Sunday, May 27, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (fight choreography)

The fist of Hector.
(Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, 2018)
Directing Shakespeare, it is often necessary to include stage fighting. Part of the challenge in directing Hamlet is that you must end with a sword fight. If you decide to set your production in the present, that can present obvious challenges because that’s not how we do things any more.

For the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival I have been fortunate to direct Henry VIII and Timon of Athens, plays in which people just talk the whole time. Talk or sing, or do some freaky dancing.

The first time I directed Shakespeare it was Romeo & Juliet for Guerrilla Theater. I was twenty-six and come up with this brilliant concept that we weren’t going to celebrate or sensationalize violence, and so decided that just as Tybalt and Mercutio came at each other the lights would black out, and when they came back up Mercutio would be mortally wounded. Ditto when Romeo and fights Tybalt; blackout, lights up, Tybalt dead on the floor.

No combat choreography. I am a genius.

"There lies Tybalt slain."
(Guerrilla Theater Co., 1994)
That was the concept, anyway. I knew that combat choreography takes time, a lot of time. Rehearsal time to learn the steps and then time every rehearsal to rehearse those steps. I was directing my first Shakespeare and though I could not spare that kind of time. Also, at that point in my life I knew actually zero fight choreographers in Cleveland. Zero was also our budget.

Since then I have met several fight choreographers, and have commissioned a few fights. When we produced a modern Hamlet on a stage the size of a postage stamp, we did a stylized knife fight, Hamlet and Laertes each holding onto the end of a strap. Yes, it was compared the rumble in the music video for "Beat It." For Sarah Morton’s Hamlet at Beck Center, which was period appropriate, she and choreographer Joshua D. Brown fought with rapier and dagger, like it says in the script.

The first and really only time I had been introduced to the play Troilus and Cressida was when we took a college trip to Stratford in 1990 to attend master classes with the RSC. Company members Ciarán Hinds (as Achilles) and David Troughton (Hector) performed for us a fight to the death. Their choreographer, inspired by Nestor’s description of Hector cutting down his opponents (“there the strawy Greeks … fall down before him, like the mower's swath") provided them with whirling, twin short blades. They made quite a clang.

Ciarán Hinds (Achilles) and David Troughton (Hector)
35mm camera, sound out of sync.

A big question for the director choosing a modern interpretation of a classic drama (e.g., one set during the Trojan War) is what to do about the fighting. People like to see fighting, it adds excitement and emotional impact. But we no longer fight with swords, we fight with machine guns. On the battlefield, we often drop bombs from pilotless drones and create improvised explosives. These are neither easily staged nor dramatically compelling. What to do?

"The American Revolution"
(Bad Epitaph Theater Co., 2004)
For The American Revolution, Kirk Wood Bromley's modern verse play about the War for Independence, we presented battles in the background as they were described by messengers in the foreground, actor charging with colonial-age rifles with bayonets, and also waving the many colored battle flags of the period, and that made up for the difficulty in presenting gunfire onstage, because it's static and potentially under-dramatic.

There are a few key moments in our production of Troilus & Cressida which have been staged by Josh and his partner Kelly Elliott, including a fist fight between Hector and Ajax, some clever work with handguns, sexual assault, a brutal death by knife, and a bullet to the head. Scored briefly with the recorded sound of explosive devices, we hopefully will evoke a moment of chaos, confusion, and insurgency.

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presents "Troilus & Cressida" opening June 15, 2018.

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