Everyone who knows me knows that I absolutely love stage combat. My first foray into stage combat was during an eighth-grade production of The Taming of the Shrew, where my character Bianca was tied up and horsewhipped by her older sister. My appetite for violence was re-ignited in 2010 when I was cast in a production of The Three Musketeers, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 2011 I joined the crew of Treasure Island and got the opportunity to be Fight Captain for that production. If you want to become a Fight Director someday, being Fight Captain for a production is a step in the right direction! Read on for a description of what a Fight Captain’s role is, as well as some of the things I’ve done as a Fight Captain. All the examples listed below are actual tasks I’ve completed in past productions!
1. During rehearsals, acting as the Fight Director’s right-hand-man-or-woman.
The Fight Captain assists the Fight Director and Assistant Fight Director (if there is one), and is in charge of combat once the show opens. Sometimes the AFD is also the Fight Captain. He or she runs fight calls before the show, maintains the weapons, and acts as liaison if there are any issues that need to be addressed with the FD. They act as a leader for the rest of the actor-combatants, displaying proper rehearsal etiquette and making themselves useful as much as possible. Which leads to our second point…
2. Getting the FD what they need (pencil, paper, weapons, video recording device, coffee…).
As the FD’s right-hand-man-or-woman, the Fight Captain needs to be ready for whatever needs doing, to maximize the time available with the FD. There never seems to be enough time to get stage combat done and choreographed as we’d like, so using the time efficiently is of the utmost importance. Try to anticipate your FD’s needs and have items ready that they need: pencil and paper or a camera to notate and record choreography, weapons in good condition and ready to hand out to actors, water or coffee for when they’re pulling their hair out trying to fix choreography…
3. Helping to review the Fight Director’s choreography.
Fight Captains do not alter or teach choreography, but they can and should help other actor-combatants review their moves, under supervision.
4. Cleaning and care of the deck.
Yup, Fight Captains deal with the dirty work. Before and after rehearsal and before every performance, the rehearsal area and/or stage must be cleared of debris, and then raked/swept/mopped as required. The Fight Captain may assign these duties to someone else (with the FD’s approval) but it is the responsibility of the Fight Captain to ensure these duties are completed.
5. Maintaining weapons and other combat equipment.
All stage combat equipment must be kept locked up when not in performance. For each performance, the Fight Captain will unlock the storage, check all items for damage, set up and/or distribute items where they need to be and to who needs them. This could also involve creating blood packs, loading blanks or caps into guns, checking and pre-setting special effects items, or replacing consumable or one-time-use effects (such as blood-filled pies or spaghetti squashes to be hacked with a tomahawk).
When I was the Fight Captain for Treasure Island, we had a great system for weapon tracking. We had a long table for the weapons and covered it in butcher paper. All the weapons were placed on the paper and I traced the outline of each weapon onto the paper. Then, each outline was labelled with what the weapon was (“brass handled cutlass” for example) and who used the weapon. Actors would take their weapon off the table as it was needed, and returned the weapon when they were done with them. It was easy to see what weapons were accounted for, and who we needed to track down if their sword was missing!
After the show, the Fight Captain collects and counts all weapons, checks them again for damage or maintenance (no splinters, rust, dirt, etc), wipes down all bladed weapons, returns everything to storage, and locks up.
6. Completing safety checks.
As well as presetting combat equipment, Fight Captains need to ensure that all safety equipment is set and in order. This is EXTREMELY important. My worst experience as a Fight Captain occurred when I forgot to set a crash mat into the proper position for a stunt, and the actor rolled off a four-foot platform directly onto the wooden deck. Stage combat of any kind involves risk to some extent, but when doing bigger stunts, it’s absolutely imperative that everything is safe. Make sure crash mats are in place, there are no tripping hazards, rigging is in working order, and so on. Equipment is replaceable… people aren’t.
7. Leading warm-ups.
It’s important that actors be warmed up and limber before doing any kind of strenuous activity onstage, including combat. Some actors like to warm up on their own, but I think warming up as a group helps to improve morale and create a team atmosphere, particularly when you’re working together so closely and have to take care of each other. Learn a simple warm-up routine that targets each part of the body and get the cast together to get ready as a group.
8. Running fight call.
Before every performance, all fights and violence must be run twice — once at a slow, “tai chi” speed to get the moves back into your body, then at performance speed. The Fight Captain ensures that all the fights are rehearsed correctly and safely, and maintains order during that time. If there are any issues that arise, the Fight Captain addresses them during fight call.
9. Doing backstage effects.
When not actually performing, the Fight Captain is generally the first person who will be assigned to take care of effects such as third-person knaps, magical appearing knife effects, broken bone sound effects with water bottles, blood squirts, and so on. (I have done all those in performances before!) Stage combat definitely encompasses more than just flashy sword moves onstage!
10. Listening and learning.
As Fight Captain, you have been given a great opportunity to learn from the experience. You are not there to brag about the combat experience you already have, or to say “that’s not how so-and-so does it.” You are there to assist the FD and make their life easier. Listen, listen, and listen some more, and learn everything you can. Be the solution, not the problem.
Extra Credit: 10 Things I’ve Done as an Assistant Fight Director
Photo Credit: Ceris Thomas (top and bottom), Kerry Hishon (middle)
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