Stage Combat Basics: An Actor's Guide to Fight Choreography

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The swords are slicing, kicks connecting, and punches flying. Stage combat, be it realistic and gritty or flat-out outlandish, is on display everywhere. But fear not, brave (or quaking) soul. Even if you’re more Falstaff than Hamlet, you can add stage combat to your repertoire. Here’s everything you need to know about stage combat basics, including safety tips, the differences between stage and screen combat, and how to perform the best phony fights, with insight from fight directors and other experts.


What is stage combat?

Actors crossing swords


Stage combat creates the illusion of fighting through choreographed performance. The martial artist aims to strike his opponent, while defending himself from a counterstrike. The actor doesn’t face an opponent—instead, he faces a collaborator who is cooperating with every move to create a physical picture while playing the emotion of the scene.

How do actors learn stage combat?

Actors performing a fight scene


Actors learn stage combat combat from fight directors and fight choreographers: professionals with professional fighter training, proficiency in theater staging and fight choreography, and certification in stage combat. According to actor-stunt coordinator-swordmaster Robert Goodwin, in theater it takes four hours of rehearsal for actors to learn 20 seconds of a fight scene.

In the United States, the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD) is the most recognized authority for stage combat professional training and certification. Since it was founded by fight director David Boushey in the late 1970s, SAFD has served as a clearinghouse of information for actors, students, teachers, directors, producers, and fight directors. The society has also created a ranking system and certification process to better ensure safety standards and promote quality work.

How to do stage combat

Actors performing a fight scene on stage


Like most forms of acting, stage combat requires endless hours of preparation and practice.

  1. Read the full script. Actors need to take responsibility for their own safety. That means you should read the full script before signing on to any role, then speak with the director about fight safety. Anytime an actor engages in onstage violence—from a single blow to a prolonged series of movements—the production needs to consult a competent and trained fight choreographer.
  2. Prep with the choreographer. For simple hits, punches, and falls, the fight choreographer might spend an hour or so with the actors during the rehearsal process. For complex fight-oriented shows, the choreographer must be involved in preproduction meetings, sit in on auditions, and be given ample time to train and rehearse the fights.
  3. Study the notations. The fight choreographer should notate the fight by recording it on paper, each movement written in words or in a code you and your director understand. Study the notations ahead of time, and then try to have a spare person reading the moves aloud when you first practice.
  4. Rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse some more. After you have the fight in your head, begin physicalizing it very slowly. Rehearse it multiple times, slowly, then pick up speed and rehearse it at that speed, and repeat the process. By the time you’re up to full speed, you should know the fight very well. If not, slow down and rehearse again. The fight should be so ingrained and natural that it is almost reflex.
  5. Work character into choreography. Once you have the movements down perfectly, you can then start thinking about what they mean. On film or stage, combat helps convey not just emotional states but also attitudes and socioeconomic position. Fighting styles define the periods, and even individual moves can delineate the most nuanced reactions. Always keep in mind that while fighting, you’re also acting.
  6. Keep learning. There are fight academies, workshops, and weekend courses on stage combat across the nation. Remember that the longer you train, the more competent you’ll be. On occasion you’ll need to learn to fight in a matter of days, and there are instructors who can make you look good in that time.

Stage combat safety basics

Actors training for a fight scene

Juan Gordillo/Shutterstock

Fake fighting can be a real pain, but these safety basics help protect you and your combat companions. 

Ask for professional help

If you’re in a performance that requires any kind of fight scene and you haven’t been assigned a fight director, request one before things take a turn for the black and blue. It’s better when professionals in stage combat come on board early rather than as afterthoughts, says J. Allen Suddeth, a fight director with multiple Broadway credits and the author of “Fight Directing for the Theater.” “Usually it’s a crisis,” he says. “Someone’s been hurt. Actor A has creamed Actress B. It’s high tension. All you can do is diffuse that and create something they can do.”

