Life + Arts

Actors make swordplay look easy

The art of stage combat is alive and well at the UH thanks to associate professor of theater and dance Brian Byrnes.

Byrnes has taught several actors in UH’s upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, complete with fighting sequences involving broadswords and short-swords.

He has taught stage combat for 20 years, and has earned titles of certified teacher and fight director from the Society of American Fight Directors.

As a stage combat teacher, he ensures the scene is both thrilling for the audience and safe for the performers.

‘Basically, stage combat is an intensive acting scene,’ Byrnes said.

The method to integrating a sword fight is to find the character’s motives, needs and wants, and translate that into the fighting scene. The directing tools are similar to the way regular scenes with dialogue might be worked through.

‘The primary goal is to let the physical action relate to the story,’ Byrnes said.

Each director may have a different vision of what elements are important in a play, which translates to fighting scenes as well.

Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is a play that Byrnes has worked on many times in his career, and each time the director will coordinate the fighting sequences according to his or her personal vision of thematic elements within the play.

Combat sequences in theater require a substantial amount of time to properly rehearse.

Byrnes said that a rough estimate is every five seconds of on-stage fighting requires an hour of rehearsal. A one-minute scene would need 12 hours of rehearsal.

Careful attention is also givento the technical aspects of a production. Lighting must be coordinated to the action, and costumes must also integrate with the physical motion in a combat scene.

The key to making a scene realistic is to make the audience believe it is spontaneous. This can be difficult when the actors know exactly what move comes next, but that is when skill in directing and acting make the action believable.

‘The scene will seem spontaneous because of moments that characters react to, from scene to scene,’ Byrnes said.

In order for a sword fight to be safe, the actors must rehearse the fight carefully. Knowing what comes next can prevent injury to the performers. The swords used are not sharpened, but are still dangerous when swung with force.

Actors playing scenes with hand-to-hand combat avoid accidentally hurting each other with the five-point technique.

Theater graduate student Kedrick Brown said the technique entails controlling one’s head, elbows and knees at all times during intense stage fights. For Macbeth, Brown will assume the role of Banquo, a general, who is murdered on-stage in hand-to-hand combat.

‘You want to make sure you have control of all of those (five points) at all times because those are the things that people touch the most,’ Brown said. ‘If not, you’re kicking and then it’s like ‘oh, I accidentally kneed someone. Being aware of those five points is definitely a key factor.’

To play his death scene, Brown said he will make an aghast facial expression with ‘wide eyes, wide mouth’ and will raise his hands to his throat to mimic an attempt to doctor a fatal wound.

‘It’s choreography,’ said Byrnes. ‘We rehearse to perform it the same way every night. The actors have the motions of the fight memorized just like (non-combat scenes).’

Macbeth will be performed in studio 208 of the Wortham Theater on campus.

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