Mark Penzien, Fight Master and Stage Combat Guest Artist for Opera for All
When my friend, Whitney Hershberger, contacted me about helping her teach stage combat as part of the COT Opera For All program, I was excited to be involved. When I was told it would be 13 classes of middle-school students, and we’d have only an hour with each class, I panicked a little. After all, even though stage combat is fake fighting, it is a dance of sorts that is highly choreographed to deliver a good story, and an exciting spectacle, but mostly to ensure safety of the combatants. The professionals have been training for years or decades. How could we teach them enough to be interesting, but keep them safe?
Trained stage combatants don’t generally go “all out” with a lot of speed. If they did, the audience is going to miss most of what happens. That lack of full speed is also for safety. What if we went to the other extreme and taught the kids slow motion fights?
So Whitney and I went about choreographing a simple fight that included slaps, punches, pushes, and hair pulls. (It’s amazing how much fun it is to get into a brawl with a friend when you know neither is going to get hurt!) Along the way, we discovered how to make the fight interesting:
If it can’t be flashy or fast, make it BIIIIIG!!
I’m not talking a fight with 6 or 7 people at once. No, I mean wear the biggest, meanest-looking fighting faces. Choreograph large movements that ordinarily would look clownish. And encourage vocalizations that are fierce, loud and drawn out. With the fight slowed down, the audience gets to take in all of the minutiae that usually get mixed together in typical stage combat.
When we got into the classrooms, there was a lot of excitement to be learning (and being allowed) to fight. Naturally, it was a constant struggle to make sure everyone remained in slow motion and that safety was being respected. Whitney and I even made sure that safety wasn’t just the first rule of stage combat, but the first three! “Safety for myself, safety for my partner and safety for those around me.” Once we had that ingrained, it was a lot of fun for teachers and students alike!
Seeing the students take to the choreography and make it their own was quite rewarding! Once the movements were familiar, the warrior faces that were donned were impressive. A beastly face that normally would be comedic took on very serious tones because of the vocality and slowed-down energy of the fights. I truly worry about the Great Chicago Fire that these students will be fighting in their operas!