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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

On Guard: San Francisco Opera Hosts an Evening of Stage Combat

Posted By on Wed, Jan 28, 2015 at 8:10 AM

Dave Maier and Megan Messinger demonstrate fight choreography in a stage combat workshop at the San Francisco Opera on January 13. - PHOTO BY SCOTT WALL
  • Photo by Scott Wall
  • Dave Maier and Megan Messinger demonstrate fight choreography in a stage combat workshop at the San Francisco Opera on January 13.
Brad Pitt will not be pleased as we are about to break the first and perhaps most important rule of Fight Club. As Pitt's now iconic character, Tyler Durden, stressed in the 1999 cult favorite, "The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club." Duly noted, however, the folks over at the San Francisco Opera say otherwise.

The San Francisco Opera recently hosted an evening of choreographed back-stabs and backhanded slaps as approximately 70 theater enthusiasts gathered to learn and practice firsthand some of the finer points of stage combat and sword play. Led by Resident Fight Director Dave Maier, the workshop is the first in a series of theater education classes for adults known as the Overture Workshops. The message is to spread the word if the inaugural turnout is any indication. Sorry, Brad. 

The calendar for future classes is still in development as well as a revamped webpage but those interested in the latest updates should visit the SF Opera website, according to Director of Education Dolores DeStefano. However, those desperate for a crash course in stage combat should read below as SF Weekly caught up with Dave Maier via email to further discuss its history and why violence plays such an integral role in drama. Don't worry, it's still all fun and games.  

What role does stage combat play in the history of theater?

In Ancient Greek theatre the violence was generally not staged. It would happen off stage. The audience doesn't see Oedipus blind himself but they see the results of that violent act. We don't see Medea murder her sons but we see the effects.

Clearly by Shakespeare's time this trend was reversed. Elizabethan audiences craved interesting and realistic sword play. In King Lear Gloucester's eyes are ripped out and stepped on right in front of the audience. Convincing techniques must have been deployed to support the playwrights intensions. Shakespeare, of course, provides us with so many violent conflicts. Slap stick and comedic violence evolve to become a mainstay of Commedia del Arte. On stage theatrical violence has certainly been an element of European/Western theatre at least since the 1500s. 

Why do you think there is such an emphasis on violence in drama and what does it say about the human condition?

Violence is a heightened form of conflict. A major reason that I am still drawn to this art form is that we live in a violent world. Stage combat allows us to examine violence and its effects without anyone actually getting hurt.

What brought you to a career in stage combat?

I was attracted to stage combat as an actor who was often cast in roles where I had to fight. I sought out training to insure that I could keep myself and my partners safe. I took to the work and gradually gained enough experience to choreograph fights. When I began training with Gregory Hoffman and Dueling Arts International I realized that there might be a career path here. It is tough to make a living as a fight director. I supplement my living by working as a Teaching Artist and teaching combat certification classes. On occasion I will have an opportunity to take an acting job.

Where do you draw the line in terms of what you will or won't choreograph in a fight? 

I will not choreograph a fight that puts the audience or the actors in danger. For example, I quit a project years ago because an actor insisted on breaking a glass on stage and than waving it in another actors face. Not a break away glass a real glass.

The director liked the "element of danger."  I wanted no part of that!

Technically what's the difference between a comedic stage fight & a dramatic stage fight?

In comedy fights the laws of nature do not apply. Reactions and bigger and pain is easily forgotten. In tragic fights we strive to make the violence as believable as possible. Humans are empathic creatures. If we see someone that we believe to be in pain, we feel for them. Our job is to make the violence believable so the audience buys into the story as a whole. The best fights are woven into the fabric of the production.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF, Jonathan at @jonramos17, and like us on Facebook.
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