Stage combat is a specialised technique in theatre designed to create the illusion of physical combat without causing harm to the performers. It is employed in live stage plays as well as operatic and ballet productions. With the advent of cinema and television the term has widened to also include the choreography of filmed fighting sequences, as opposed to the earlier live performances on stage. It is closely related to the practice of stunts and is a common field of study for actors. Several actors famous for their stage fighting skills have backgrounds in dance or martial arts training.
The history of stage fighting and mock combat can be traced to antiquity, or indeed to the origins of the human species and primate display behaviour. Display of martial aptitude is a natural occurrence in warrior societies, and ritualized forms of mock combat often evolve into war dances. Fights staged for entertainment may also be in earnest for the combatants, as was the case with the Roman gladiators, and any public duel, such as the judicial duel of the European Middle Ages. Depiction of violence in theatre can also be traced to Antiquity, with Aristotle quoted as noting that "conflict is the essence of comedy".
The medieval tournament and joust are a classical examples of competitive ritualised mock combat. The joust from the time of Maximilian I developed into a sport with enormous cost involved for each knight and correspondingly high prestige attached, comparable to contemporary Formula One races, while at the same time minimizing the danger of injury with highly specialized equipment.
In the Late Middle Ages, staged fencing bouts, with or without choreography, became popular with fencing schools. Some German fechtbuch ("combat manuals", literally 'fight' or 'fence book') have sections dedicated to flamboyant techniques to be employed in such Klopffechten ("knockabout fighting"), which would be impractical in serious combat, and the Late Medieval German masters distinguish mock fights (fechten zu schimpf, 'rant fighting') and real combat (fechten zu ernst, 'earnest fighting').
In Asia, stylized stage combat has been a staple feature of traditional performing arts for centuries, such as in Japanese Kabuki theater (as tachimawari "fighting scenes"), Chinese Beijing Opera and Indian theater. The history of European theatrical combat has its roots in medieval theatre, and becomes tangible in Elizabethan drama. It is speculated that Richard Tarleton, who was a member of both William Shakespeare's acting company and of the London Masters of Defence weapons guild, was among the first fight directors in the modern sense.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scenes of swordplay in touring theatrical productions throughout Europe, the British Commonwealth and the USA were typically created by combining several widely known, generic routines known as "standard combats", identified by names such as the "Round Eights" and the "Glasgow Tens". Also during this period, fencing masters in Europe began to research and experiment with historical fencing techniques, with weapons such as the two-handed sword, rapier and smallsword, and to instruct actors in their use. Notable amongst these were George Dubois, a Parisian fight director and martial artist who created performance fencing styles based on gladiatorial combat as well as Renaissance rapier and dagger fencing. Egerton Castle and Captain Alfred Hutton of London were also involved both in reviving antique fencing systems and in teaching these styles to actors.
Cinematic fencing has its roots in the 1920s, with the movies of Douglas Fairbanks. Martial arts movies emerge as a distinct genre from the 1940s, popularized by Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba from the 1960s.
Informal guilds of fight choreographers began to take shape in the 1970s with the establishment of The Society of British Fight Directors,1969 to 1996. Training was established in the United States with the formation of the Society of American Fight Directors in 1977. The British Academy Of Stage & Screen Combat (BASSC) and Fight Directors Canada in 1993, the Society of Australian Fight Directors Inc. in 1994, the Nordic Stage Fight Society and the New Zealand Stage Combat Society in 1995 and the British Academy of Dramatic Combat in 1996. In 1997, the first all-female stage combat theatre company since the 19th century was formed: Babes With Blades and in 1999 the Art of Combat was created to focus on martially sound combat for stage and screen. As of 2005, East 15 Acting School, London, exclusively offers a B.A. (Hons) Degree in Acting & Stage Combat and in 2009 NYC Combat for Stage & Screen started teaching weekly classes in New York City. The Australian Stage Combat Association was established in 2011 to help actors and the Entertainment Industry in Australia remain protected and informed about Stage Combat techniques and the rights and responsibilities of performers. The Sydney Stage Combat School, in Sydney Australia, has been running since 2000, and is biggest full-time Stage Combat training centre in Australia, offering Casual Classes twice a week and a wide range of certification workshops each year.
Stage combat training includes unarmed combat skills such as illusory slaps, punches, kicks, throwing and holding techniques; theatrical adaptations of various forms of fencing such as rapier and dagger, smallsword and broadsword, as well as the use of other weapons, notably the quarterstaff and knives; and more specialized skills such as professional wrestling and different styles of martial arts. However, stage combat can include any form of choreographed violence and the options are limited only by safety concerns, and the ability of the participants involved. As a note, most of these techniques are drawn from actual fighting techniques, but modified to be safer for actors. For example, although there are a number of ways of creating the safe illusion of a slap to the face (which is obviously something that could really be done in combat), none of these involve making actual contact with the victim's face.
