Fake to the finish

Workshops teach combat, other trades of the stage

Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2005


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  Jamie Nelson watches as Joel Isaak practices taking a stage punch from Margy Harford. Photo by Jenny Neyman

Ethan Ford, left, and Jamie Nelson do a sword fighting demonstration during the stage combat portion of last week's behind-the-scenes theater workshop put on by the Kenai Performers.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

When slapping someone across the face, eye contact is key. The same goes for throwing a punch, hair pulling, sword thrusts and kicking someone in the groin.

Students learned this and other helpful fighting tips at a workshop March 10. Though it sounds like the course should have been followed with instruction in administering first aid, no medical attention was needed, since the workshop was on stage combat —the art of fake fighting.

The Kenai Performers are teaching this and other elements of theater in a series of workshops at the Old Town Playhouse in Kenai.

Last Thursday's fight masters were Jamie Nelson and Ethan Ford. Nelson learned stage fighting, which involves exaggerated, practiced movements, from a professional fight choreographer while in college. Ford is relatively new to stage fighting but fenced in Fairbanks for four years.

"(Nelson's) got way more stage experience than I do," Ford said.

"Which is why Ethan can beat me up in real life," Nelson added.

They began with a choreographed sword fighting and hand-to-hand combat demonstration that elicited some sharp intakes of breath from the audience as they clashed swords, leapt off the stage and in general tried to beat each other to a pulp —or pretended to, anyway.

Though their right jabs, lunges and haymakers never actually connected, they looked and sounded real, thanks to the acting of both parties.

"It's a dance between two people," Ford explained.

The person throwing the slap or punch is responsible for the sound effect by smacking one hand into the other just passed the target's face. But it is the victim who makes it look real by whipping their head around, wincing in pain, groaning and otherwise looking like they just got pummeled.

The same goes for hair pulling —both work together to make it look real. The person supposedly doing the pulling makes a fist and lays it on the victim's head without actually grabbing any hair. That person then grabs the fist, holds it on their head and jerks them both around so there can be violent motion without any hair getting pulled or anyone getting hurt.

In the end, that's what stage fighting comes down to — safety, Nelson said, which is where eye contact comes in.

No matter how much re-hearsal goes into a fight se-quence, the combatants still need to be able to communicate with each other when performing stage combat moves.

If there's an audience present, they can't ask each other if they're ready for a punch, so they watch each other's eyes to make sure they're on the same page. If they're not, it can result in an elbow to the face or a finger in the eye, as Ford found out while he and Nelson were rehearsing their demonstration.

Though the fight sequence Nelson and Ford performed lasted under a minute, it took over five hours to choreograph and rehearse, they said. They started in slow motion until they had the moves down then practiced speeding it up.

"Safety is the most important thing," Nelson said. "You can improve (the moves) to make them look less safe than they really are."


Jamie Nelson watches as Joel Isaak practices taking a stage punch from Margy Harford.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

Pretend violence was just a portion of what workshop participants learned last week and the week before at the Playhouse. The workshops aim to teach participants about the behind-the-scenes world of theater — just about everything it takes to put on a show, except acting. Students learned about costuming and set-building basics along with stage combat March 10. In the workshop from 6 to 9 p.m. today, students will learn about stage lighting and sound, set painting, working backstage during a show, theatrical makeup and an auditioning how-to, if time permits. New students still can attend. Admission is $10.

Carol Ford, director with the Kenai Performers, said the purpose of the workshops is to get people acquainted with the group and let them know about all the ways there are to be involved in a play that don't require being on stage.

"For every show you've got to have just as many people backstage doing stuff," Carol Ford said. "This is focused on just how fun it is and how many creative juices and talents we need for every show. A lot of people just don't realize how fun it is to do the other kinds of work other than being on stage."

Ian McEwen, who majored in theater in college, moved to Soldotna recently and has been attending the workshops as a way to get involved with the Kenai Performers.

"It's been interesting to see how this particular theater company works, to get a feel for it," he said. "... I'm just really excited to see a theater program here on the Kenai Peninsula. I'm impressed with the caliber."

Ken Duff of Soldotna, another workshop participant, has been in Kenai Performers shows in the past and hopes to begin directing with the group.

"I've been really impressed with the Kenai Performers as a community theater where everybody takes part and is very active," he said.

He added that the workshops were a good way for the uninitiated to get a feel for what goes on in a show behind the curtain.

"That's the fun thing here, you can try a little bit of everything," he said. "If someone came in to this not knowing anything, they could learn."

People interested in learning yet another aspect of theater can attend the directing workshops Carol Ford will teach starting the first week in April. The workshops will include class time Thursdays and hands-on training Saturdays where participants will audition and direct actors in one-act plays that will be put on at the end of April.

Like the behind-the-scenes theater workshops, the directing workshops will include a range of information, including how to pick a show, hold auditions, work with actors, put together a crew, plan and build sets, do a budget and get the word out on your show. The class is for experienced directors and curious novices.

"In the Kenai Performers, the director is the one where the buck stops," Ford said.

Ford's said her hope for these workshops is to develop the directing talent in the central peninsula so more people can put on shows during the year, creating more variety in the Kenai Performers' productions.

"I think it'll be really fun," Ford said. "I'd like to have people direct a one-act then they can do a bigger show."

Anyone interested in the directing workshops should call Ford for more information or to sign up at 776-8308.

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