Moving Altercations - Rick Sordelet and Paul Rubin take teamwork to another level

by Michael Eddy

Fighting and flying are two theatrical disciplines that require expertise to accomplish on a stage in a safe manner; and to effectively serve the narrative of any piece. While impactful individually, when fighting and flying are combined they can bring a whole wonderful dimension to a range of productions. Fight director Rick Sordelet and aerial/flying choreographer Paul Rubin, arguably two of the best in the industry, have partnered often in their careers to take fighting and flying to new heights in creating wonderfully evocative sequences. 

Sordelet and Rubin first teamed up to combine their skill sets for Dance of the Vampires. They have worked together on a number of productions over the years creating memorable mid-air altercations. Recently SD was able to catch up with both of them, unarmed and on the deck, for a conversation on this topic. 

SD: Tell us a little about why you both look forward to the projects where you can partner on flying & fighting?
Rick Sordelet: When we work together we find that there’s a pretty seamless connection to the work that we do together. Paul is like having another fight director on board because his eye is so good at what he needs in order to take the fight into the flying. I feel very comfortable working with him as he gets it on levels that most aerial choreographers don’t. Paul is head and shoulders above others I’ve worked with.

Paul Rubin: Well thank you. I’ve worked with dozens of fight directors, but the one thing that Rick does and, to me, excels at over others, is his attention to detail and safety. That’s the one thing that really, really impressed me when I first met him. He comes in before even doing any choreography or fight direction; he’s making sure that everybody is safe and everybody knows what they’re doing before they even do it. His eye when it comes to flying is above and beyond because there are times when we’re working on a show together and I start to say something and he knows exactly what I am saying before I even finish and is already on to the next step. It’s kind of like—it’s the most cohesive working relationship I’ve ever had.

In both fighting and flying, precision is so important. Talk about the process of bringing the two together.
PR: First we think about the equipment we will have, we sit down and figure out what weapons are we going to use and what flying equipment do we have. Then we just sit and discuss what are our full potentials. Rick says “Well, if I have this weapon, we can do this.” We just add on to that together. Two or three years ago, a dance company hired us to do an encore performance of people flying and fighting. It was super heroes and we had five track systems, so we had five super heroes fighting their villains on stage at one time. It was one of the most incredible sequences and we only had three days to block it. It was crazy. There were literally 15 people in the wings helping do these flights. It was three people per track system. That is an example of how we sit down, and we say okay, “What is our main goal? What story do we want to tell?” Then we just throw out ideas and build it together to tell that story. 

RS: The collaboration process is really key. When I’m dealing with Paul and the medium that he deals in, it’s not uncommon to say “Paul, why don’t we try?” Then Paul will always try to give me an educated guess about whether he thinks we can do it or not. But the great thing is a lot of times we discover things that I wouldn’t have thought of without Paul and vice versa. That’s when we end up with some really cool vocabulary in the air; it ends up looking really great. It’s also really safe and it satisfies what the director or what the situation calls for. As Paul said, we are telling a story.

Talk about layering in the director, the actors, technical director into the process then.
RS: It’s always going to be a collaboration. We have to bring everybody into it. The director is going to say this is what they want to see and then it’s our job to figure out how to make that happen a) safely and b) so that there’s a real sense of integrity to the choreography. When it comes to the technical aspects of the flying that’s all Paul. He’ll take his flashlight and his laser and he starts looking at the grid and starts making configurations and talking with the TD. Then all of a sudden magic is happening and we’re able to fly somebody.

PR: Often when we’re working with the directors and choreographers they know basically what they want, but they don’t know exactly what they want, if that makes any sense. So, we get together and say “okay, this is what we can give you”. Like if they just say “I want to see vampires fighting with people on stage”, so we will come up with our own toolbox, our own equipment, and put together these sequences that the director and the choreographer didn’t even know was capable of happening. And that is because they don’t understand the equipment and they don’t understand the fight that we can incorporate with flying. That is what we bring, we’re able to give them more and go above and beyond what their expectations are because together Rick and I collaborate to make it more than just a fight in the air.

