For the last week or so, we’ve been working the fight choreography into rehearsals for the upcoming production of Streetcar Named Desire at Theatre Northwest. (Oct 9-25)
The Good Fight
A “fight” on stage can be any size and involve any number of people. It could be a sword fight, a fisticuffs brawl, a single slap, dragging someone across the stage, or even just a push to the shoulder that leads to sit-down fall. Basically, any situation where an actor is physically–forcefully–affected by another counts as a “fight.”
And for each fight, you have to painstakingly choreograph each distinct moment.
See, fights on TV and in the movies have the advantages of camera angles, shifting perspective, and stunt doubles. Not so with the stage. Action on the stage has to be continuous, fluid… no time to call in a stuntman between the punch and the fall! And depending on where each audience member is sitting, they will all see different parts of the fight.
So you break it down, like a dance, to learn exactly where each person will be and what they will do when. You do this for safety, and you do it for the most believability.
We want to emphasize that Stanley and Stella’s relationship is built on physicality, and that they are both completely engaged in it. In addition to the physically passionate love life, when the couple fights, our Stella is not just “someone who gets hit” but “someone who hits back.”
Yes, Stanley is still the stronger presence… he’s a dangerous, dynamic character that commands the final say in this scene. This is also a period piece with vintage sensibilities about the roles of men and women, and — of practical consideration– he is a man and he is bigger than her. But in our interpretation, their relationship has a little breathing room Stella to be an instigator, an active/reactive party in the fight, and then yes, the eventual “victim.”
F’rinstance, in “the big fight scene” in Scene 3, Tennessee Williams’s stage directions describe Stella yelling and retreating while Stanley advances and strikes.
The text in bold shows the action we’ve added (not the words! No messing with the poetry!) and should give you an idea of how we’ve made this fight work for a more “equitable” dynamic between Stanley and Stella. If we do our job right, you’ll also see the immediate catalysts (the so what? so why?) for the two characters’ anger, fear, and desperation in these 3 minutes:
Stanley stalks fiercely, drunkenly into the bedroom. He snatches up the radio and tosses it out the window with a shouted oath.
Stella yells at him, pulls him away from the window, beating at his arms and chest. She shoves him hard onto the bed and rushes into the next room, yelling at his friends and throwing cards and money off the poker table.
Stanley charges after Stella.
Stella whirls around and advances, stops him with a hand to his chest, and cries “You lay your hands on me, and I’ll…”
Stanley defiantly, deliberately grabs her wrist. Stella pulls him closer and slaps him hard across the face. Stanley barely recoils and does not let go. Enraged, Stanley pulls back to strike her, but his friends grab him. Stella yanks herself out of his grasp and runs out the kitchen door.
Stanley breaks away from his friends, and pursues Stella. He grabs her mid-flight and shoves her into the alley.
Stella backs out of sight. Stanley advances and raises his fist. He strikes. There is the sound of a blow. Stella cries out.
A bit more action, eh?
Break it down
All of this expanded action happens in the span of about 3 minutes. And now we’ve gone from one choreographed maneuver — a grab and a punch– to three distinct sequences of several maneuvers. A grab, slaps, a throw. A stop, a grab, a pull, a slap, a release. A grab, a pull, a punch.
So to make sure it doesn’t look like a big crowded mess on stage, we practice those moves in beats, assigning a motion to each count. Like for the 2nd sequence:
- Stella hand to Stanley chest
- Stanley grab Stella arm
- Stella pull Stanley forward
- Stanley settle into place, Stella pull back arm
- Stella slap Stanley across face, make the sound with hidden hand
- Stanley react/recoil, raise arm
- Friends restrain Stanley
- Stella break away
We’re moving slowly right now, for two reasons: 1) Safety for Stella, Stanley, and everyone else on stage, and 2) Audience sight-lines, making sure nothing looks fake. We’ll continue moving up to speed up as we get more comfortable and precise in our actions.
By opening night, hopefully every audience member will see and believe a real instance in time, as each step combines to become one fluid fight moment.
Take a look at the Theatre Northwest blog for more photos of our first choreography day, and other behind the scenes tidbits!