As many headed to their lake houses and cabins over Memorial Day Weekend a number of theatre artists headed to the campus of Hamline University for the 2019 Brawl of America Stage Combat Workshop sponsored by Six Elements Theatre (www.sixelementscompany.org). While many aspiring and seasoned actor combatants swung swords and grappled each other to the ground, I had the joy of helping facilitate this fighting frenzy as an intern. I got to make coffee and help with registration, hang signs and clean up the armory, but luckily interning meant plenty of theatrical violence for me too.
For those that may not know, Brawl of America is one of many regional stage combat workshops sponsored by the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD). A brief side-note, most of the workshops have punny/violent names like that: “Carnage in the Corn”, “Lonestar Smash”, “Rumble in the Rockies”. The SAFD was formed in 1977 and has since set the standard in staged violence and codified a curriculum under which actors and choreographers train in various weapons. Currently, the SAFD offers training and Skills Proficiency Testing in 8 weapons: rapier & dagger, single sword, broadsword, broadsword & shield, smallsword, knife, quarterstaff, and unarmed combat. To achieve skills proficiency designation an actor must complete 30 hours of training with a certified SAFD teacher and perform a choreographed scene for evaluation. An actor that has achieved skills proficient status in 3 weapons (one of which must be unarmed combat) gains “Actor Combatant” status. Moving up the hierarchy an SAFD pupil can then become an Advanced Actor Combatant, a Certified Teacher, a Fight Director, and ultimately has the potential to be elected Fight Master (a total of 18 exist in the US currently).
That’s the SAFD in a nutshell.
Violence is a natural part of the human experience and therefore a large part of the stories we tell and the theatre we produce. Not only does the SAFD provide safety and structure as you learn the language of stage combat; this is an organization of actors. I’ve gained so many useful insights for overall performance from the principles of stage fighting; the stakes have to be pretty high for you to raise a 4-foot sword above your head or hold a knife to someone’s throat.
The Twin Cities are lucky to be home to two currently practicing Certified Teachers (and many, many fight enthusiasts, actor combatants, and choreographers). Mike Lubke heads Art in Arms (www.artinarms.org) and Aaron Preuss runs The Fake Fighting Company (www.fakefighting.com). If you’re looking to begin your own journey as an actor combatant – they’re great resources to consider. The community is open, caring, and contains some of the most thoughtful and intentional people I have ever met.
Though I’ve been acting for about ten years, I’m still pretty new to the Twin Cities, and honestly, pretty new to the SAFD. I became an actor combatant in 2017 and have been amazed and humbled by the inclusivity, support, and love shown by the stage combat community each time I attend an event. Brawl of America 2019 was no exception. There’s something uniquely vulnerable and life-affirming placing your physical body in such close (and potentially dangerous) proximity to another human being. You can’t get that sort of connection at your day job. The discipline of stage combat itself was established to increase safety and enhance storytelling on stage, so it’s no wonder that the members of this organization show such compassion, care, and empathy in their work. The SAFD creates a “Fight Family” where actors can build strength and community.
So, this has been your basic introduction to the Society of American Fight Directors, to my fight family that includes hundreds of artists nation-wide. If you want to see some of these concepts in action, I will shamelessly plug this summer’s 10thAnnual Human Combat Chess - think Harry Potter meets G.L.O.W - running all through June (www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4245649). You’ll see work from local fight choreographers, some ferocious acting chops, and maybe start to see why this stage-fighting thing is so much fun.