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  • James Stranahan

Stage Fighting: There’s No Greater Fun to Be Had

To no one’s surprise, stage fighting is one of the most popular skills actors learn while at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in Los Angeles. I was no different. I was eighteen, full of energy, and ready to transition to the big leagues of acting, so when I arrived at AADA in 2005, I was pumped about enrolling in a course that would teach me how to fall, punch, sword fight, and do pretty much anything else that looked like a fight onstage. I all but ran to the theater everytime the class met.


The first thing you’re told is to be safe. Then, just in case you missed it, they tell you again. It’s good advice, really, because if you’re not careful, you can get carried away and swing too far and actually land a punch. Most students, I think, were responsible and took it seriously, but there always had to be that one person who was a martial arts expert and thought they knew better than the professor. That student never lasted very long.


One of the skills I learned to do was how to fall. Basically, there are three types: front, back, and side. Each one requires tremendous control of your body, and you must remain aware of what’s happening at all times. This is especially true if it’s a complex scene with other people around you - it would be too easy to fall into your fellow actors and bring them down like a house of cards. That’s one reason fights are choreographed. Our professors also insisted on keeping the stage very neat since falling on a pen, normally a harmless object, could cause a serious injury.


Learning to punch - without actually hitting anyone - was a ton of fun. Where you actually throw your fist so that it looks real will depend on your angle in relationship to the audience. If you’re standing directly in front of them with your “victim” in front of you, they can’t see whether you’re actually landing the punch. You can basically swing your arm three or four inches away from the other actor and still have it look real. If you’re standing at a 90-degree angle to the audience, with them off to your side, then you punch straight out a few inches from the face of the actor, past their ear. It’s why it’s so important to choreograph a fight scene with the audience’s perspective in mind. Getting it right or wrong is the difference between exciting and obvious.


Did we mess around? Yes, of course we did. Most of us kept it professional because we wanted to impress our professor and stay safe. No one wanted to have an accident and lose a few teeth. We were all young, however, and heady with our optimistic views of our futures. I am sure more than a few of us, me included, felt powerful as we honed our stage-fighting skills. We were Hamlet! We were the Jets and having a rumble! We were young and talented and learning at one of the greatest theater schools in the world. Then, someone would mess up and fall flat on their butt, and we would all join them in a laugh, the moment broken. Goodbye Shakespearean actors - we were young adults again in our tennis shoes and sweats, under the eagle eye of our amazing professor. It does take a while before you are truly ready - if you ever are - to join the generations who have left the AADA and gone on to dizzying careers.


I was lucky that I never broke anything or lost a tooth during stage combat. I will always cherish my time there, as it gave me some of the best memories I have today: thrills, laughter, jokes, and excitement on a level I had never experienced before coming to the AADA.



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