbutt?

Stires: It is one gigantic family. I have been blessed to have the opportunity to work with professionals from all over the country because of stage combat. I feel like I have big brothers, uncles and aunts all over that would have my back should I need them. My dearest friends I met through violence...not sure what that says about me though... As for a handshake...I'll have to suggest that.

Shook: What's the weirdest thing you've had to make happen on stage?

Stires: I choreographed a version of Twelfth Night where the concept was "Wrestle Mania". All the characters were in neon spandex and the fight scene culminated in a cage fight between all on stage. There were sleeper holds, groin kicks, folding chairs to the face, body slams, everything and beyond. Did I mention they were wearing neon spandex...and capes? It was great fun and totally made me laugh every night.

Shook: What's been your greatest challenge in working on the Rep?

Stires: There's a lot of very intimate violence in both of these plays. It becomes a huge challenge to balance where we want to go artistically and maintaining the safety of the actors involved. It's not just about their physical safety either...the mental safety of the actor is just as important, in any moment of violence. There are real emotions rushing through your body and learning to control them and create "non-violent violence" is the key to great stage combat.

Shook: What's been the best part?

Stires: Getting to work with all these fantastic new people. I haven't been in the city for very long, so it's been great to work on both shows together. Meeting twice as many theatre folks at once...I love it.

Shook: What's a project you'd really love to do but haven't yet?

Stires: Oh, so many...where to begin! My thesis project in grad school was directing The Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard. I want to finish his family cycle and direct Buried Child and True West. I have also been looking for the perfect opportunity to direct Lysistrata. I mean, women not giving their men sex to make a profound statement about war...what could be better?!
Shook: We should probably say, "don't try this at home"--but what's the best advice you can give those new to the fight biz on fighting safely and impressively?

Stires: Don't think of stage combat as anything other than an acting discipline. The best stage violence I have seen is when the verbal text moves seamlessly into the physical text and back again. It is a part of the scene and therefore a part of the character. As for getting involved, there are classes throughout the city you can take and numerous workshops around the country where you can get exposed to this very unique art form.

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