If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I did a scene in my stage combat class playing a very strange fellow, Lenny, from a play called Marisol.
A very talented cartoonist, Brian Douglas, was tickled by what he saw, and, unsolicited, he made a cartoon from the first few minutes of the scene, dubbing in the actors’ voices. The sound quality is a little off, because of the sound quality of the original cellphone video, but I think you’ll be very entertained at Brian’s animated interpretation. He really captures the lunacy of it all in a short two minutes.
You can compare with the original scene here.
Maybe if we ask nicely, he’ll come up with Part Two . . .
Some people have asked me to post video from my final stage combat scene. I’ve been hesitant to do so because all I have is a less than ideal handheld cellphone video, but if you’ve followed me on this journey so far, I guess it’s only fair that I share this with you.
I wrote about this scene in a previous post, but here’s a brief re-cap:
I was assigned to play a part in a three-person scene from the surreal play Marisol. The scene is New York City. The streets are on fire; the apocalypse is raging outside. On the news, a woman named Marisol Perez has been found murdered in the street.
My character is a delusional man named Lenny who, on recovering from a suicide attempt, experienced angels forcing his soul back down into his body. In his deranged mind, he was spared from death in order to warn the rest of the world of a coming war between God and the angels.
Meanwhile, Lenny’s sister, June, who he lives with in Brooklyn, has brought home a friend from work named Marisol Perez. They both must endure Lenny’s ranting. June spends the scene demeaning Lenny, who in a fit of anger, chases her with a knife.
We were in a new acting space, so our timing was off on some of the stage combat, but we had a great time doing it. You can read more about the class here, here, here, here as well as here. And, finally, you can see the animated, cartoon version of this scene here.
So let’s fast forward to the final days of my Stage Combat class. (You can read about the class here, here, here, and here.) Well, having recovered from the slings and arrows, or at least the bumps, of outrageous fortune from the earlier classes, we were ready for scene work. Doing scenes from actual plays in combat class makes a lot of sense, because the form that stage combat takes depends heavily on the context of a scene. Think about it–a slap in an Abbott and Costello scene is entirely different from a slap in a domestic tragedy.
I was assigned to play a part in a three-person scene from the play Marisol. My character was a delusional man named Lenny who, on recovering from a suicide attempt, experiences angels forcing his soul back down into his body. In his deranged mind, he is spared from death only because angels want him to warn the rest of the world of a coming war between God and the angels. Lenny’s sister, who must endure Lenny’s ranting, spends the scene demeaning Lenny, who in a fit of anger chases her with a knife. Complications, as they say, ensue.
Our teacher had given us a repertoire of moves to use to work into the scene and so we choreographed a set of knife lunges and falls, and a cool part where my sister appears to twist my thumb. But really, for me, the most fun was just working seriously on the scene as an actor with the two talented women who were in the scene with me. They were both very good and I just wanted to be able to keep up with them.
We performed the scene twice: the first time was during our class with an invited audience. That was no problem, and we were in our own space. The folks who were in the audience liked the scene and thought that the violence in it was very realistic–they said they felt scared at times.
The next day, however, was more difficult for me. Instead of performing in the comfort of our own space, we were performing as a guest scene for a different class in a separate theater space–the acting technique Scene Study class. Not only were we in a different space, worse, we were with actors who were performing their own final scenes. I have to admit, I felt very intimidated and competitive as I watched those talented actors perform. I was shaking when it was our time to do our scene.
We arranged our set and soon I heard the opening lines of the play as the two actresses began the scene. I took a deep breath backstage and then looked at the words that I had written on my palm as a reminder of my acting objective: I am there to warn the two women about the coming struggle between God and the angels.
Before I knew it, the scene was over and the class was applauding. The fight scene was a little off because we were in a new space and we didn’t have the chance to adjust the movements to the new space. However, I was really happy with our acting. The best times in stage acting are when truthful things happen in the scene that you didn’t plan on, and you end up surprising yourself. We had a moment like that in the scene last night. Unplanned, I grabbed the hand of one of the actresses in a fumbled attempt to seduce her. The other actress playing my sister gave me a dirty glare, and again unplanned, we had a silent showdown where it took several moments before either one of us would back down. When I eventually did, it felt great, because as actors we had laid the foundation for that brother-sister relationship which we were able to fulfill in that moment spontaneously.
So that’s it. Combat operations have come to a halt. I’m frankly glad. Not because of the combat–it was great to learn all the techniques and it gave me a lot of confidence. Our teacher was really excellent and patient. But, for now at least, I see that in some situations, acting is just too nerve wracking and stressful for me. I like writing more. If I screw up in writing, I can just revise it, and no one is the wiser. But with stage acting, my very self is on the line when I screw up. That said, I highly recommend that all actors take a stage combat class. Really what better way to fulfill the word “play” than to go back to those childhood days when you found sticks, and you had sword fights with your friends?
This way you can have your childish fun, but with complete safety.
And that ‘s better than a poke in the eye.
I’ve met my downfall. Literally.
