"The first thing to remember is to keep your correct distance," Ned Mochel tells me. I face Scott Cummins and extend my right arm to a point near the center of his sternum. "The second thing is to maintain eye contact so that he knows when you're going to start the hit."
Looking Cummins square in the eye, I aim a blow at his nose. It's a slow, careful punch, but when my fist's passed Cummins's face (with a good eight inches of air between them), he staggers back as if hit by a line drive to second.
Mochel reminds me to change the position of my feet as I follow through--"If you're still standing in exactly the same place after throwing a big punch like that the audience will know something is phony"--and I try again. This time my swing is so forceful it carries my foot forward, so Mochel tells me to add another six inches to my distance. I ask Cummins if he could give me some kind of verbal cue. He thinks for a moment, then sneers, "Your mother plays handball on the curb!" I stiffen, glare, and let fly with a roundhouse to the jaw. He topples but comes up a second later with a grin on his face.
I'm sitting in on rehearsals for Night at the Fights, the showcase for stage combat that this year reunites the six skillful practitioners (Mochel directs and performs) who made last summer's show a runaway success. Well on its way to becoming an annual event--this is its third incarnation--1993's "combat spectacle" will once again feature an array of inventive weaponry; fights both fair and foul, swashbuckling and slapstick; and wrestling so graceful as to resemble dance, all choreographed to accommodate the larger space this year, at the Jane Addams Center Hull House.
While we wait for rehearsal to begin I ask the four men and two women performers how they first got into this relatively new field. Though their backgrounds differ--martial arts, gymnastics, dance--most mention a two-semester course in stage movement at the University of Illinois taught by Robin McFarquhar (who was brought in as a choreographer for this show).
"Once you have 'stage combat' on your resume," Matt Kozlowski shrugs, "you usually find yourself doing it more and more, especially if the show has fights in it--or even sometimes when the show doesn't have a fight in it but the director figures that as long as he's got a fight person there anyway . . . "
"Or you can always take the workshop offered by the American Society of Fight Directors and get yourself certified," Frank Nall suggests dryly while the others chuckle. When I ask what the joke is, Mochel explains that the ASFD, though not a union in any strict sense, was organized as a means of setting safety standards for the teaching and practice of stage combat. "We laugh now because there's a mystique that's grown up around the organization--as if you're no good unless you're certified, which isn't necessarily true anymore. But the guidelines have been very helpful--face it, when you have actors slinging pieces of metal at one another, it's dangerous."
Actors who have worked with Mochel and the other fight choreographers affiliated with the show corroborate that they emphasize safety. Though the actors are reluctant to tell war stories, Cummins recalls a quarterstaff fight he choreographed before taking McFarquhar's class. "I didn't know what I was doing--I was copying the Robin Hood movies. And I whacked someone across the shins hard one night, because I didn't know enough then to wait until he jumped into the air and then swing the stick under him." By contrast, last year's two-hour program of continuous fights generated only two accidents--both of them sustained during swift scene changes.
Both men and women agree that women frequently make better fighters. "It's not only that men seem to want to stop acting once they start fighting--"I'm not Romeo now, I'm Rambo'--but men tend to fight with their upper bodies," says Mochel. "Women in general have better head-to-foot coordination and are usually quicker to find their center of gravity." Mochel rises and demonstrates, dancing nervously from one foot to the other. "Men have got all this energy, but they can't keep their correct distance"--he dances forward in two-inch steps--"and they end up smacking their partner, who's usually off-balance as well and so winds up falling all over the set."
Heavy-weapons master Steve Ommerle, the other outside choreographer, calls the company to the stage in preparation for the ensemble piece called "In the Coliseum." After giving them some background on the Roman circus ("You are slaves with no rights whatsoever. Killing is, literally, how you live. Knowing this will affect the way that you fight"), he demonstrates several gruesome ways in which a gladiator's career might be terminated. Since the chief weapons in this fight are three-and-a-half-foot broadswords, most of the fatal wounds involve blades passing through bodies; when the victor administers the coup de grace, he gives the weapon a slight twist. This not only heightens the death agony, it's explained, but opens up the wound so the killer can retrieve his weapon.
As I digest this helpful information and watch the combatants experiment with techniques for dispatching opponents, it quickly becomes apparent that the main responsibility for making the fight look real lies with the loser, whose reactions not only identify the injury suffered but distract the audience from the sleight of hand. "When I was doing movement for In the Flesh at the Organic," Julia Neary recalls, "there was this actor who was grunting the same way no matter where he was hit. But a kidney punch, which hurts terribly because it's in a part of your body that's completely unprotected, is different from a belly punch, which knocks the air out of you and temporarily paralyzes your breathing muscles--you can't vocalize the pain with no breath to vocalize with."
The cast members put on old clothes to practice with fake blood (sometimes hand-mixed from corn syrup, but in this case ready-made). They keep it in their mouths, either swilled straight from the bottle or held in a small plastic bag that can be bitten into. The "blood" is the consistency of molasses and has a tendency to dribble rather than spray when spit out, so corpses lie dead for a long time before the first rivulet of gore trickles out. The blood also tastes bad enough that the actors are continually dashing out to the drinking fountain in the hall.
"Group fights are the hardest to rehearse," Neary confides as Ommerle moves from from one duel to another, offering suggestions and checking technique. "With just two fighters you can go off somewhere and work with them, but sometimes directors don't realize how long it takes to rehearse a group fight and don't schedule enough time. So you've got all these people doing different fights at the same time, and the person in charge can't watch everybody--and that's when people get hurt."
"All right, let me see your favorite death!" Ommerle announces. The choreographer and other cast members view each one-on-one bout by turn. Neary takes what appears to be a hit full in the face from the hilt of Teigh McDonough's sword. In another fight a disarmed combatant charges his opponent and impales himself on his sword. ("Killing for the amusement of others was their only purpose in life," Ommerle says of the gladiators. "Even the winners lost their morale eventually.") Another fight ends with Mochel lying face up and Cummins crushing his throat with the edge of his shield; Mochel's body twists, rising into the air in an apparent death spasm, then twitching on the ground. Finally Ommerle asks Mochel if he's all right. He is.
During the next break I wonder aloud about the educational potential of stage combat. But Mochel quickly points out that, like any other martial art, stage combat involves learning how to kill another person. "If a child came up to me and said, "I want to learn stage combat--I'm always fighting out on the street and I want to channel these aggressions,' I'd tell him, Take up football!" Cummins suggests that a child already fighting might profit more from acting lessons, learning to verbalize his emotions rather than continue expressing himself physically.
McDonough recalls a fight in last year's show in which a single unarmed man (Cummins) in handcuffs was beaten brutally by three assailants armed with batons--the resemblance to the Rodney King tape was unmistakable. "The audiences were really worked up about that fight--even though they saw Scott in another fight a few minutes later, this really upset them. But this was also the fight they see on TV all the time and don't even notice anymore. . . . Stage combat can make us more aware of the other violence we see in the world."