Those words strike fear into the heart of every fight director I know.
Right now there is a trend that I have been seeing, one which might be called an attempt at "realism" in theatre, or more likely a money-saving attempt by a theater company to cut the "staged" part out of staged combat moments. In other words, when it comes time to slap someone on stage, directors, actors, producers, choreographers, whoever are becoming more and more comfortable with really doing it.
I have met very few fight directors who approve of this measure, so my only way of justifying it is to say that theaters are less and less willing to hire a fight director for a show. A notion that I get suspicious about especially at Equity theaters where they are required to do so. Often I find the director is trained, or even "trained" and does it for his or herself. Now I'm not one to doubt the abilities of someone, but as a fight director, I will simply say this: I hope you're the Michael Bennett of staged combat if you're going to play that card.
So when I see a show, and I know it contains a fight of some kind, and there is no one listed as “fight director” or “choreographer” or whatever in the program? I know there is something rotten in Denmark. Why is it that when an actor says “It’s okay, just slap me” the director goes, “GREAT!” and the fight director’s job is no longer needed? Worse, however, is when the director says, “Oh just slap them, it’s one slap.” There is literally no other non-violent profession in this country where a boss can say that and have it be okay. I am trained extensively to tell you that it’s not okay, that there is a ton that can go wrong. I’m not saying that every real slap is going to injure an actor. I’d say that 95% of the time, it will all be fine, maybe even 99%. But do you really want to take that 1-5% chance every time you put your show on its feet in front of an audience?
Before you answer that, let me just give you a couple of examples, they are extreme, but they are relevant.
Now most people that I talk to about this usually respond, “Ned, she’s an actress, it’s her job to not let it bother her.” Sure, maybe. But it probably will anyways, she’s only human. In fact I would argue that I’ve seen this next moment be true way more times than not. She gets to the big slap scene, and in front of her is a man, a man that she has been acting in love with for months, and after a day filled with bad hot dogs and shitty men, in that moment we expect that she will slap exactly as she always has with enough force for an audience to buy it, and not enough force to injure the actor? I call bullshit. The outcome in that moment is she will accidentally swing harder than normal, and she will rock the actor in the side of the face. Hard. Now he’s fine, but she knows she’s screwed up. The next day the slap is timid, he flinches early, the timing is off. They are only human, after all.
If that analogy doesn’t work for you, change the scenario slightly. Instead of having a shitty day, she’s just exhausted. On that day her focus is a little bit less than normal, and she stands one inch closer than she has in the past. Not a very noticeable distance, but enough for her fingers to clap his ear rather than cheek. Boom. Burst ear drum. Maybe she accidentally hits too high. Boom. Broken cheek or eye bone. She hits low? Boom. She’s slapping an epicenter of nerves and blood known as the External Jugular Vein, the same one they tell you to hit when you need to incapacitate an attacker. Why? Because the odds are pretty good that a solid blow there will either knock out your opponent, or at least cause them to see spots/lose their balance.
In either of those scenarios, no one is at fault, just circumstance, and yet you have injured your actor. Not only is the theater now paying medical bills and putting on an understudy, but the actress is distraught because she just injured her friend and will never approach that scene with the conviction needed for the slap to even make sense. I don’t care how good an actress she is, coming back from that is next to impossible.
Or what if there’s a trade-off of slaps between a man and a woman such as in The Actor’s Nightmare by Christopher Durang. Maybe for similar reasons as above, the woman hits the man a tiny bit harder than she meant to, he decides to teach her a lesson and retaliates a little bit harder than normal. She now gets a rebuttal and he even gets one more. No one would notice the change in force except the actors, who probably won’t say anything, and now? Most likely they’re pissed at each other and going to hit each other that hard every night. We’ve reset the safety quota and no one even knows.
