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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Nuturing Stage Combat Skills In Actors

Julia Hiltscher
Flickr Creative Commons

The plays of William Shakespeare are performed on stage more than any other playwright’s works. There are a couple of good reasons for this.

"Because it’s dirt cheap, and it’s good stuff," says actor Bruce Cromer. In his more than 40 years on the stage, he’s acted in dozens of Shakespeare’s works, where no matter the show, as an audience member, you’re bound to see some fighting on stage.

Cromer has taught stage combat  at Wright State University for nearly 30 years. He says stage combat is a requirement for all acting students at the school, partly because of Mr. Shakespeare.

"Every show of Shakespeare, there’s either unarmed, or broadsword, or rapier and dagger," he says.

Cromer started his own career as a stage combat choreographer at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in the late ‘70s. That’s where he learned firsthand that even a fictional fight can end in real-life injury.

"I was playing Prince Hal, and this guy was playing The Douglas, and he had this big battle axe. He hit my shield, the shield hit my mouth. I was spitting out fragments of a tooth. This was two days before I got married to Carol, and I feel my lip just puffing up. But it’s like, 'Well, the show must go on!'"

Cromer is certified to teach stage combat through the American Society of Fight Directors, and his students at Wright State often become certified as well through his classes. Certification means performers learn to fight and teach stage fighting safely. 

"No production is ever worth risking hurting yourself or, God forbid, a cast mate," says actor and teacher Charlie Cromer, who was interviewed via Skype. He splits his time on stage and in the classroom between Georgia and Ohio. He’s also Bruce Cromer’s son.

"Dad’s one of my favorite fight partners."

Charlie is also certified through the Society and, though he got his MFA in acting at the University of Georgia last year, he said his certification came from his time acting in Bluejacket in Xenia, a much-loved and now-defunct annual outdoor drama that told the story of Shawnee war chief Bluejacket, though he said this version fictionalized the famed Native American as being a white man who was raised by the Shawnee, which he admits was problematic.

"We were not as woke back then," says Charlie Cromer. "So I played a fictional white version of a fictional white Bluejacket’s son. And I fought with a variety of weapons: I had a saber, I think I did saber and axe at one point, I got to fire a cannon. We got to shoot real, black powder, muzzle loading rifles. It was very cool."

With such an elaborate production, there are a hundred ways that a performer can get hurt . That’s why actors must not only choreograph and relentlessly practice every movement, but also keep staged aggression from turning into real aggression by viewing a stage fight as a partnership.

"We instill this in them: 'This is your partner, you’re going to make your partner look fabulous,'" says Bruce Cromer. "The victim is usually in control of most falls and reactions to punches, et cetera. I often start my students with a simple shove. The basic things — if you don’t mind me putting a hand on your shoulder? The attacker comes The attacker comes up to the victim, puts a hand on the shoulder. The attacker leans in, as if they’re going to use their full body weight, and then the victim moves away, and I have to follow your action. The cool thing is, the audience works off of suggestion — that’s what makes the gag work."

So what is it about staged fighting that we love so much, whether we’re on stage or in the audience? Charlie Cromer said he thinks it’s often about taking a character’s motivations and vulnerabilities and making them visible.

"People in the moment, just risking and barely getting away, or giving it their all and failing, or climactically, they change the tides, right there in the moment. It’s engaging you fully in your guts and your heart."

As much as they both love the art of stage fighting, both Bruce and Charlie say it’s important to them as actors to focus on building empathy for characters who experience violence.

"More and more with my students, I’m trying to get them to play the violence realistically, because we get into this thing of “Bang, you’re dead!” when you’re a kid. If I came up and just pulled your hair in the hallway, you would be shocked. You would say, “That really hurts!” That’s what you have to do with fights — we have to show that there’s consequences to violence," says Bruce.

"But that’s why I think that live theater combat is so great — because it offers the audience an opportunity to empathize with the victim," adds Charlie.

Culture Couch is made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.