Q: What is your job?
A: I’m one of not very many people in Boston who do theatrical fight choreography.
Q: Does that job have an official title?
A: Some people call themselves “Violence Designers.” I like that name but I can’t say it with a straight face. I say “Fight Director.” I usually don’t care what I’m called as long as the check clears.
Q: So you choreograph fights?
A: The two things I do most are fighting and writing—I’m also a playwright. These are the two least rehearsal-intensive jobs in theater.
When I lived in New York I was doing fight choreography for both movies and theater. But now I do it mostly for theater because I live in Boston. I’ve been doing it for over a decade.
Q: Do you get paid to do this?
A: Most of the time. I do it for love or money; either I really love the people or the project, or I get paid really well.
I do everything from professional equity theater to high school, sometimes on the same day.
Q: I never knew high schools paid for things like this.
A: It’s all about the safety of children. They bring in specialists for sports; why not let the drama geeks have one too?
I’m creating safe and dramatically effected choreography within the abilities of the actors I’m working with and that fits in with the dramatic context of the director’s vision. And I make sure that they can repeat it safely.
We have to think about how to get the actors to physically tell the story. And the fight has to be the same every time.
If I’ve done my work correctly, you shouldn’t know where the director’s work ends and my work begins.
Q: I never really thought about the dangers of pretending to fight.
A: A sword fight could take out an eye. Think about what getting a sword in your mouth would do.
Also, a slap is very likely to hurt someone if it’s not choreographed properly. Someone thinks, “Just slap me, I can take it.” And then they risking breaking an ear drum by forcing air into the ear.
Q: How did you get started doing this?
A: I grew up doing martial arts and ended up a theater major. I’d be in a show and they’d say, “Let’s have the karate guy do it,” which was really not the best idea, as the goals of martial arts and the goals of stage combat are completely different.
Then I started taking courses through the Society of American Fight Directors, which is the professional organization for stage combat.
I did my PhD dissertation on martial arts on stage, and I’ve taught university classes. It’s really a combination of ballroom dance and sleight of hand.
Q: What are some of the more gory fights you’ve choreographed?
A: I once crucified a woman on the body of her dead father… In a play we just did, someone had their heart ripped out…
I also did a decapitation recently. It was in an updated version of The Nutcracker, though it was a play, not a ballet. A talking teddy bear got his head ripped off on stage.
I also recently did a show where someone had to have half of their tongue torn out. The assailant curled up his hand into a fist and put it into the victim’s mouth. He hesitates as he starts to pull and then brings his hand out. The other person covers his mouth and looks shocked. I asked to be billed as the dental consultant.
I do have some regret about how I was billed because it won some awards and in the reviews I was listed as the dental consultant. It was a great show though.
Q: What’s it like to choreograph a fake slap?
A: A fake slap looks more real than the real thing. Most violence you’ve seen in your life is stuff people like me have done.
I could show you five different ways to do a slap. Your hand could be a foot away from my face. Usually the person receiving the slap is controlling the situation.
Q: What or who makes the slapping noise?
A: You clap your hands. It could come from one of the actors in the fight or an actor nearby. There is a great slap technique where you actually hit the other person’s hand.
Q: What are the most difficult things to choreograph?
A: The most difficult jobs are when someone is scared or not coordinated.
Other jobs I’ve turned down were community centers that wouldn’t follow regulations. I have a high tolerance for fake violence, but otherwise I want nothing to do with it.
A common phrase is: “hospital, no hospital.” If you do it this way, you’re going to the hospital. This way, no hospital.
We have this badass rep but we spend all of our time worrying about people getting hurt.
Q: Is this a long-term thing?
A: Like any freelancing, it’s unreliable. I’m primarily a playwright and scholar and I’m currently on the academic job market. I expect that I’ll always be doing this as a sideline since it’s a lot of fun, but man does not live by (fake) violence alone.