Be a self-advocate

Fight director Ricki G. Ravitts, who created stage combat choreography for productions including “Romeo and Juliet,” “Macbeth,” and “Hamlet,” emphasizes the importance of actors advocating for themselves in fight scenes: “We need to be able to look out for ourselves, even if our characters can’t.” 

Wear protective gear

When preparing for a fight, you must communicate your concerns about safety gear with wardrobe and props departments, your contact at the production company, and, if necessary, the director. Typical safety gear includes knee protectors, elbow pads, and back padding. Sensible footwear is essential in most situations, and, if possible, roll mats or soft areas should be built into hidden areas of the set. 

The most frequent sword-point injury is through the wrist, so good fencing gloves that protect the knuckles and the wrist are essential, no matter in what medium you are performing. Buy your own or, if your company is paying, insist that the gauntlets be bought rather than borrowed. 

Use the right equipment

For the safety of you and your audience, don’t use weapons unless they come from reputable suppliers and unless they have been inspected and approved by an experienced stage combatant. Don’t use an item that was designed and manufactured to be hung on a wall as a decoration (stainless steel blades will fail under the rigors of stage combat). Equipment should be clean, free of rust, and carefully examined before each use.

From the moment you start rehearsing, work with the very weapons that will be used in performance, since you must familiarize yourself with the balance and behavior of your weapons. Also use any other props or costumes that could become a factor in the safety or proper execution of the fight: footwear, sword belts, hats, pouches, etc.

Wield weapons wisely

All weapons should have their points made safe and their blades properly balanced. Handles should provide a secure hold under fight conditions. Retractable and non-retractable weapons should be set out separately and be clearly marked so that one cannot be mistaken for the other. Each actor should use the same weapon in all performances and run-throughs. You must check your own weapons prior to each performance, preferably in the presence of the weapons handler.

Keep the point of a weapon low when you’re not using it. Never put the point of the weapon where you cannot see it, for example over your shoulder. Never let a point go near another actor’s face unless that is specifically part of the action. The point should be kept clear of all areas around the head. If you are at all worried about controlling the point, ask if you may alter or cut the move. Always make sure your attacks are aimed on target; these blows are much easier to parry, and balance is kept under control. Swords, particularly broadswords, should be parried with the flat of the blade; edge-to-edge contact damages the sword, turning it into a saw.

Also, onstage, disarms or strong blade actions that cause a blade to be removed from the hand must remove the weapon to an upstage position or, if on a thrust or arena stage, away from the audience. If you have any doubts, ask about using a disarm in which the weapon is seized and secured by the attacker.

Create a safe space

Stunts and fights should not be performed or rehearsed in unsafe locations or conditions. Rehearsal rooms should be large enough to allow for the safe use of weapons. Appropriate first aid equipment, including ice packs, must be accessible. There should be a person with first aid training present at all fight rehearsals and performances. Access to a telephone should be readily available in case of an emergency. During fights/stunts visibility and visual perception should be adequate to ensure the safety of the performers. The floor surface should be free of debris and allow for secure footing for the performers. The danger of repetitive strain and bruise injuries should be minimized.

Warm up

Always warm up—the longer the better. Stay stretched between takes, even if you warmed up first thing in the morning. Even if you only have to run, keep warm. Then, never go faster than the speed at which you are comfortable. Follow the choreography, and don’t become overzealous. If you are onstage for a long time and are then required to suddenly perform a sharp stretch or action, you may find it difficult to stay warm. Try building an action into your performance that will help your muscles prepare; if, however, you must remain very still prior to your action, tense and relax your muscles a number of times to get your blood moving. 


Remember to breathe. “People have a tendency to hold their breath,” actor and world martial arts champion Cynthia Rothrock notes. “That’s why a lot of the time you hear shouting—that’s a way of controlling the breath. Give a little shout when you’re being hit, or when you’re throwing a technique. If you’re throwing, you’ll have more energy, and it will make you seem a lot more forceful.”

