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In Theater Class, It’s Stage Left, Right Cross

By Jason Jacks on June 8, 2011

Theater students duke it out in a class called Stage Combat. Photo by Nicolas Tan

“Smack!” The man falls back, reeling from a blow to his left cheek. Undeterred, he slams his palms into the chest of his assailant, sending him in the opposite direction. Soon enough, ears are grabbed, hair is tugged, and one man is thrown rudely to the floor.

While Hulk Hogan would be proud, WrestleMania it’s not.

What the fighters are doing is learning how to grapple theatrically in a Mason Theater Department course called Stage Combat. Usually taught in the fall or spring, this year is the first time the popular faux-fighting class is being offered over the summer.

So still not getting what the class is all about? The overview in the syllabus says it all:

“Pushing and Pulling, Punching and Kicking, Falling and Rolling, Silly and Dirty Fighting, Weapons and Armed Techniques, Building the Fight, Writing the Fight, Rehearsing the Fight.”

Ken Elston, chair of the Theater Department, is the fighters’ trainer—I mean class instructor.

“Keep your distance!” he cries out like a trainer tutoring a boxer, as two students run through their lines and fight moves simultaneously. “Watch your feet.”

After class, Elston says learning to battle on stage is an important skill set for aspiring actors. There is even a national accreditation body—the Society of American Fight Directors—that certifies actors as theatrical fighters.

“This is something that is helpful on a resume,” he says. “But, more important, it is so much fun!”

The idea of theatrical combat, Elston says, “is storytelling through staged violence,” adding that’s the key is “to make it look real without giving away your tricks.” Moments before, one student demonstrates a trick by stealthily slapping his leg to create the sound effect as his other hand pretends to strike his partner.

Tricks aside, safety comes first in Elston’s class. He teaches his young actors to take it slow with their fight moves, trust their partners, and to remember that the one getting hit, thrown, or shoved “is always in control.”

Elston knows firsthand the effects of a staged fight gone awry. Once while rehearsing as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, a fellow actor accidentally hit him with an uppercut that broke his nose.

“All acting is based on a certain sense of risk-taking,” he points out, now laughing at the wayward punch.

Technically, Elston’s class is considered unarmed, meaning weapons are not allowed. But one day this summer he intends to permit his students to bring in a nonlethal weapon of their choosing (pillows are a possibility) to get a taste of armed staged combat.

For next summer, plans are in the works to offer an advanced class that would include more fake weapons. The department is also considering a class for area high school thespians, where they could become certified in stage combat.

Finding more students for the additional classes will not be an issue, according to Elston, as the course is usually one of the first in the department to fill up.

“There is always more demand than space,” he says.

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