This post is written by Lexi Earl.
Late last year, I had the opportunity to see Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was a spectacular performance, and I was completely immersed in the story and the characters. I found myself paying particular attention to the fight scenes. I watched as the actors moved together in the fight, as a dance. One actor moved, the other responded. This obviously happened very quickly and with much violence, but it was mesmerizing. I noticed how the sounds of smacking and slapping happened, and the way the actors’ feet moved in sequence with the other.
I can only pin my sudden awareness of the fight choreography to my visit in the same week to Welcombe Hills School. Welcombe Hills is a special school, and while I was visiting, the Key Stage 3 pupils were learning about Peter Pan. The school is putting on a production of Peter later this year (in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital) and the pupils I observed were learning about fight scenes. Rather than Roman generals fighting with their fists, these would be pirates and lost boys clashing with swords. Jo Bradley, the Drama teacher, and Cassie Gibb, the Drama teaching assistant, were schooling the pupils on the details of fight choreography.
Cassie explained to the pupils, “as actors, you need to think of a fight like a dance. No one is going to be surprised; it is choreographed. A sword fight is action, reaction.”
To begin, Jo and Cassie illustrated the physical movements they wanted the pupils to learn – moving backwards and forwards in response to the person facing you, and swooshing your arms around to chop off someone’s head. “It’s got to come as if it is slicing his head off,” Cassie explained to some pupils.
The students got to practice in pairs during class. First they concentrated on getting their feet to move easily forwards and backwards in reaction to their partner. One foot stayed cemented and unmoving while the other moved in response, some pupils naturally leaning back as their opponent tried to stab them in the stomach. Some students giggled as they got their bodies to react, others made swooshing, swishing noises of a sword cutting through the air.
The class then shared their work with each other, each pair taking a turn to demonstrate their movements. “That’s tiptoeing,” Cassie said to one pair who hadn’t quite gotten the foot movement down yet. “What kind of pirate are you?” she asked amusedly.
Next they practiced thrusting the sword forward to stab their opponent in the stomach, still trying to get their foot movement correct. Once they had both their feet and the two different arm movements sorted, they were asked to choreograph their own fight scene in pairs. They could choose whatever sequence they wished to do. “For example, you can go head head middle head,” Cassie explained. The pupils had to do five different actions from the two different sword movements. “This is a fight sequence,” Cassie explained, “swing to the head and duck, step forwards and thrust the sword forward, the other steps backwards. Work out how the fight is going to end.”
The children were given time to work out their fights, moving around the room and discussing their strategies in pairs. Then they were all invited to show their fights to the group. Each fight was different, and there was much enjoyment and laughter as they worked. Many fights ended in a death scene, the injured party falling dramatically (and often heavily) to the floor.
When everyone had demonstrated their work, Jo asked how fighting relates to the story of Peter Pan. “The pirates and lost boys fight,” a student explained. When I later saw the actors on the stage fighting, I saw how the basics that were being taught to the students applied to the professional stage.