Allowing people the space and tools to speak up for themselves changes the game of collaborative artistry.
I have always loved the idea of martial arts and historical swordplay, but had never dived fully into either because of one crucial aspect: I don’t like violence. I’m incredibly squeamish. I don’t like being in pain, or inflicting pain on others. So the idea of putting myself in a situation where I had to actually fight a person… ugh. I would rather do taxes and eat tuna. Both gross. Both unforgiving.
But after graduating from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in NYC and beginning my official theatre career as an actor, I was introduced to stage combat. I was shocked to realize that the thing I had been doing my whole life, playing with wooden swords and hitting my brothers with sticks was a thing I could do professionally (and get PAID for it!). I dove in head-first, traveling and studying around the world with some of the best in the industry, until eventually I became a recognized teacher in the US and Canada by The Society of American Fight Directors and Fight Directors Canada.
So how did I end up as a fight director and violence designer if I am so adamantly against fighting? I have a secret…. stage combat isn’t real fighting. Total Faketown. You’re shocked, I can tell. The number one rule in any stage combat rehearsal or performance space? Safety. No injuries (well, no intentional injuries. Life is full of calculated risk, but that’s for another post). I found a way to blend my love of exploring martial concepts and creative movement while not getting punched in the face! I could craft the illusion of violence, the story of physical conflict, without ever actually being in any danger.
So here I was, living my best life, teaching people how to punch each other (safely), loving how fantastically safe stage combat was, when one day an actor I’m working with wrote me an email. They said that the nature of the show and the violence scenes we were choreographing was leaving them feeling raw and uncomfortable after rehearsals. That they were having a hard time shaking off the terrible things that their character was doing and experiencing. While they were feeling physically safe and confident with the physical movements of the fight, inside they were struggling emotionally and mentally. They were not OK with what was happening.
And it suddenly dawned on me that in almost 10 years of training, studying and working in the world of stage combat, no one had ever once mentioned emotional safety. Which is fascinating once you consider how much violent and disturbing content we see on our stages and screens.
This actor speaking up for themselves completely changed the way I view not only all of my choreography, but every interaction I have with actors. It has altered my entire process of visual storytelling. I see now that working from a foundation of respect and consent is the only way to approach this work. Allowing people the space and tools to speak up for themselves changes the game of collaborative artistry. When actors are held creatively in a space that they know is safe and supported, they are free to take risks, make bold choices, and ruthlessly pursue their objectives. CREATE.
In the past three years, I have led countless workshops and seminars on Theatrical Consent in order to give people the space and tools to practice working and collaborating from a foundation of both physical and emotional safety. Everything we do is specifically cultivated to helping artists figure out how to express themselves creatively within their own process while still respecting the boundaries of their fellow coworkers and staying true to the story being told. Using several exercises both mine and handed down by others, these workshops especially resonate with high school and college students as they navigate not only at a pivotal place in their lives but also at the forefront of the #MeToo and consent movement.
I’m so grateful to be joined in this work by the humans who are also leading this charge, and by those who have taken workshops or lent their stories and experiences to the movement— we are truly stronger together. As our world shifts, I can see a bright place ahead for us artists to continue to, as Alex says, “create with abandon”.