The first session of the weekly class (an eight-week class) we are introduced to our teacher Gael, a small lithe woman who I am glad to see is closer to my age than to the age of the others in the class. I am hoping she will be merciful.
The class, she tells us, will focus on training in unarmed stage combat. The tradition she uses consists of techniques where no real contact will happen between combatants–it will only be the illusion of it. “No matter what anybody says, in the heat of acting passion, accidents can happen if you really slap, punch, or kick someone. If a director insists that you do it for real, just smile and go about using the proper technique that you will learn in this class. Remember one thing. The only one who cares about your next job is you. Get hurt on this one and there may not be a next job.”
After a few suitably gruesome cautionary tales about cases where directors helped to cause permanent injuries to their actors, we get started.
The warm-up begins. And so, though I am of an age where I get spontaneous offers of a seat when I am standing on a bus, I am soon rolling around on the floor with students half my age, stretching, bending, and kicking. Finally warmed up (and trying to hide my puffing and huffing) it is time to learn the basic techniques.
We start off with the most-used method called “wall technique.” We pair off, standing facing each other. I am paired with a young woman with dark hair and intense eyes. We are standing so that my back is to the audience, while my partner is facing the audience head-on. This time, I am the aggressor, my partner is the victim. We will switch roles afterwards. We stand an arm’s length away from each other plus six inches. I am to imagine a wall six inches in front of my partner’s face. Okay.
First, eye contact with my partner. Nothing happens before that. Second, a physical cue. I raise my right hand. That’s her cue to get ready. Third, I wipe my right hand in front of my partner’s face, brushing along the imaginary wall from right to left. I follow through with my hand, making sure that my right hand passes through the audience sight line on my left. This crossing of the sight line is crucial for the illusion to work properly.
Meanwhile, it is my partner’s responsibility to provide the sound of the slap. As my hand comes towards her, she “knaps.” That is, she makes a sound by hitting her two palms together in front of her body, clapping once sharply. Her action is hidden by a number of factors. First, because of the positions of our bodies relative to the audience, if she keeps her knap low, the sight of it will be blocked by my back. Second, even more importantly, the moment after my right hand appears to be croosing the line of her left cheek, she simultaneously turns her head to her right and brings up the left hand she just knapped with to her left cheek in one motion.
That’s the magic moment. That’s what sells it. Not so much the aggressor’s motion, but the victim’s reaction. Her hand to her cheek tells the audience where to look. That in combination with the sound is irresistible. The audience’s attention must go to that spot. The amazing thing is that the audience’s collective brain fills in the missing pieces of what it didn’t see as if it did and interprets the actions as a full-bodied slap.
Gael encourages us to take turns seating ourselves in the audience in order to watch the other pairs working. The illusion is perfect. The simultaneous sound and motion are compelling and fooling–even when we know that it is a fake. It’s just like good magic. I am thrilled.
But there is one thing I am not prepared for. The emotional consequences. More of that in Stage Combat Part 3, later in the week.