Stage combat choreographer Teresa E. Gallar discusses how to safely create fight scenes.
Caught In the Act: How did you get started in this line of work?
Teresa Gallar: Like any other physical endeavor, there is a thrill from a well-executed fight. Similar to a home run or field goal. It is even more satisfying to have a fight you choreographed be well executed and well received. In 1998, I took a full-time production position at TBPAC, now The Straz, so my work in the field was limited and local only. I’m now getting work in other states, depending on my schedule.
CITA: What training requirements, skills or certifications in stage combat direction do you have?
TG: I spent two-and-a-half years training at the University of South Florida under Christopher Steele who carried a combat teaching certificate and Jeff Norton who carried an actor combatant certificate. Part of the training was working for a year as a teaching assistant for the Level 1 classes for both Steele and Norton.
CITA: How long have you been teaching this skill?
TG: If you count my time as a teaching assistant at the University of South Florida, since 1994.
CITA: What are some of the most common questions people ask you?
TG: Performers will normally ask about something they have never quite got a handle on. During Carmen, I was asked how to handle a bullwhip, which we weren’t using during the show. So it was something that person had always wanted to know about.
CITA: What are some of the basic tenets of stage combat? (For doctors, “first – do no harm!”)
TG: Actually “do no harm” is the first rule and most important. I am very hard on someone who is not taking the risks of stage combat seriously. Everything in stage combat is designed to keep the combatants as safe as possible, but if someone isn’t taking the risk seriously and is sloppy with the combat, someone can be injured.
Let’s take weapons as an example. With weapons, there are two target areas that you are working with: a target area on your partner’s weapon and a target area outside your partner’s body. Since swords are the most used weapon in opera, I’ll talk about those. A sword is divided into three parts, 1st third, 2nd third and last third. The attacking partner should connect her/his 1st third to the defending partner’s last third, if it’s a contact move. There are two reasons for this: one, the last third is the strongest part of the sword. Two, if the defending partner misses the parry, the likelihood of the attacking sword connecting with flesh is very low. Even though the swords are blunted, they can still cause damage.
Someone missed the second target area on me and stabbed me in the thigh. Fortunately, I was wearing jeans and I only had to live with a goose egg of a bruiser that took about month to go away. Now for the second target area. This is approximately 6-8 inches from what you are aiming at. Example: if you are aiming at my right thigh, your target is 6-8 inches to the right of my leg. If you are ever able to watch a fight rehearsal and you hear “watch your distance,” the combatants are too close together or their weapons are not hitting the second target area.
CITA: What are some of the largest misconceptions about this skill?
TG: That it’s not a skill. More times than I would like, I have someone who thinks this is play time. Even though you do not need any training to perform a fight in a show, you do need to learn your choreography with the professionalism you would learn your role.
CITA: How do you decide on what weapon to use in a show?
TG: The selection of weapons is dictated by the show – whether it’s an opera or musical or Shakespearean play. Some feel that Shakespeare should always be done in the Elizabethan era – so épées, foils and sabres. But if you decide to set it in outer space, you can do Macbeth with light sabers!
First, you need information on the show’s setting, location and time period from the company’s director. Then the dance choreographer and fight choreographer work together work to decide on which weapons to use. In opera and musicals, the fights are denoted by the length of the music itself. In West Side Story, the fights denoted the knives and guns as weapons, along with hand-to-hand combat.
The Pirates of Penzance, being a comedy, the “combat” is a silly little fight and the music is very short – it was only during the Pirate King’s solo.
In shows without music, you work with the director to determine how much fighting is wanted in different scenes and build it however you want.
CITA: What is the most common weapon used in a show?
TG: An épée is the most common type of sword used in stage fights. The blade is triangular, making it both lightweight and strong. The interesting and slightly gruesome part of the blade is the blood groove. When using the épée, the blood groove indicates where the striking edge is. It’s other purpose in an actual fight is to allow the blood to flow down the blade and thus prevent it from being stuck in the wound.
CITA: Why is this skill so important in the world of opera?
TG: If performers come in with these skills, I know they will be safe and we can work more efficiently. Because safety is my first priority, if someone is new to this, it will take more rehearsal time to make sure that the fight is safe and clean.
CITA: What do you think is the coolest weapon and why?
TG: My favorite weapon to use is the broadsword — something about being able to control seven pounds of steel is a rush! But the weapon I think is the coolest is the Meteor Ball. If you’ve seen the movies Kill Bill, Vol. 1 or Shanghai Noon, you’ve seen it in action. It is rope or chain with a weight of some sort at one end. You need to be coordinated, flexible and be able to think ahead of your opponent for it to be effective.
CITA: How do you think fight choreography is going to change in the post-COVID 19 world?
TG: The fight world will need to get creative to try to keep as much distance as possible as often as we can. Directors may need to consider the concepts for shows with increased fight distance in mind — with the director and choreographer thinking outside the box on weapons and movement. For example, gun play could replace sword work. A fun idea would be shadow work upstage of a screen. This is when the performers are between a screen and a set of lights. Silhouettes are created on the screen that the audience can see. Using shadow work, the performers could fight and never touch or be near each other, but it will look like they were. That could easily keep distance and be visually interesting.