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On Fight Choreography with Steven Schwall

Steven Schwall is not only an actor in Macbeth, he’s also the Fight Director. Here are his thoughts on choreography for this production.

Hi, I’m Steven Schwall and I am designing the violence for Pigeon Creek Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This production has a number of parameters which take me outside the “traditional” methods of fight choreography. I’m here to share my experiences with you.

To start with, Pigeon Creek is an original practices company. This poses several conditions which force the fight choreographer to adapt. Thrust staging (or full round for that matter) always complicates things, because it is harder to stage the violence so that it looks real without being real. Universal lighting makes it even more difficult to accomplish. So there is a lot of viewing from several angles and adjusting to keep it visually true.

The short rehearsal periods mean having to force the issue of training. The easiest aid in this is applying the KISS principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid. The most fabulous choreography in the world will look stilted and fake if there isn’t sufficient time to rehearse it. Also, brilliant choreography will not necessarily make a fight. The object of the fight is to physically dramatize the conflict and if we lose sight of the conflict, we lose the story. Simplicity is key.

Cross gender casting creates another problem. Pigeon Creek not only casts men in female roles, but women in male roles. While I have nothing against female actor/combatants – I know several who can kick my butt – many female actors are not involved in martial or sporting activities as much as their male counterparts, so they might be unprepared for the movements that they are going to be asked to make. This translates into a longer learning curve, so keeping the movements simple gives them time to learn and embody this new movement method.

And then there is the design concept. Traditionally, the fight arranger works with swords, knives and guns. The weapons are designed to balance and flow, and have smooth edges. The steampunk concept has forced me to design weapons that fit into that style. Regular weapons would not have looked “right” and taken our audience out of the world of the story. The new weapons I have created for the play function similarly to regular weapons, but not always, so adjustments are continually made to the techniques of wielding them so that they look natural.

Lastly, this production is ensemble directed. That means there is no one decision-making authority. While this is very freeing for actors, who can develop their characters as they see fit, as the fight arranger I do not necessarily know what choices they have made. So I can design a fight, but if it flies in the face of a character’s trait as the actor has developed it, the movements will not ring true. So I must be flexible in my approach, and ask questions of my actors to be sure that the fight I am giving them tells the story in the character they have developed. A couple times in the process, an actor has come to me and asked if a change can be made in order to fit with the character they are attempting to portray. If I refuse, I become a totalitarian tyrant who is placing his own work above the good of the whole project. In ensemble direction, even someone in a directoral role must also be willing to take direction. In the end, it is the actors, and not my work, that must shine. We all work toward the good of the whole.

So, keeping flexible, keeping it simple, and being a part of the solution are the keys to functioning in this slightly unusual set of parameters. And that in itself is a learning and growing experience.

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