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Coming to Blows

In a recent issue of Back Stage West, I ended an article about stage combat with a rhetorical question from fight director Dave Maier: "Why is violence such a part of our lives? And why is it so much fun to create this illusion?" As actors, Maier said, we have the opportunity to "examine this stuff, and share it, and ask questions about it."

I explored this issue with Maier and a few others who have often simulated choreographed violence onstage, or who have directed such scenes. How does stage- or screen combat—whether armed or unarmed, in period pieces or contemporary material—affect actors? What is the role of the actor in portraying violence?

Gain Control Through Analysis

Maier's not sure he has an answer to his own question, but he says, "I think it taps into something primal for men." You get to at least partially release those innate hostile urges that seem to come with the territory of living in 21st century America, yet, at the same time, be entirely in control, he explains, adding that, in real life, if you found yourself fighting, you'd more likely be out of control.

Maier did a fair amount of real fighting as a boy and, as a teenager, was severely beaten in a mugging. Sometimes, he says, those images arise when he's fighting onstage. He has fantasized revenge scenarios, and he thinks that occasionally comes out in his work. "For me, it's a healthy alternative to actual violence," he says. "I think a lot of people involved in stage combat have experienced violence in real life."

Fight director Christina Traister is one of those people; she was raised amid domestic violence. "I think that's one of the reasons I'm so attracted to this work," she says. "If anything, I've felt empowered by dissecting it, analyzing it, looking at the nitty-gritty." As an actor, her personal experiences with violence have desensitized her, enabling her to engage in violent stage scenes without being frightened. Conversely those same experiences have sensitized her when it comes to directing others.

How actors respond to violent scenes differs depending on past experiences and personal sensibility. Sometimes actors' memories of frightening real-life experiences are inadvertently activated: Traister once stopped a rehearsal when a participant started to have a meltdown. Because people are not allowed to express themselves in violent ways socially, it's a new experience for many actors when they first have to do it onstage, she says, and it can open up whole cans of emotional worms.

Fight directors, such as Traister, are paid to be in tune with actors' fears and anxieties and change the choreography accordingly. They also generally tailor the choreography to suit the abilities and concerns of each actor—as well as to ensure safety and tell the story—but Maier notes that some actors just never feel safe about anything. "Sometimes you have to take a risk," he says.

Take Emotion out of the Equation

Gregory Hoffman, the Los Angeles–based founder and master teacher of Dueling Arts International, says actors typically like swordfights but are troubled when called upon to be the aggressor in contemporary scenes of domestic abuse or rape. "If it's period violence, it's much more removed," he notes.

"I've never run into anyone who wants to dive into that rape scene," agrees Traister.

Hoffman finds that, in general, women especially tend to bring a keen appreciation to the work—which, he emphasizes, is "not about young male testosterone; it's about being connected to your partner in a meaningful way and telling the story." To that end, Traister remarks, "Women are historically thought to be the weaker sex, defenseless, so to be able to create that violence is pretty empowering."

"The reason we're so intrigued by violence is because we're sexually repressed as a nation," says Aole Miller, who teaches a "Sex, Power, and Violence" workshop in New York that trains actors to release tension and emotion in the body, largely through the application of Catherine Fitzmaurice's voicework system. "We're not allowed to express anger, as well," he adds. "So the outlet is through observing violence, pornography…." Releasing rage can excite and scare a person, he says; it's a sublime and liberating experience. For the actor, it's to show people "who they are and who they may become, and get them to think and feel."

Chris Mulkey recently appeared at the Odyssey Theatre in Jane Martin's Flags—about the effect of the Iraq War on an ordinary American family—as a rage-filled father who slaps, shakes, and yells at his son. His real-life wife, Karen Landry, played his wife. A longtime screen actor—30 years in Hollywood, close to 60 films—Mulkey is often cast in violent roles; he guesses it's because he's big and athletic. The day I talk to him on the phone, he says he's just killed two people, fallen into a bayou with snakes and alligators, and died (on location in Louisiana as the sheriff in Little Chenier, a portrait of Cajun life).

Mulkey says an actor's responsibility is to fulfill the desires of the writer and director, but, on a larger scale, it's also to look at what message that actor wants to send out. Early on, Mulkey made the decision to turn down roles involving violence against women. Many of his colleagues take that position, too.

Of all the films he's been in, he's had only three mishaps, which he considers a good record: His nose was broken by Woody Harrelson; Dennis Quaid knocked him out; and he threw Ron Perlman across a room, and Perlman smashed into the camera and cut his eye.

I ask Mulkey if he enjoys participating in such scenes of aggression, and, at first, he says no; he'd had enough violence wrestling and boxing while growing up. But then he concedes that he relishes those roles, as long as they serve the story, satisfy his personal aesthetic, and don't promote a political agenda he objects to. Violent actions, he says, can give huge dimensions to a character. "It's fun, [but] you have to not get emotional, not just go whaling away. Sometimes people think they're in a bar fight. It has to be by the numbers."

Maier concurs. "For me personally, I can't rely on emotion," he says. "If I relied on emotions, I'd be in big trouble."

Violence Under the Microscope

But how does an actor access the type of rage needed to assault someone physically without tapping into his or her own emotional resources? That's not a problem, according to Traister. She explains: If the material is well-written, it takes you where you need to be, and there's a natural impulse that kicks in. If you're going to stab, hit, push, or shoot someone, these are simply manifestations of things you feel inside but normally don't express. Traister points out, however, that keeping that energy in check can be a problem: It's a new sensation to attack someone physically, and actors, especially younger ones, can get carried away.

Too much immersion in stage fighting can be wearing for some. "Every now and then, these violent scenes affect me emotionally, and I think, 'I'm not gonna study war no more.' I feel like walking away from it," says Maier. Hoffman says he's suffering from professional burnout and is semiretired from directing fights, preferring now to produce and direct. "I think this work has made me more sensitive and more educated about violence in the world, in general," he says. "If you do it correctly—telling the story and not trying to demonstrate all the moves you may have in your arsenal—you [can't help] looking into what [violence] is all about, why it exists." Still, he says, directing violence day to day is emotionally fatiguing.

What keeps Maier coming back to fight-directing is his love for creating the illusion of mayhem—and also a sense of responsibility. "I think fighting in the theatre is valuable to society," he says. "[Audiences] get to examine violent, horrible acts without anybody actually getting hurt. In film, actors are separated from the audience, but in theatre the audience is witnessing it all [close up]. If we allow ourselves [as audience] to be really affected by it, we can ask ourselves, 'Why do we do this?'"

"A lot of times, violence is a mirror that we don't want to see our reflections in," Traister comments. "You think these things don't happen. Well, they do. All the time. Some social classes are less exposed to it than others. If you hold that mirror up, it can affect people, move people in positive ways. They see something abhorrent, and it inspires them to, even in a small way, make changes in their own lives. If it's staged in a believable, convincing way and makes audiences unsettled and disturbed—which it should, in drama—it gets in your brain, it starts you thinking about your own life, your own neighborhood."

In the end, it also evokes Aristotle's catharsis of pity and fear, a requisite for successful tragedy. BSW

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