December 1, 2014

The Art of War

Theater students get physical in stage combat class

Huffing, hollering, the heat of sweat, and the thwack of bodies hitting mats may make a visitor to the Fine Arts Center on a Friday afternoon think she has stumbled into a gymnasium! But these are the sounds of the Department of Theater’s stage combat class, led by visiting professor Tony Simotes. For students, it’s a powerful way to end the week.

Simotes, outgoing artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, uses a training methodology that combines storytelling and safety. He teaches his students many dimensions of physical acting: how to fight within different genres (with the elegance of a spy movie, or as Western gunslingers), how to incorporate dialogue within a fight sequence, and how to employ “found object” props like a belt, a bottle, or a box.

Simotes teaches students to build sequences incrementally, so that the body understands the fight as a creative act. The class is “a chance for adults to interact and play together physically in a way that is constructive, not destructive, that is neither competitive nor relationship-driven,” he says.

A large number of women take the class, all of them fighting in mixed-gender pairs. The ratio pleases Simotes: “It’s a chance for men to see women in these aggressive ways,” he says. And it is also a way for women to experience themselves in a physically powerful and effective mode.

“What we learn in this class goes beyond physical combat,” observes student Camila Mugnani. “Our work embodies the connection between movement and emotion that is relevant to both our work onstage and interactions in daily life.”

The aggressive energy of even pretend fighting can affect a performer’s psyche, so Simotes makes sure his class sits in a circle at the end, to ground and consider the responsibility of stage combat: for example, the moral implications of taking a life onstage. Simotes takes issue with fights in movies that are “too pretty,” because they lead viewers to confuse beauty and violence.

“The theater is the place where the gods are seen and revealed,” Simotes says, hearkening back to drama’s ancient Greek ritual roots. “The culture we create on stage: is it helping society understand itself on a deeper level?”

Shakespeare & Company has had an ongoing productive relationship with the Department of Theater for much of its 36-year history, with many students and graduates finding internships and careers: