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Treading the boards, sword in hand PDF Print E-mail
Written by KATE FRENCH   
Wednesday, 03 March 2010 11:00

Combat choreographers combine safety and excitement

Sword-fighting, punching, and kicking sound like parts of a mobster’s job instead of someone involved with theatre; that is, unless you are a stage fighting choreographer.

Although it looks easy on stage, fight choreography has a lot more behind it than just blindly throwing a punch and hoping no one gets hurt. 

Aaron Conrad (left) and fellow fighter Ben Blue practice some moves.
Photo: Courtesy of Abigail Taylor and Dave Moss
Aaron Conrad is a full-time professional actor in Calgary, most frequently with Scorpio Theatre, as well as a fight choreographer who has been involved in stage fighting since he was in high school.

He started and has been running Shake the Crowd Productions, a stage fighting and stunt work company that was founded a year ago.

Conrad has choreographed several plays for Scorpio Theatre including 2008’s production of Cry Havoc, as well as The Three Musketeers in the same year.

Conrad has a background in martial arts and has had an interest in fighting since has was a child.

To get started in stage combat, Conrad recommends starting with workshops and working your way up to performing and eventually directing or teaching. Conrad, conversely, said that most of his training is self-taught.

Conrad said that the thing he loves most about stage fighting is “certainly in theatre in Calgary it hasn’t been explored in its full potential,” because “there are so many things you can do that have never been done before.”

Conrad also likes the physical aspect of stage fighting.

“It’s a great workout, it really gets the blood going. You’re standing on stage in front of a hundred people and somebody pulls a sword on you and you pull one back; that’s a really cool feeling.”

J.P. Fournier is a stage-fighting instructor at Mount Royal University, the University of Alberta and other locations around Canada, as well as the Master at Arms of Fight Directors Canada. Fournier has been studying, teaching and directing stage fighting for 40 years.

Fournier, like Conrad, also has extensive training in fighting, but most of Fournier’s training is in fencing and other sword fighting techniques.

Fournier references older techniques of fighting from the 1500s.

“You’re standing on stage in front of a hundred people and somebody pulls a sword on you and you pull one back; that’s a really cool feeling.”

—Aaron Conrad, professional actor and fight choreographer

He said that he first learned to love fighting when he was a kid, and watching Zorro and Robin Hood growing up.

“We thought they were great as kids,” Fournier said. “We watched those and the young guys used to fantasize that sword fighting would be a fabulous thing to do.”

Fournier likes stage fighting because it’s fun.

“You know, some people say that men or boys never grow up, and I think to a certain extent it’s true. There are parts of men that never grow up…they always want to play with toys. That’s why I have all these toys,” Fournier said, gesturing to his collection of swords.

While Fournier likes to use older fighting techniques, such as rapier, swashbuckling and small sword skills, Conrad wants to keep experimenting in the future to try and incorporate bigger martial arts stunts into stage fighting, such as flips, jump-kicks and other high-octane-level stunts.

“You watch movies and see all these high-flying martial arts fights and sword fights…most people just assume that’s all film, that sort of thing could never happen in live theatre,” Conrad said. “I sort of sat around one day and thought, ‘Why not?’”

“When I do a show I want to make it bigger and a little more awesome than the one before it. I’m going to do anything I can to break the mold a little further and figure out something new that we can do, and something new that nobody has ever seen,” Conrad said.

Sean Broadhurst, a communications student at the University of Calgary who has been with Scorpio Theatre since 2005, thinks that Conrad’s style of fighting is original and unique.

“Aaron understands fights better (than most). Aaron has a lot of attention to detail and makes everything look realistic but still theatrical,” Broadhurst said.

He acted under Conrad in Scorpio Theatre’s Cry Havoc, which Conrad directed as well as choreographed.

Broadhurst likes stage fighting because he gets to feel like a “badass.”

“I’m kind of scrawny and I don’t do a lot of fighting, but then I’m on stage and it’s like, ‘I have a sword!’” Broadhurst said.

Broadhurst also likes the originality factor of stage fighting.

“It’s not something you see a lot of on stage. When it happens and it’s done well, it’s really interesting to watch. When you see that stuff happening in real life it’s a dangerous situation, but when it’s on stage it’s really exciting,” Broadhurst said.

One thing that is agreed upon by all involved is the safety factor of stage fighting.

According to Fournier, it is “the first thing you teach anywhere, anytime. It should be a safe activity.”

Conrad is proud to say that “ultimately, the best thing to put on my resume is that I’ve been doing this for 10 years and nobody’s ever been seriously injured on one of my stages. That’s sort of the best credential you can have.”

Conrad is quick to say, however, that “nobody has been seriously injured on one of my stages except for myself. I’ve broken some ribs and been knocked unconscious on stage once. That’s a story we still like to tell.”

Conrad also said that while it’s important to say that nobody has been seriously injured, minor injuries are bound to happen.

“Ultimately with fight choreography and stunt work, it’s a risky business. People are swinging swords and throwing punches and there will always be an element of risk involved.

“You roll around on the stage all day and you’re performing the exact same moves every time; every once and a while scrapes and bruises are going to come,” Conrad continued.

Fournier believes that stage fighting is a safe activity, and that “if you do it right, you shouldn’t even get scratched or bruised.”

“What’s really important is that you learn the safety issues. You learn how we do it, and then you learn how to work with people,” Fournier said.

Broadhurst agrees that “if you’re going to get hit, it’s your own fault because you’re not paying attention. It’s not the person throwing the punch; it’s the person who’s receiving it. If you get hit, it’s mostly on you.”

Conrad, Fournier and Broadhurst all agree that stage fighting is a fun and exciting element to theatre, and that if done properly, it creates a strong visual impact while still staying safe.

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