Trust your instincts

“Be honest and open-minded,” advises fight director Rick Sordelet, whose work includes Broadway’s “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aida,” and “The Lion King.” “Don’t just be passive and say, ’What do you want me to do?’ Tell me what your acting impulses are. And be honest about your physical condition. If you know you’re going to play Tybalt, start doing some pushups so you can handle that sword. If you’re going to get slapped and you’re uncomfortable about it, say so. Don’t suck it up, because it will come out eventually—usually at tech, when it’s too late.”

Communicate with the fight director

For stage combat to be safe, it’s important for the actors to fully communicate with the fight director. It not only enhances the safety of the work, it’s better for the acting. You want to feel the feelings of the play, not your resentment and discomfort with the staging. Sordelet encourages the performer to speak up about acting choices during the process of choreographing the fight. 

Listen to other actors

Fight director B.H. Barry, who has directed fights at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Public Theater, Circle Rep, the Metropolitan Opera, and even for Nureyev’s ballets, similarly observes that part of what makes a good fighter is “the ability to listen to the other actors. When actors are good collaborators, they are good fighters, invariably. The ones who go off on their own are dangerous.” 

Remember to keep it to the stage

Stage combat is not a martial art—it is not meant to be real-life combat, and it certainly should not be used as a means of self-defense. In martial arts or in street fighting, one learns skills to hurt, disable, or even kill the opponent as quickly as possible. The aim of stage combat is not to hurt the opponent but rather to keep each actor safe and able to perform.

Don’t overdo it

Always remember that you are not trying to defeat your opponent, and he or she is not trying to kill you. Never swing with your full force or anything close to it. The level of force and intensity you use is in your portrayal, not in the strength of the blows. If your partner complains that the attacks are too hard, they might be too hard. On the other hand, tentative or weak movements serve neither the actors nor the plot. Remember, you and your partner are on the same side: to put on a good show.

Stage vs. screen combat

Fight Scene from 'John Wick: Chapter 4'

“John Wick: Chapter 4” Courtesy Lionsgate

While both stage and screen combat create the illusion of combat through fight scene choreography, they vary somewhat in form and function. 

  • Takes and pains: Film fighting usually requires multiple takes. What may not hurt you the first time—for example, getting slammed against a car—you’ll probably feel after a few takes. And multiple takes means the need to ensure continuity. 
  • Continuity: According to Goodwin, good continuity comes from the actor’s training. “Working with a regular partner, we know exactly where a cut is going to be, from a sword to a target area, [and] exactly where we’re going to place that kick or punch,” he says. Directors like actors who do exactly the same thing every blow. “The more specific we are—and this goes back to acting, because it’s a specific acting choice to cut to a specific area each time—the better you’ll make the principal look, the more you’re going to be on-camera, the more it’s going to show up onscreen. You want precise training, want to be able to make strong fight choices just like strong acting choices, and want precision that gives you safety and realism.”
  • Camera concerns: When your fight is being filmed, you need to be aware of camera placement to ensure the best final product. Remember to play to the camera, says Dave Lea, motion picture stunt coordinator and action choreographer. “If you can’t see it or feel it boring into the back of your head, you’re probably not in the frame.” 
  • Fighting style: Stage combat tends to be classical fighting. It’s also not so much geared toward the audience as toward the other actors, “less energetic, more choreographed, not as realistic,” Lea says. Goodwin adds that stage combat is more difficult because there are no retakes, no sounds of the hit, and no dramatic music enhancing the fight. But according to Goodwin, if you see fights done correctly onstage, they feel more realistic than those on film.

Stage fighting tips

Cobra Kai

“Cobra Kai” Credit: Curtis Bonds Baker/Netflix

Once you’ve done the training and are ready to take your combat skills to the streets—or rather, to the stage and screen—these expert tips can help take your fight to the next level.

Learn to fight as your character

Stage and screen combat starts and ends with creating a character and a sense of reality. Think of the distinct dojo fighting styles portrayed in “Cobra Kai.” Even if the actors portraying Daniel LaRusso and Kreese were trained in the same fighting styles in real life, it’s imperative to the internal logic of the show that they fight in the vastly different styles of their characters.

