The Fight Master

by Lisa Mulcahy
in Feature

J. Allen Suddeth rehearses a fight move with Vera Varlemov.Legendary stage combat guru J. Allen Suddeth graces Broadway again with Aladdin—while simultaneously pursuing creative experimentation Off-Broadway

Great stage combat works like the very best magic trick—its realism is so convincing, you never see a single seam. J. Allen Suddeth, the legendary fight choreographer/stage combat coach who’s been working on Broadway and around the world for more than 35 years, is arguably the craft’s finest master. His stellar experience includes twelve Broadway shows, ranging from Newsies to Angels In America to Saturday Night Fever to Jekyll & Hyde to, currently, Disney’s Aladdin. His Off-Broadway credentials span work at Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Public Theater, and the upcoming workshop production of Hunters at the Cherry Lane Theatre. That’s not to mention scores of regional productions, his tenure as fight instructor for more than 10,000 actors, his authorship of a definitive guide to stage combat, and the fact that he’s one of only 16 certified fight masters in the U.S. He shared some of his insight about his creative spark, career trajectory and the art of staging safe and impactful physical conflict. 

A Visual Inspiration

Suddeth’s skill at presenting detailed and authentic fight choreographer springs from his finely-honed visual instincts. He was first drawn to the stage as a teenager. “I got the bug in high school, acting in a play,” he recalls. “I found acting, and the whole experience of theatre, really, tremendously exciting—to me, even in that first experience, it was fulfilling emotionally and intellectually. So I did a lot of it. I went on to Ohio University to study photography, and made the mistake of going to see an extraordinarily good production of Peter Pan at that time. Every element of that show entranced me—the scenic design, the acting. In a really great twist of fate, actually, Jonathan Freeman, who played Captain Hook in that show that inspired me so much, is in Aladdin, so I now get to work with him! Excellent!”

Seeing Peter Pan proved to be unexpectedly transformative. “After I was so influenced by the entire experience of that production, I started to really think about the totality of my experience in the theatre, and realized what I really wanted to do with my life,” Suddeth says. “I switched my major to acting from photography—I have to say I’m really glad I had a photography background first, though, because it’s very helpful to have a visual perspective when you go deeply into the discovery and study of theatre. Anyway, our school got a federal grant to bring in some guest artists, and we acting students were incredibly lucky to be able to learn from Patrick Crean, who was known as ‘the dean of stage combat.’ I really admired the skill Paddy had at teaching fight choreography; I realized that my acting training really helped me grasp the technical concepts he was presenting, and started to think maybe this was something I wanted to do more of.”

After graduation, Suddeth made New York City his home base, and from there began a successful acting career doing everything from Shakespeare to dinner theatre to summer stock. “A.C. Weary, a talented friend of mine, and I put up a show at the Westbeth Theatre in the late ‘70s called A Night at the Fights,” he remembers. “We co-wrote a full evening of stage combat, cast some great actors, and it got great reviews and garnered lots of attention. We moved to the APA Theatre, and my phone started ringing, all because of this self-generated work idea. People suddenly wanted combat training from me! This started me on a 10-year journey of teaching, culminating in my founding an actors’ combat training school.” Hundreds of actors starting signing up for classes with Suddeth at this point. “I was delighted, because I’d gotten married and needed to make a living, and I was doing really well!”

A Philosophy of Collaboration

Suddeth also started getting offers to stage action sequences for TV shows. “I ended up working on over 850 shows during the next 10 years,” he says. “My photography background also fed me when I started working with a camera, from both a technical and creative perspective.” He also discovered he had a knack for bonding with the actors he was choreographing, and could easily determine what they needed from him to achieve their role’s objectives. “I know what the actor’s experience is, having done lots of it in my own education and career,” Suddeth says. “Because of this, I really look at stage combat as a collaboration between myself and an actor—together, we set out to illuminate the character, through the actions I choreograph and the developmental work the actor has done,” Suddeth explains. 

Suddeth’s teaching credentials have, over the years, further expanded to include stints teaching at Juilliard, the Mason-Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, S.U.N.Y. Purchase, the Lee Strasberg Institute and the Stella Adler Conservatory. He also started receiving more and more offers to create stage combat sequences for more plays in New York, and his Broadway and Off-Broadway work flourished. Suddeth dedicated himself to ensuring each production was wholly served by his technique. “My fight choreography should help the actor achieve visual and emotional high points, points that are true to the essence of that actor’s character. At the same time, I’m looking at the play as a whole—be it hardcore realism, comedy, tragedy—and really pop a moment in that show with a stage fight, a sword fight, whatever happens to apply,” he explains. “I try to use all the elements of a show, through working with the director and dramaturgy and scenic design, and distill it all at once in the movements I’m choreographing. I want my combat to blend truthfully into the production—I always say, ‘The fight should live in the set, not on the set.’”

Aladdin and Hunters, the two productions he’s working on this spring in New York, reflect this concept perfectly, although the shows are polar opposites. “Aladdin is a wonderfully visual show,” Suddeth enthuses. “I’ve choreographed a huge musical number, ‘High Adventure,’ which runs about five minutes long. During the course of the number, the set changes seven times, I’ve got up to 15 actors sword-fighting all at the same time—it’s something else! I also got to influence the sword design by working with its manufacturer, putting my two cents in regarding the props was really helpful in terms of putting this piece together. I love knowing that down the line, this number will be iconic—people are going to be seeing it for a hundred years! I had the same wonderful experience knowing my work on Newsies would be iconic in that way, too. The set by Bob Crowley is wonderful, and Casey Nickolaw is a very hands-on director with such a fresh take on the material. By contrast in scope, at the Cherry Lane, my work in Hunters is a workshop of a script. Both vehicles are equally challenging—one is a huge Broadway show, and the other is three actors, one seat, no budget and 40 seats! With Hunters, I love the fact that I’ll be dealing in realism blended with fantasy. I’m choreographing an actor in a situation where he’s tied up, beaten and gagged, so there’s safety to deal with, of course, so important. There’s also lots of improv we can play with in this show, and Jen Silverman, the playwright, is great about encouraging my input, as is Michael Donovan, the director.” 

A Peerless Legacy

After all this success, Suddeth is also turning his attention to giving back in a permanent way. He published the book Fight Directing for the Theatre in 1996, which is still considered a definitive guide to the art form. He also founded the National Fight Directors’ Training Program, which prepares top fight choreographers around the world as instructors so that Suddeth’s philosophy can be handed down to generations of actors to come. “I’m really thinking about leaving a legacy at this point,” Suddeth says. “It’s like how Paddy Crean inspired me—I’m training teachers now, some of whom will be destined to take stage combat to the next level.”

The enduring point Suddeth hopes to convey: stage combat must be failproof, and never present any danger to a performer, above all else. “The bottom line for me, always, is safety,” he stresses. “In order to get there, my message to actors is, train, train, train! Take responsibility for mastering stage combat solely yourself. The teachers I’m training who are in their 30s and 40s now will be teaching themselves for the next several decades, and they do excellent work, but every actor should take it upon his or herself to study, and keep the work they do safe. That’s the most important lesson I can ever teach!”