The Good Fight

by Kevin Mitchell
The cast of the Globe-commissioned Ken Ludwig's Robin Hood! Credit: Photo by Jim Cox/┬ęThe Old Globe
The cast of the Globe-commissioned Ken Ludwig's Robin Hood! Credit: Photo by Jim Cox/┬ęThe Old Globe

Fight Director Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum Talks About the Art of Fighting
Full-time fight director/choreographer Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum was born itching for a fight despite growing up the son of “pacifist, Bay-area hippies.” “At four, I told them I wanted to sword fight, and they said, ‘You may certainly not do that!’” he laughs. A few years later they enrolled him in a theater combat class, but the youth was unimpressed because… well, it was fake. He would eventually take a fencing class and one day, while walking across the University of California’s Berkley campus, he spotted an “anyone is welcome” flyer for the fencing team. He got himself on that team… even though he was only a 14-year-old high school student. He fenced with great success on the college team and after graduating from high school, he continued with Yale’s fencing team, he was a D1 varsity fencer, while pursuing a theater degree there.

The first hint of his future career was however at El Cerrito High when as a senior he was taught stage combat by the fight choreographer from ACT San Francisco, who came in to work with the students for a production of Macbeth. Grigolia-Rosenbaum recalls it was then when he started to understand the difference between fencing and stage combat. “A big part of fencing is moving as little as possible, so you can protect yourself and not let your opponent know what you were going to do next. The act of stage combat, while mechanically similar, is when your opponent is essentially your dance partner.” Today he is based in New York, and getting actors into fights is a full-time gig.

His work includes Broadway, off-Broadway, regional, televison and film. His credits as fight director include Peter and the Starcatcher (Broadway, New York Theatre Workshop, New World Stages, national tour), Peter Pan Live! (NBC/Universal), Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Broadway, The Public Theater, Williamstown Theatre Festival), Cyrano de Bergerac (Broadway), Here Lies Love (The Public Theater, commercial remount), The Robber Bridegroom (Roundabout Theatre Company), Sailor Man (NY International Fringe Festival), and The Buccaneer (The Tank, Fight Fest). He has also worked with Connecticut Free Shakespeare, Ogunquit Playhouse, and National Theater for Arts and Education.

Swashbucking Collaboration
To illustrate how he works, Grigolia-Rosenbaum explained how he approached being fight director this summer for San Diego’s Old Globe on the world-premiere production of Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood!, a fast-on-its-feet show that was filled with sword-play and physical humor, staged in the round. “The first thing I do on a show like this, which has a lot of stage fighting, is to figure out how much time I’ll get with the actors.” He first met with director Jessica Stone where “we started to conceive the language of the fight, and the style.” But it is when he shows up at the theater his work really begins. Experience has taught him to come in with general ideas, but, “on day one when I meet the actors, I assess their skills and comfort level, and that’s when you adjust the complexity of your ideas up or down.” It is then a matter of listening – to the actors, to the director and the rest of the creatives involved to find the tenor of the fight and how it relates to the storytelling. This journey often leads to unexpected discoveries, like on Robin Hood, as they noticed that the Sherriff of Nottingham was actually reluctant to get involved in any fighting personally. “His whole fight choreography became about how many ways he could lose his sword.” 

The set designed by Tim Mackabee was simple yet creative, as much had to be inferred: castle, forest, a bridge suitable for a fight scene, was done effectively but minimally. Boxes that were movable were a big part of it all, and in one instance, the team added a little something to mask a scene shift. “We had this scene in Nottingham castle and put a small sword fight in where one wasn’t called for in the script because it killed two birds with one stone. It served as an appetizer for the fights to come, and it distracted the audience from a huge scene change needing to happen.” The actors dived, kicked, and threw around the boxes and at the end of the fight the next scene was meticulously set. “It’s a moment that gets a big applause, when in fact we just wanted to solve a set problem!” Grigolia-Rosenbaum has built a career knowing how to turning what are often problematic moments in fighting required productions into choreographed, audience enthralling moments.