Does any of that scare you as actors, directors, choreographers, stage managers (I can’t even imagine the nightmares I would have from violent plays if I were a stage manager), designers, whoever else? Because as a fight director it scares me shitless. It is my job to protect actors, not just while I’m in rehearsal with them, but for their entire employment in my show. When an actor gets injured, someone invariably says, “well who was the fight director? Why didn’t they train them better”. Well, If the theater was smart enough to even hire one of us? Most likely we were given two hours to train and stage an entire sword fight. Yet even still, because we failed our job, we start losing more work because we get a reputation for injuring actors.
The problem directors have, is in the words “Fake Stage Slap”. We’ve all seen ‘em, they’re bad. They look awful.
Wait, no they don’t.
A good fight director will make stage violence look good all the time. Because they will work with the creative team to adjust the scene for the best possible slap. I promise. A good fight director is a perfectionist. If you meet one that haphazardly throws a show together? Don't hire them again. (Unless they moved at breakneck speed due to a communal lack of rehearsal time. This is usually no one's fault, just a fact in this industry.) The only time a fight director can’t fix a bad slap is when a director wants an exact picture where it is actually not possible to look good. For instance three repeated stage left-stage right slaps that don’t move. Audiences will get the trick if they see it more than once. So don’t let them see it more than once, or playwrights, for the love of god take into consideration that you can’t write repetitive non-moving slaps. No fight director would ever choreograph slaps that way if they had their druthers, so let them have their druthers and your fights will look good! Often I find a slap will look bad because the actors or director choreographed it because, "they did a great one in a show once" and they think they can do it perfectly again. Maybe they can, but that great one was most-likely choreographed by a good fight director.
To directors I ask this. If you have a slap in a scene, stage it with a fight director present, or at least consult one before you stage it so you know where the actors have to be for the slap to look its best. Then bring in the fight director to actually choreograph the slap! They will tell you all the angles, styles, tricks, and whatever else you need to get the scene precisely where it needs to be in order to have a rockin’ stage slap that no one in the audience will ever see coming or disbelieve at all.
I don't have a source on this statement, but Richard Pallaziol is a juggernaut in the industry of staged combat and renting stage weaponry. I trust him with this statement, and he says in response to this very question,
"There are some stage combat experts who insist that an actual contact slap to the face is perfectly safe as long as it is modified slightly. I have seen videos sold by these same professionals showing actor/students facing each other and trading slaps back and forth to prove the safety. Those experts are wrong. The contact slap is inherently unsafe. The slap to the face sends more actors to hospital emergency rooms every year than all of the other techniques of stage combat combined. This includes knife fights, broadsword fights, swinging from ropes, gunshots ... all of the other techniques of stage combat combined." (SOURCE)
Yet still we have directors saying, "just hit them." Do you think that Cheyenne Jackson is going to say "just slap me" in a broadway show? No, he's going to insist that a fight director be brought in. So why does the non-eq tour actor not get the same respect? We don't tend to cost very much, and we will only enhance your show. Fighting is not something to be shied away from. A lot of directors say "let's just get past the fight so we can continue with the story." Fights are not mere spectacle. They are story. Much like singing in a musical being what the character HAS to do when words aren't enough. Fights are generally in plays when characters HAVE to do something when speaking is not enough. Obviously there are more fights such as slap-stick, prat-falls, whatever. But my point doesn't really change.
I leave you with two more articles to consider, the first from Stage Combat Now, a Staged Combat resource for fight directors entitled "Why Actors Should Always Request a Fight Director". - ARTICLE
The second is a horror story. It's from an article that was posted on SAFD.org, the website for the Society of American Fight Directors, and it is everything that is wrong with the "just slap him" mentality. I'll give you a hint, the Artistic Director who allowed this injury is quoted in the article as saying he doesn't "believe" in professionally choreographed staged combat because, "it doesn't look authentic." - ARTICLE
To him or her I say, trust in your fight director. If you find a bad one, don't hire them again. But protect your actors. You wouldn't want a bunch of actors winging a dance number, so why would you want them winging a fight? Bring in a choreographer, or don't do a play with violence. It's really that simple.
What do you all think? Are you for, or against contact slaps in a show?