Teen Intensives Behind the Scenes: Fight Choreography

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An interview with the fight choreographer for the Teen Summer Intensives Sweeney Todd and Titus Andronicus, Matt Smith.

1.) What’s your process for choreographing the fight scenes?

When I am asked to choreograph a fight the first thing I do is read the play. This gives me the characters, how the fight starts, and how it ends. Then I start from the completion of the particular fight. Kills and finishers are some of the most dramatic and fun things to bring to life on stage and I like to begin with creating how I want the fight to come to a close. From there I create the fight taking into consideration the space I have on the set, the blocking the director has done and any special considerations I have to make for the actors playing the rolls. No fight is ever concrete when it gets to the actors. I try to keep myself from getting attracted to certain moves or phrases because they can change in a heartbeat if they are too hard or don’t fit with the director’s vision. Sometimes things have to change and move with character motivations, but I find having a solid base to work from speeds the process up considerably.

2.) How long does it take you?

It depends on the fight. If you need a guy to get punched in the face and fall to the ground like a wet sack of potatoes that takes significantly less time than if you want 2 minutes of Romeo of Tibalt dueling with rapiers and daggers. For choreography I say 20 seconds of fighting takes about an hour of work to choreograph.

3.) What are some of the safety precautions you have to take when choreographing the fights?

Matthew Smith, Fight Choreographer

Matthew Smith, Fight Choreographer

The first thing I tell actors that have never done stage combat before is that what we are doing is not fighting. We are using techniques to imitate violence and tell a story. This is, in my opinion, the most important safety precaution you can take with stage combat. If you have ever seen a live fight in person you know that it is fast, confusing, and you don’t know what is happening until it’s over. With fight choreography you have to tell a story, the audience has to be able to see what each character feels about how the fight is going. Are they winning? Are they loosing? Are they planning their next attack to finish the fight? If actors go at full speed with these fights all that subtext and character development would be lost. By going at a clear smooth pace we can both keep the actors safe and comfortable with the fights and keep the audience engaged in a riveting story of violence.

4.) What sparked your interest in fight choreography and made you want to get certified?

I was the little kid who begged his parents to let him buy a wooden toy sword so I could slay dragons in my backyard. That is one of the reasons I got into theater, so I could play out fantastical stories and tales for an audience to enjoy. When I was in college majoring in theater there was only one stage combat class and due to my major I wasn’t eligible to take it. So after I graduated, I began to look for other opportunities to get involved with stage combat. I found the Winter Wonderland workshop in Chicago, the largest regional workshop run by the National Society for American Fight Directors. Several friends and I ventured down to Chicago and there I got bit by the stage combat bug. I learned so much about theater in those four days and from then on I took every opportunity I could to be involved in the stage combat world and I’ve never looked back. My stage combat experiences have been wonderful and they are something I will follow for the rest of my life.

A picture of a fight from the Puppet Shakespeare's adaptation of 'Titus Andronicus.'

A picture of a fight from the Puppet Shakespeare’s adaptation of ‘Titus Andronicus.’

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