Stage Combat with Sean Lenhart

sean-liz-bonnie-fight2Often people are surprised that we were able to add fun choreographed fight sequences between humans, elves, and even puppets in our show.  Smash Opera’s Stage Director and Fight Choreographer, Sean Lenhart, wrote up this fun article describing his process in creating one of the most difficult battle scenes in our show, Link and Sheik vs Ganondorf. Enjoy!

Stage Combat in Super Smash Opera
– by Sean Lenhart, Stage Director

There is a sheer utter soul shattering joy in engaging in a sword fight. I show off the scar on my right cheek at every chance I get. Bank tellers don’t ask for identification anymore. They know me by my scar.

Fight Choreography is just as heaven ascendingly awesome as a real fight, only any real injuries received are cause for firing and lawsuit on the part of the offending player. Any stage combat is an essay in character development: is the character desperate? Are they well trained? Are they scrappy? Does the character have a reason in the given circumstances to favor a particular flourish? Is that their weakness? It’s like having both characters perform monologues and arias simultaneously on stage. Except one of them dies. And it’s awesome.

sean-bonnie-fight1Super Smash Opera gave us some interesting circumstances to create character within. A fight between Ganondorf and Link satisfies in a Joseph Campbell-ian format.  Link wields the Master Sword, The Blade of Evil’s Bane, against a typically sword-wielding Ganondorf.  Another important factor was that we were basing our performance off of Smash Brothers, whose characters already have a defined moveset.  Link has to use the Whirlwind Attack; Ganondorf must grapple an opponent and fling them across the stage with explosive energy.  Toss in Sheik and, while you have the third piece of the puzzle by including Zelda, there is a problem. Sheik, in Smash Brothers, does not use the arrows of light, a staple in the formula to defeat Ganondorf.  Sheik has kunai and a chain whip.

So with our parameters set, we went about creating an enjoyable and safe stage combat performance, together.  We started by creating a safe, trusting environment for the actors (“Bonnie, if you fail to make eye contact at this point, you will hit me in the face, and I will kill you.”). Safe. Aaaaand trusting.

Aside from the fact that I’m trying to win a bet right now, I have used the word “safe” in just about every other sentence so far.  Safety is the most important.  Not the most important thing or the most important practice or aspect.  Just the most important.  Safety makes the fight look better.  When an actor knows he or she isn’t going to have their eye gouged out when performing a watch parry, they tend to commit to the parry instead of flinching and screaming and wetting their stylish yet affordable adult diapers.  Plus, the farther away the actors are from each other, the safer the fight, and the more dangerous and violent it looks to the audience.  People watching a fight need the moves to be telegraphed, realistically, so that they understand what is happening.  Extra distance creates the arc of the swings and the direction of the thrusts. The fight has a story that needs space to be told.

We spent time at the beginning to get used to maintaining eye contact, the physicality of the attacks and blocks, and breathing.  Then when it came time to block the fight proper, it was less of a predetermined list of attacks and more of a group effort.  Together we found the logic in the fight; what move naturally follows another move comfortably for both parties.  This was calm and comforting.  Then came the realization that there was singing in this fight!  And specific timing required in the music!  So, while we didn’t start over, the choice of moves in the fight had to be adjusted to fit the music and not look spastic and downright ridiculous.

Por Examplar is French for “let me give you a perfect example”.  How true.  Inspired by these words of wisdom, allow me to also give you a Por Examplar:  Link is going to perform a spinning strike at Ganondorf.  Link must first agree with Ganondorf on where the strike is intended to land.  Ganondorf says to aim for his right shoulder, which means Link must aim for the shoulder on his left side, Ganondorf’s right.  This is confusing, and the two actors explain exactly what they mean by his or her left and right.  Enlightened, Link prepares his attack.  The two actors then achieve eye contact.

sean-liz-bonnie-fight2Eye contact is part one of the secret actor language used in stage combat.  It lets the opponent know when the attack is coming.  The second part is the breath.  Both actors, as if possessed by a fat pastry chef, inhale deeply at the same time.  This helps synchronize their movements.  Part three of the secret actor language is, well, secret.  Sorry.

So Link has eye contact with Ganondorf and synchronicity of breath.  Next begins the physical move.  This is my favorite part.  A complicated motion, like a spin attack, is actually three or four smaller motions all tied together into one large attack.  Link begins his spin attack by first placing his rear foot behind and adjacent to his front foot.  He then pivots his body around just far enough that he can turn his head to look over his opposite shoulder and see Ganondorf.  Eye contact is achieved, and there is much rejoicing.  Then Link is finally able to spin the rest of his body around to follow his head, leaving his sword for last so that it may make one large uninterrupted journey.  This spinning slash is what the audience follows and mistakes for one single movement instead of several.  Ganondorf takes a step back, as all good fight choreography involves travel, and blocks the attack at his right shoulder.

I will now reveal for you the secret third part of the secret actor fight choreography language.  I understand that this is a great honor for you and that you will one day repay my kindness with valuable currency and your first born child.  How decent of you.  Following eye contact and breath, both actors must grunt.  The grunt is a way of signaling the end of the move.  It also acts as a kind of Ki, enabling the attacker and defender to forcefully commit to their move with their whole body.  Also, grunting is really really really really fun.  For realsies.  It helps when one of your fighters is Link, whose only dialogue is grunting noises.  It’s the cat’s pajamas, grunting is.

sean-liz-bonnie-fight1As for the attack motion, there is a final rule to follow.  Do. Not. Try. To. Hit. The other person’s sword.  Sorry, that sentence was longer than I thought and I was running low on melodramatic punctuation.  But really, don’t swing at the other actor with the intention of hitting him or her, or even the sword meant to block your attack.  The energy of your strike must be aimed beyond the target.  This means that Link is not aiming at Ganondorf, but at an imaginary Ganondorf standing twenty feet behind real Ganondorf.  For our purposes, you might consider it like fighting Ganondorf’s Shadow or Ghost or Spirit.  The point is that if you, for whatever inconceivable reason, make a mistake and your partner cannot block your strike, the energy of the attack will go past your partner’s head instead of into the side of it.  Let your partner worry about making his sword meet yours, you just focus on not killing anyone today.

Speaking of not killing anyone, (SPOILER WARNING) Link kills Ganondorf!  With Sheik’s tag-team assistance, Ganondorf is laid to rest.  Here is where stage combat and acting merge at their closest point.  While you should be acting the entire time during the fight, any damage that you take in the plot of the fight has to be sold to the audience.  Every scratch, cut, punch, uppercut, shoryuken, and amakakeru ryu no hirameki must be acted upon as if it was the most painful experience of your life.  Ganondorf must die painfully and with relish.  This gives the action a sense of meaning, makes the fight feel real to the audience… and requires grunting!  Sweet sweet grunting.

That, in so many paragraphs, is a taste of stage combat.  Do your very best now not to engage in a sword fight the next time the cashier at Aldi’s short changes you when you purchase a box of Wheatabix.