Is There a Fight Choreographer in the House?

by David J. McGraw
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You might have the weapons, but do you have the trainer?
Photo by earl53 on Morguefile

Last week I traveled to Chicago to attend a stage combat workshop for stage managers offered by the Vagabond School of the Arts.  Barbara Charlene ran an excellent workshop, taking us through all the precautions and questions to ask.  But perhaps the best part of the workshop was the very first topic: how to find and compare fight choreographers. 

Too many times I have managed a show that required limited stage combat – a single slap or a stab or a tussle – and the question arises whether we even need a fight choreographer.  Yes!  The physical health of an actor is fundamental to her/his employment, so we can’t put them at risk without some professional guidance (and not just one of the cast members who did a similar move a show a few years ago).  But how to find a fight choreographer, particularly on low budget shows?  And how to compare them if you have a few options?

I learned about two American associations for fight choreographers: the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD) and Dueling Arts International.  Depending where you work, you might also encounter choreographers certified by Fight Directors Canada (FDC) and the British Academy of Stage & Screen Combat (BASSC).  What I love about all four organizations is that they certify their members based on levels of proficiency with various armed and unarmed combat techniques.  If only more theatre professions offered proficiency certifications – and not just at joining in your twenties but requiring renewable certifications.

Barbara is a member of SAFD, so she primarily covered that organization.  A fight choreographer can take proficiency tests in 8 weapon disciplines:

  1. Unarmed
  2. Knife
  3. Rapier and Dagger
  4. Single Sword (think Hollywood swashbuckling)
  5. Broadsword
  6. Broadsword and Shield
  7. Small sword
  8. Quarterstaff

There are also 5 levels of training/certification within SAFD, broken into two categories: combatants and teachers.  So you may want to hire an actor with substantial fight training (Advanced Actor Combatant vs. Actor Combatant), but search for a certified teacher when training others how to fight.  So a SAFD Certified Teacher would be great for those slaps/stabs/tussles mentioned earlier.  For more advanced choreography, you could search for a Fight Director.  And the highest level is Fight Master, who would be ideal for a show like The Three Musketeers but is likely in high demand and may also be the most expensive option.  The best part is that you can search for both combatants and teachers on the SAFD website.  The other organizations also offer member certification levels and directories by region.

So if you find yourself on a show that wants a fight but fears it cannot afford a choreographer, you now know where to search for one.  Plus you can do a little snooping on the certifications of the choreographer joining your show!