A glimpse into fight choreography

Note: This is a cross-posting from Paul Holmquist’s “Neverwhat?” blog, chronicling his research for directing our spring MainStage production of Neverwhere. This post is by Richard Gilbert, one of the members of R&D Choreography (with David Bareford), our fight designers for the show.

A glimpse into fight choreography

A long while back, I got a call from Paul, the director. “We’re doing an adaptation of Neverwhere. Rob is adapting, I am directing. It is going to be a while, and we can’t talk about it publicly until we get some details worked out, but would you guys be interested in designing the violence?” OK, I am making up pretty much everything after the word Neverwhere. Because, you see, I didn’t really hear anything after that over the screaming “YES!!!” that was trying to escape my brain. I hope that’s what he said, because I did, of course, say yes. And I didn’t tell anyone for a few days. Well, except my fiance, who I swore to secrecy. She tried to make it clear that she was more excited for me than jealous. With remarkable success, considering.

So that went on for a while. I reread the book. I got the first draft of the script and read that a few time through. And then David and I started talking about the design. There is so much to consider for this, and it ranges pretty widely. And of course it interfaces with the other design elements – weapons are also props, so decisions about what someone fights with says a lot about who they are. Blood – it is so intrinsic to the story (“lovely, wet blood, Mr. C”) but it does funny things on stage – it can overshadow an important moment, or it can reinforce it beautifully as it drips quietly from a nostril. But costumes are the most likely to be affected by blood. Lights, Set, Puppets and Projections – all of these are interdependent with the violence.

How the actors move will influence those decisions, but then once choreography is designed that will come back around and inform some of the actors’ choices. So we start out asking the questions and waiting to see what sticks. Are the bodyguards’ ‘knacks’ magic? How do Croup and Vandemar move so quickly without appearing to rush in the live theatre? If we figure that one out, how do we apply it in their fights? Hunter’s weapons should be simple, because she is practical. Or they should be ornate, each one a trophy from some distant land where she killed a great beast. Vandemar is a big guy – he needs a big knife. Or wait, maybe a tiny little knife? I can see him explaining, “People think its how big the knife is that matters. It’s not.” The spear….ok, the spear is a big deal. It appears relatively briefly, and it is in exactly one fight…but it is a powerful artifact, so it should look cool… Oh, right…that one big fight. The one with the beast. How do we make that look cool and scary? It was already scaring me – I couldn’t bear it if it looked weak and goofy in the end, and my favorite seat in the house is going to be six feet from the beast’s death!

At the first couple production meetings we saw so much beautiful thinking from every corner, and that started shaping decisions. We brought a big bag of weapons to the second meeting and looked at what various choices would mean. Some of it is obvious – the quarterstaff fight with Brother Sable is a quarterstaff fight. But Hunter’s staff should be a little different – maybe shorter (which will give us more room in tight quarters, and will also mean a more oriental style than Sable’s European stick fighting).

Here was an interesting evolution: for the bodyguard fight we were seeing machetes – I love the shower of sparks, and the ferocious brutality of a machete. On the other hand, the fop should, by all rights, have a smallsword. On the other other hand, as much fun as the fight in Rob Roy is, I don’t want the fight to be about the superiority of one weapon style over another, but rather of one fighter over another – so I want the weapons to match. Paul solved that problem – he loved our WWI bayonet. It looks and could be held like a smallsword…and it is definitely a wicked shiv… but if has the meat to stand up to a machete blow for slashing blow! So there, that does that. But wait – every choice informs other choices…and look what we just did. The Fop has this Bayonet that he thinks of as a sword, but when the fighting starts, he abandons his 18th century stance and starts hacking away… so the foppishness comes across as a thin veneer. Lets see what the actor does with that!

Well, enough for now – so many things to work out!