Lea stresses the acting component of stage combat and the importance of really inhabiting your character. When he works with an actor for the first time he asks, “Have you ever been hit? With a baseball bat? Have you ever been shot?” The answer probably is no. “So I give them a place to go in their minds, like any acting coach who takes you to those places.” If after the fight, the “victim” gets up quickly, his eyes clear, it’s not good acting. “The audience should say, ’That looked like it hurt,’ ” Lea says.

Keep it moving

On the days you’re not practicing fighting, still try to keep your body moving. Movement skills mean you’re more in touch with your body, more connected physically, and more skilled at learning and adjusting movement patterns.

Slow it down

In general, movements are a bit bigger and slower than in street-fighting or sparring so they can be clearly seen by the audience. Almost all kicks, punches, and strikes are non-contact. The illusion of contact is created with appropriate body reactions and facial expressions; in the case of film, it’s created with carefully selected camera angles, editing, and sound effects added later. “Knapping” is used onstage to make the sound effect of a punch; often it is made by a cupped hand clapping against another part of the body (such as the chest, stomach, or thigh).

Find the right trainer

Finding the right coaches and choreographers can make all the difference in both safety and selling your scene. “Safety isn’t coming from the [actor],” Rothrock says. “It’s coming from the person who’s training them.” Experienced trainers know how to make it so that your fight not only feels fine but also looks fantastic. “Timing and experience” matter when it comes to choosing a trainer, Goodwin emphasizes.

Perfect your moves

“The more you train—male, female, or child—the stronger you’ll get,” Rothrock advises. Before even auditioning, an actor should be working on learning and maintaining an arsenal of unarmed combat moves: punches, kicks, slaps, chokes, hair-pulling, and a few wrestling techniques. More advanced techniques include quicker fisticuffs, holds, falls, and tumbling.

  • Kicks: For safe kicks, Rothrock recommends that you tighten your body and control where the kick will go, rather than throwing the leg. Never hyperextend the kicking leg, and make sure the standing leg is completely grounded.
  • Grappling/wrestling: For grappling/wrestling fights, suggests Rothrock, be particularly aware of your surroundings. If you have to get thrown onto cement, get padded up. And practice, especially with your scene partner.
  • Punches: For punches, Goodwin says, work on cues. The first cue is always eye contact, making sure your partner is ready. Next, after making sure there’s a safe distance, the windup is the second cue. A safe distance for a fist-to-chin punch, onstage or on-camera, is eight inches. Onstage, be sure to set up diagonally so you never see the “daylight,” which, Goodwin explains, refers to “the distance between your chin and my fist.” On film, says Goodwin, you needn’t be close, because depth is lost. If you need to adjust for the camera, change the line of the punch but never the distance. Of course, the rest is up to the “victim,” who sells the fight by moving his or her chin away from the punch.

The show must go on

If you forget to throw a punch or flub a high kick, worry not: The audience doesn’t know what’s supposed to happen next. When a problem arises, you and your fight partner should stop the aggression, begin to stalk each other, and maybe even circle each other if space allows to give you time to think. One of you will either recall the next move or skip ahead to a part of the fight you remember. You can communicate this through a look. If your partner doesn’t get back into the fight, back away and start the process again. If you have rehearsed enough, you should be able to pick right back up.

But stop if there’s an injury

Mistakes happen, and sometimes someone gets hit too hard or starts bleeding. When this happens, the fight is over. Get the injured person offstage and checked over immediately by a professional. 

Fighting is acting

Above all, stage combat is acting. Much more important than the actual kick, punch, or parry is the sale of that moment to an audience. They’re out there in the dark, caught up in the story and the building tension between characters, whether it’s the Montagues and the Capulets or the showdown between Stanley and Blanche.

So whether thou whet’st a knife to kill thyself, live by the sword or die by the sword, or eat a fist sandwich, be trained, be safe, and be your character. Your body and your director will thank you.

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