RS: We’ll say to the director, “What is it that you want to see? What’s in the movie of your mind? What’s the feeling that you want the audience to experience?” If we have a director that likes to work that way, we’ll get some really great adjectives and some really great ideas of what the director wants to see. Then they let us be and we will put it together and then we’ll get some feedback from the director to enhance what we’re already doing or make whatever changes are needed to create that vision. 

And layering in weapons in their hands and the flying, walk me through that.
PR: The first thing we’ll do is block the actual fight on stage and we’ll walk through it without having wires on. Then we’ll put the wires on without flying and then continue the fight so now they know what their restrictions are and where the wires are so they can work around that. 

RS: We have to be very careful of where the two wires are because they’re coming off either hip and so swinging the sword over your head, for instance, can’t happen. Everything has to stay out in front of you in sort of a cone so that the blade never comes back and hits the wire.

PR: Then, when the fight is safe enough and the actors are comfortable with all of their moves, then we’ll put the wires on and actually fly them and we’ll go beat by beat. We’ll do each move one by one and then we’ll start putting it together.

RS: At the other end of this is that there’s a whole team that Paul has put together on the ropes and so that team has to learn, not only our fight choreography, but the flying choreography that they’re doing so we have to take them into consideration as well.

PR: Yes, it’s a dance; a dance amongst operators and performers. It’s an adagio number. The operators can’t do it without the performers and vice versa.

I imagine it is very important for the production to listen to the actors and their fears when bringing them into this process.
RS: Clearly, that’s an essential part of the process because at the end of the day, it’s not Paul and I doing the action, it’s the actors. If we do our jobs right, which we do well, we empower them with the sense of their own abilities and accomplishments. Yes, they address their fears, but what defeats fear is knowledge. Paul is such an expert teacher. He is great at putting them into a harness and explaining the process and then you see how they kind of move through space under his tutelage; there’s very little room for fear. They get the knowledge and face the fear straight on and by the time they’re flying they’re able to take that next step and really act what they’re supposed to do. My contribution is to then feather in the other elements of the flying experience, which is the fighting experience. We try and go hand in glove and create that air of excitement and knowledge for our actors so that by the time they are fighting and flying, it’s joyous.

PR: One of the best projects we did together was actually for a six-hour workshop that we did in Illinois. We were teaching students exactly this, how to combine fighting with flying. They had no experience whatsoever of either. We first just sat down and saw what ability everybody had and then we built upon that. By the end we created this two-minute fight sequence that looked like it was right out of the Matrix. No one could believe that it just took us six hours to put this whole number together. It was incredible. That comes from our being able to go back and forth with ideas and we know what the other one of us is trying to accomplish.

RS: We were like “Hey man, we could take this anywhere, on any stage, at any time and make this happen with any company”. That was a really big building experience for fight and flight.

Let’s talk about trainings you do together, do you see more schools interested in this kind of training?
RS: I wish they would be more interested in the flying and fighting aspect, doing it together. There’s definitely schools that are interested in stage combat. They definitely recognize the need of training a student who has a diverse background in stage combat. But they should also do more flying. I try and bring Paul up at least once a year to do some flying with us at Yale. The more your actors know how to do these things, the more attractive they are to cast. The idea is that if I’m going to train an actor, I should have them learning how to fight and learning how to fly. I can tell you that when they go off to Hollywood, studios like Marvel take interest. Marvel, which is now Disney, is interested when they get actors who actually can step into a harness and know what they’re doing. The more your actors know, the greater their chances are of getting the part.

PR: It really adds to the triple threat. Some people can sing, dance, and act, but once you can fight and fly, it makes them more enticing. A director will definitely look at that if they’re hiring an actor to do a part that has flying in it or fighting in it.

RS: On stage, there’s—I don’t know, Paul you tell me because you’ll have seen it more than I do, but I think there’s more plays that are willing to try flying or to call for flying then there were 10 years ago.

PR: Yes, there are, for sure. That’s because people’s perception of what they can do on stage has gotten a lot broader, they aren’t afraid of it being too hard. They’re like “If I saw this here, I can incorporate it and do it this way instead.” They understand they can take a big idea and make it work on stage now. People need to embrace the thought and don’t ever be put off because you don’t think your production can do it, because fighting and flying go hand in hand.

