On the Use of Stage Combat Swords

things every actor should know 

[This is a very condensed extract from our book – “The Textbook of Theatrical Combat ©“. All rights reserved]

Stage combat grade blades are all made of high carbon tempered steel, and have been blunted to remove the more obvious hazard, but they are still true weapons whose construction and design were predicated upon one goal: the taking of human life. Under the right conditions, even the “flimsy” blunted foil can pass through the human body, so please treat all weapons with great respect and a certain amount of fear.

“If weapons can be so dangerous, shouldn’t we stay away from steel? What about plastic swords, or wood or rubber?”

Steel is safer than any alternative. Plastic and wood can break more easily than steel, leaving the actor with a very sharp and unforgiving instrument in his hand, just as capable of going through the human body. Rubber is impractical for a sword fight: if made too floppy it looks foolish, and if too stiff it’s like fighting with clubs. Only tempered steel or the more rare and costly tempered aluminum should be used for stage combat. If that makes you uneasy, cut the fight scenes.

Things that people tell me (variations on a theme):

  • “I don’t need real weapons, the actors are only faux fighting”
  • “The actors are just making ever-so-slight and light contact for comic effect”
  • “Oh, they aren’t really fighting; they only have to hit them once or twice”.

OK, I understand what you mean, but that’s like saying that you don’t really need brakes on your car because there is only one stop sign on your way to work. Even if you only need to touch the brakes once all day – at that one time YOU REALLY NEED THEM. The same with swords. Even if the sword only has to touch another one time, or if it has to be dropped, it must be a fight worthy sword.

Everyone thinks that as long as the attacks are kept weak, the swords won’t sustain damage. But strong attacks rarely break a sword. Strong defenses are what weaken the blade, especially near the hilt. In a non-choreographed fight, a hit one night might be 5% stronger than it was the previous night, or might land one inch further away than it did two nights before. The defender isn’t going to be able to second-guess that, so each actor ends up making every block as strong as possible and makes sure that it swings out as far as possible, putting even more strain on the blades.

Another thing that actors tend to do in “fake” fight attacking motions is to stiffen the arm and pull the cuts. Intuitively, it makes sense, and they think that they are being light with the swords. But they are actually putting far more strain near the hilt than would ever be caused in a full out “real” fight.

The only way to keep the weapons and actors safe is to have all fights, even the “faux” ones, carefully choreographed. For theatre, there should never be be any contact between two swords that is not carefully blocked and meticulously rehearsed. It must always be considered stage combat, for that’s precisely what it is. And never assume that the actors are going to know how to do this. I’ve had to re-teach a lot of experienced actors and even fight directors on how to get back to drilling with correct technique.

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Steel weapons are not impervious to damage, and even broadswords can snap in half without warning. For this reason we strongly urge that all fights be choreographed by someone recognized as a fight instructor by the Society of American Fight Directors, or others equally qualified. By this we do not mean a “certified” Actor/Combatant, who might have enough experience to perform the fight, but not to entrust with others’ safety (would you entrust your kids to a bus driver if his only license is a learner’s permit?) nor a fencing instructor (the techniques of fencing are unsafe to both actors and weapons) if those are the only skills possessed. Also, many techniques appropriate for live-action demonstrations are completely unsuitable for stage work.

A skilled bi-plane crop-duster is not qualified to fly a DC-10 commuter flight, right? So it is with swords. Those whose only experience is in non-theatrical combat (SCA, stuntmen, martial arts, fencing, etc.) are not automatically qualified to fight on stage or give direction to actors who do. In order to perform or teach fight movement for theatre, there is no substitute for experience in stage combat. If all else fails, it’s better to get a dance choreographer than a “fighter” to set your fights.

Should it come to pass that a stage fight director is unavailable for your production, we suggest that the actor keep the following principles in mind:

1. There must never be even a fraction of a second in which any weapon is pointed at or crosses in front of anyone’s face under any circumstance.

2. Don’t force your partner to block your weapon on your attack. If she is supposed to block your incoming thrust to the outside of her left hip, then simply make sure that your target is outside of her left hip. Always thrust and cut off-line. No actor should ever have to actually make a block in order not to get hit by a sword.

3. The closer you keep your block to your own body, the more realistic your partner’s attack will look to the audience. So don’t force the block, pushing your partner’s sword away; simply meet the incoming sword at the pre-arranged point in space. Blade “kiss” on contact; they must never bash.

4. Parry (block) with the edge of the blade, never with the flat. Those who say otherwise are wrong.

5. Cutting motions with the sword should not be confused with tree chopping.

* Make sure that your arm, hand, and sword form a straight line at the very moment that your cut is blocked. This will both look far more real than the traditional bent elbow “cut”, but also has the added benefit of completely dissipating the energy of the cut before it reaches your partner.

* Remember the three P’s of cutting motions: point your elbow toward the target; push the pommel toward the target until your arm is straight, and only then engage the point of the sword to the target using only your wrist. [Think of throwing a Frisbee rather than swinging a bat]

* Keep the mental image of striking a crystal bell with your sword: if you come in chopping, you’ll shatter the bell; if you don’t flick your hand at the moment of impact, your strike will not resonate. (Imagine trying to reach around and behind your partner with your sword tip.)

To get the stage version of the cut to look clean and still be safe, here is a great exercise: Get a plastic bottle of any size, fill it with water, and stand it on a tall stool. Try several full speed cuts to both sides of the bottle. How close can you get while not knocking it off of the stool? Until you can touch the bottle but not knock it over, you really don’t have control of the sword.

Is the above exercise easy? Great! Now try it with an empty bottle.

6. Use gloves. It can mean the difference between a bruised finger and an infected and broken finger. Make sure your tetanus vaccination is up-to-date.

7. Look at what you want to hit, and be specific. We are built to do that automatically. DO NOT STARE AT YOUR PARTNER’S EYES! You will only end up losing track of your own sword. Follow the blade tips if you want to develop control of your sword.

8. A rule of thumb: actors should have one hour of fight rehearsal time for each five seconds of finished fight. Any techniques not polished before going into tech week must be cut from the fight.

9. Improvisation has no place in stage combat. Every part of the fight, every shove, every feint, every half-step, must be carefully agreed upon and then set in stone.

10. Limit the fight. Much better to have three seconds of safe, polished combat than two minutes of anything else.

In moments of stress,

we do not rise to the level of our expectations;

we drop to the level of our training.

 

 

Fight the fight, I pray you, as I choreographed it to you, trippingly on the blade. But if you bash it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town butcher performed my moves. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus….. Pray you avoid it. Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the sword, the sword to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of swordplay, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off … cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others…. Go make you ready.