If you’ve been following this series of posts on Stage Combat ( here, here, and here), you’ll know that I prided myself on keeping up with the rest of the class despite being a whole lot older than anyone in the class.
Pride goeth before the fall. Literally.
I know, I used that joke already.
But that’s what it was: Monday was the day for practicing stage falls. All five kinds. With no mats. The theory being that if you are doing it right, you don’t need a mat. The operative words being “if you are doing it right.” I guess I wasn’t doing it right because I was banged up and bruised badly by the end of the class. I could accept the fact that falling down and getting up over and over would be tiring and give me reason to huff and puff, but I was not expecting to be aching all over. I had to excuse myself towards the end of the class and beg off the last few exercises. The next few days did not see much improvement.
Well I think nothing was broken except my pride, but some definite sprains and strains. At least next week, we will be moving on to something else–knife fight!
Last night they kicked me, punched me, pulled my hair, grabbed me by the ears and legs, then kicked me in the crotch. Then I got to return the favors. That was enjoyable.
If you’ve read the last two installments of this series in Stage Combat Part 1 and Stage Combat Part 2 you know that I’ve been enrolled in a Stage Combat class and I’m learning how to pound, punish, and pummel without hurting anyone or getting hurt. It’s an awful lot of fun.
But at first I ran into an unexpected difficulty. It was harder than I thought because of the emotional consequences the first week. Let me explain. The first week, I was paired up with a a young woman who was very serious. As the teacher explained to us how to simulate violence without any actual contact, I thought this would be a fun set of exercises. What I did not count on was what actually happened. We took turns being the aggressor and the victim. My partner was the aggressor to begin with. And as she raised her hand to me, a hand that would never actually hit my cheek, I saw in her eyes pure hatred. I was not prepared for this. The hatred flowing through her eyes was palpable and scary. And then when we reversed roles, as I raised my hand to strike her, the look on her face of horror and betrayal was enough to jar me.
She is a gifted actor. Her emotions flow without blocking. It was not just a physical exercise for her, but an acting exercise. I was not prepared for that.
I thought to myself, oh these people play for keeps. In the context of a play, I readily accept that as actors we use our real emotions and that that is part of the job. I was taken aback, however, at the real emotion in this exercise. It felt much more raw than dealing with emotion within a play, because in a play you are sending and receiving emotion within the context of a character. But in this exercise I felt naked, emotionally naked anyway, and it was hard not to be affected by the strength of such emotion. We were involved in something we both knew was forbidden.
As the class was wrapping up and we were putting on our coats and so forth, I tried to make some small talk, just to try and defuse some of the charge in the air. But I felt the small talk was not reciprocated. We left and went our separate ways.
I was disturbed, but my pride said, okay, I’m here to act, I’ll play by actors’ rules, I’m not going to wimp out.
But this current week was much more fun for me. Something happened. Time? We were all a lot looser with each other. Shyness and distrust started to break down. What I felt was standoffish behavior, was just basic tentativeness in a strange new situation. We didn’t choose each other, we didn’t know each other. But now that we know that we are not going to really hurt each other, and now that we know that we are all actors who respect each other, we can leave it on the other side of the studio doors and relax and play.
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.
When I was eight years old, my mother found me in front of her make-up mirror, my forehead, cheeks, chin, and hands covered with large swatches of her green eye shadow and brown eyeliner.
I was trying to look like Vic Morrow in the World War ll television series Combat! Tough guys had green and brown mud on their faces. Anyone who watched Vic knew that.
Fast forward to this February. I had stumbled into acting a small part in a production of Romeo and Juliet in Manhattan. There were a bunch of young actors who had worked together before, and several of them were quite proficient in armed and unarmed stage combat. We were a modern dress production, so we had knife fights along with the usual slaps, kicks, and punches.
I was enchanted watching them work the fights. It was everything I loved about the theater; that part of the theater which overlaps stage magic. We were creating an illusion and the illusion looked so real, there was real doubt as to whether the violence was genuine or not.
The magician and the actor work at different purposes with regard to “suspension of disbelief.” The actor asks us to accept that the cardboard trees in the set function as if they were real. No one thinks a play is unworthy if the interior of a house is indicated with a few blocks of wood. We expect emotional truth, but not necessarily physical truth. The audience is expected to play along.
But the magician has a different task. S/he doesn’t care about “suspension of disbelief.” In fact the magician challenges the audience not to suspend its disbelief. Even if you remain skeptical, I will still fool you says the magician. It doesn’t matter whether you want to play along or not, you will be forced to confront the fact of the woman who has just been cut into two–and your eyes will not be able to disprove it.
So stage combat and special effects make-up belong to that specific realm of theater which seems to duplicate physical reality and hence fools the spectator whether s/he wants to be fooled or not. This has always been a delightful aspect of the theatre for me. I loved the stories of the teen-age Paul Muni dressing up as an old man in make-up and character so convincing, that when he rang the front door of his house, his own mother didn’t recognize who he was. There were leading men, and then there were character actors who could do the transformation. I always most admired the transformers.
Which brings me to this past week. I found a place where I could take a class in stage combat. I had my first class. I’ll tell you more about it later this week in Part II.