How to Do a Stage Fall

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From the Sharks and the Jets fight-dancing in “West Side Story,” to Inigo Montoya’s many duels in “The Princess Bride,” stage and screen combat creates the illusion of fighting—feints, falls, and all. Executing stage combat falls safely is a matter of protecting your vulnerable parts while still selling the spill.

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How to fake fall

Man laying on the groundDm_Cherry/Shutterstock

To do a stage fall, you must decide what kind of fall the scene calls for, relax, aim for your meaty parts, and roll your body.

1. Determine the type of fall

Stage falls generally fall into one of three categories—front fall, back fall, or side fall—each with its own areas that need protection and landing guidelines.

Front fall

  • Protect: Front of head, chest, wrists, elbows, and groin
  • Land: Turn your face to the side and catch yourself in a plank position, maximizing the area of impact by keeping your feet far apart and using your forearms as support.

Back fall

  • Protect: Back of head and lower back
  • Land: Tuck your chin to your chest and aim for landing on your upper back, using your feet to ground you and take some of the impact. Alternatively, try landing on your buttocks, since the fat and muscle there can protect you.

Side fall

  • Protect: Tailbone, shoulders, and side of head
  • Land: Fall arm-first with your palm facing down, using your feet to take some of the impact.

2. Relax

Bend your elbows and knees to soften the impact when you hit the ground. “When people panic, they become rigid,” stunt performer Alexa Marcigliano told AARP. “In the stunt world, we never reach out with locked arms. Bend your elbows and have some give in your arms to soften the impact.”

3. Get in the thick of it

Avoid falling on bony parts of the body such as elbows and knees. Instead, aim for the thick, meaty parts. “One of the things we try for in stunt falls is landing on meaty parts of your body—the muscles in your back, butt, or thighs. Not bone,” Marcigliano said.

4. Roll with the punches

The less you brace for impact, the less likelihood for injury. Although it’s tempting to stop the fall as soon as possible, the more you lean into it, the better. “Spread the impact across a larger part of your body; don’t concentrate impact on one area,” Marcigliano advised. The best way to spread the impact is with the parkour or gymnastic tuck-and-roll.

  • Parkour roll: Lean into the fall with your shoulder, and roll along your back.
  • Gymnastic roll: Tuck your chin and roll forward into the fall. Be careful not to place weight on your neck—instead, roll directly onto your upper back, and let the curve of your spine guide the rest of the roll.

Stage fall safety basics

Man falling backwards from a chairAndrey_Popov/Shutterstock

Follow direction

If you’re asked to participate in stage or screen combat, you should be assigned a fight director or fight choreographer who is trained in stage combat. Following professional direction is key to keeping yourself safe during stage falls. 

Tread carefully

“Falls are a surprisingly high risk activity onstage, in part because in many circumstances, performers do not even realize that they are at risk,” explained fight director Meron Langsner. “Many are surprised to learn that they constitute an important part of stage combat training.”

Land right

“The actor must be able to get to the ground (or bed, or couch, or wherever) safely,” Langsner emphasized. “There are all manner of techniques to do this, and all manner of things that can go wrong if they ‘just fall’ (concussions, broken wrists, broken tailbones, etc.). They must be able to reliably perform the choreographed fall in a way that is safe for them repeatedly.” 

“When a stunt performer has to do a jump over a long distance from a roof to a roof, it’s all about landing properly,” agreed stunt teacher Stephen Koepfer. “You’re just gonna run, try to clear up the space, do a roll, and just finish in control.”

Protect your head

“Understand how to protect your head,” Koepfer told Insider. “You don’t want any concussions.” If you can feel your topple going topsy-turvy, do everything you can to protect your head by tucking your chin and covering your precious noggin with your arms.

Consider the set

“How an actor uses set pieces also plays into the narrative of how their character gets to the ground,” Langsner noted. You may be asked to fall onto a set piece or to use a prop during your fall. When used appropriately, these can help keep you safe. For example, you might break your fall using a soft bed, or use a prop lance to help you fall slowly to the ground.

Use padding

Similarly, knee and elbow pads, padded clothing, and padded sets can help prevent injury during a stage fall. If you’re asked to fall for a scene, ask about padded clothing to protect yourself. 

Practice

As with all things acting, the more you practice your feigned falls, the better. “We’re always kind of starting from a place of control,” Koepfer said. “And that only comes from experience and time.”

Stage vs. screen falls

Actor kneeling over another fallen actorPavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock

Both stage and screen falls create the illusion of a tumble, but differ in these ways.

  • Takes: Falls on film may require multiple takes, which means that it’s extra important to protect your body each time so the aches don’t compound.
  • Editing: However, some screen falls can be created through the power of video editing, which means that spills need not take place at all—or that stunt performers take the fall. “If we are dealing specifically with film, there are stories that can be created with editing,” Langsner explained. “Starting a fall, stopping the action, and then cutting to them ‘completing’ the fall with the actor already on the ground/in a pit/at the base of the skyscraper is a safe and effective way to tell a story without having to film the fall itself.”
  • Viewer gaze: When performing a filmed fall, you must remain aware of where the camera is so that you give it your best performance. Alternatively, falls onstage are generally directed toward the live audience downstage center.

Examples of stage and screen falls

“Almost, Maine” — They fell

In this scene from the John Cariani play, two characters fall in love while literally continuously falling down onstage.

“Romeo and Juliet” — Tybalt and Mercutio duel

Performing a convincing stage fall is almost a certainty anytime there’s a duel or death onstage, and the iconic duel between Tybalt and Mercutio is no exception.

“Along Came Polly” — Best man in the house

Philip Seymour Hoffman was fully committed to every role he took, and nowhere is that more true than in this hard-hitting comedic moment. 

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