The over-riding concern is for the safety of the actors and audience. This requirement has led to the adaptation of many standard martial arts and fencing skills specifically for performance. For example, many basic sword attacks and parries must be modified to ensure that the actors do not bring the points of their weapons past their partner's face or otherwise inadvertently risk the other actor's health and well-being. Attacking actions in stage combat are extended past the performance partner's body, or aimed short of their apparent targets. Likewise, whereas their characters may be trying to violently twist each other's limbs, slap, or punch, or grapple, and engaging in vicious unarmed combat, the actors must operate at a high level of complicity and communication to ensure a safe, exciting fight scene. Considerable professional judgement is called upon to determine what technical level may be appropriate for a given performer, taking into account allotted rehearsal time, and the expectations of the director.
The combat phase of a play rehearsal is referred to as a fight rehearsal. Choreography is typically learned step by step, and practiced at first very slowly before increasing to a speed that is both dramatically convincing and safe for the performers and their audience. Even stage combat is risky, and it is preferable for actors to have as much training and experience as possible. A "fight call" or a brief rehearsal before the show is performed each time, set aside for the actors to "mark" through the fight to increase their muscle memory.
A show which involves fight choreography will typically be trained and supervised by a professional fight choreographer and may also include a fight captain, who runs fight calls and ensures that actors are remaining safe throughout the duration of the show.
The fighting styles in many movies - that take place in the medieval or renaissance period - are highly unrealistic and historically inaccurate. Most fight choreographers use a mix between Asian martial arts and sports fencing to re-enact fight scenes.
Realism in fight choreography
Fight choreography can vary widely from true realism to outright fantasy depending upon the requirements of a particular production. One of the biggest reasons that theatrical fight directors often do not aim for strict realism is that the live audience could not easily follow the 'story' of the action if bodies and blades were moving in the ways trained fighters would move them. For example, a production of Cyrano de Bergerac (play), by Edmond Rostand, using 17th-Century rapiers, might show Cyrano making lots of circular cut attacks. But a more efficient, practical attack would be taking a quicker, more direct line to the opponent's body. But the fight director knows that the audience couldn't follow the action as well if the attacks were faster (the audience might hardly be able to see the thin blades whip through the air), so most fight choreographers would make choices to help the audience follow the story. Of course, this is dependent on the production, the director and other stylistic choices.
One school of fight choreographer thought says that an unusual aspect of live stage combat, such as in a play, is that audiences will react negatively to even simulated violence if they fear the actors are being harmed: for example, if an actor is really slapped in the face, the audience will stop thinking about the character and, instead, worry about the performer. Audiences may also fear for their own safety if large combat scenes seem to be out of control. Therefore, stage combat is not simply a safety technique but is also important for an audience to maintain uninterrupted suspension of disbelief.
Having its roots in Medieval theatre, stage combat enters classical theatre choreography with Elizabethan drama (Shakespeare's simple and oft seen stage direction, they fight).
Classical stageplays with fight scenes:
Cinema inherited the concept of choreographed fights directly from the theatrical fight.
Douglas Fairbanks in 1920 was the first film director to ask a fencing master to assist the production of a fencing scene in cinema. A second wave of swashbuckling films was triggered with Errol Flynn from 1935.
Renewed interest in swashbuckling films arose in the 1970s, in the wake of The Three Musketeers (1973). Directors at this stage aimed for a certain amount of historical accuracy, although, as the 2007 Encyclopædia Britannica puts it, "movie fencing remains a poor representation of actual fencing technique". The Star Wars films, the fights for which are choreographed by Bob Anderson & Peter Diamond (Episodes IV, V & VI) and Nick Gillard (Episodes I, II & III), tend to portray its lightsaber combat using swordsmanship techniques drawn from existing martial arts, but performed with fantasy weapons such as lightsabers or The Force, whereas the action featured in The Lord of the Rings also choreographed by Bob Anderson employed fantasy weapons and fighting styles, designed by Tony Wolf.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Sonny Chiba, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, who are famous for both choreographing and acting in martial arts action films, were influential in the development of stage combat on film.
Hong Kong based fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping is famed for his work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Matrix trilogy, in which the often unrealistic fighting techniques are complemented by directorial techniques such as bullet time. Ching Siu-tung is particularly noted in the field of Hong Kong action cinema for his use of graceful wire fu techniques. By contrast, films such as The Duellists, fight directed by William Hobbs, Once Were Warriors, fight directed by Robert Bruce and Troy & Ironclad, fight directed by Richard Ryan are widely famed for including gritty, realistic combat scenes. Ryan is also known for his creativity in devising styles such as Batman's in The Dark Knight, Sherlock Holmes 'prevision' style in Guy Ritchie's two Sherlock Holmes movies.
Combat reenactment is a side of historical reenactment which aims to depict events of battle, normally a specific engagement in history, but also unscripted battles where the 'winner' is not predetermined.