Talk about the fact that to do this though you HAVE to hire a professional.
PR/RS: Oh my God, yes! 100 percent.

RS: You can’t guess on how to do this stuff. I don’t care if you’re a community theatre; a school, or a regional. If you have a volunteer or a staff member who think they can do fighting or flying, they can’t. Not if that isn’t what they do and are trained to do. You are going to hurt, or worse, kill someone.

PR: Look, if you are a small community theatre, a school, or are a small-budget regional and you want to do a flying effect, there are inexpensive ways of doing it, BUT you always want to make sure that you have an experienced person that’s doing the rigging and doing the choreography for it. Same goes for fighting, it takes someone like Rick to direct that safely. Like everything, there are more expensive ways of doing things but there are also cheaper ways. An experienced professional, like ourselves can help you find those options safely. The most expensive way to do this though is if you do it with an inexperienced person, you’re asking for an accident. When somebody says, “Well, we really can’t afford to hire a professional or rent the correct equipment”, my answer is, “Then you really can’t afford to do the effect because what you really can’t afford is the medical bills that you’re going to get when somebody gets hurt.” You can’t rig flying by getting anything at Home Depot.

RS: And call us before you tell us you can’t afford it. There are many, many times where we’ll be able to come up with an inexpensive look that will still achieve what the director wants to see that’s not as expensive as what they originally thought. So often we’ll bump into people on the street and they’ll say “I wanted to call you guys. I was going to do this show and we just didn’t think we had the money for it.” Well, call us! We’ll figure it out. 

PR: You don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “We really wanted to use you, but you’re just too expensive.” But the thing is you don’t even know how expensive it is or we are because you didn’t make the phone call. There are levels of stuff that we can do. Don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t kick yourself because you didn’t ask.

Such good points guys. Thank you both for your time, this was really great.
RS: I just want to add, at the beginning Michael you asked about why we like to work together, it really is that Paul and I discovered a real like mindedness in our philosophy on theater, stage, and TV/film. We really enjoy working with each other because there’s such a mutual respect to each other’s craft.

PR: Definitely, that is so true. It’s funny because as we’re talking about this today, I didn’t realize that we have really worked on a so many shows together. It is always such a great experience. Anytime Rick is involved I am excited to be part of that project.

RS: Vice versa, brother, absolutely.  

More about Sordelet and Rubin:
Fight Director Rick SordeletRick Sordelet, and his son, Christian Kelly-Sordelet, operate Sordelet INC, a combat company with over 30 years of action movement experience in NYC. Rick Sordelet has an MFA from Rutgers University, Mason Grove School of the Arts and a BFA from the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Sordelet has worked on over 72 Broadway shows including The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aida, Eclipsed, and Indecent. Most recently he provided services for The Seafarer, at the Irish Rep, Cyrano for Perseverance Theater, Juneau and Anchorage, AK. In addition to regional theaters across the country, Sordelet has worked on national tours, 60 international productions, operas, and has been a stunt coordinator for a wide range of TV and film projects. He has taught stage combat at the Yale School of Drama for 20 years. You can reach Rick Sordelet, Sordelet INC, and see more of his work at: www.sordeletinc.com 

 Aerial Choreographer Paul RubinPaul Rubin, principal The Fly Guy Productions, began his unique career as a flying sequence choreographer/designer in 1988. After he studied theater at UNLV, he apprenticed under Peter Foy, founder of Flying by Foy. Since then he has designed some of the most memorable flying sequences from Wicked to Cathy Rigby’s Peter Pan. Other Broadway credits include: Frozen, The Pirate Queen, Saturday Night Fever, Dance of the Vampires, The Green Bird, Fiddler on the Roof, and Kiss Me, Kate as well as a wide range of national tours. Rubin choreographed all the flying for Franco Dragone’s production of La Perle in Dubai. He also created the aerial sequences for an array of regional theaters, events, and premiers as well as a variety of flying effects for TV and film projects. You can reach Paul Rubin, The Fly Guy, and see more of his work at www.TheFlyGuy.com