Making fight scenes that are realistic and safe takes weeks of planning and rehearsal
What skills does it take to be in opera?
Obviously, a strong, well-trained voice is the base requirement. But that’s only the beginning, says Martha Collins, director for Sarasota Opera’s current production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I believe every opera is great music theater,” Collins says. “It’s theater brought to life through music.”
The operatic “Romeo and Juliet” is the perfect example. Shakespeare didn’t write it as a musical. Charles Gounod did that 272 years later, and it typifies the challenge of being an opera performer: Of course, you have to be able to sing, but you also have to be able to act. And when it comes to the theatrical aspects of opera,
“I've been so fortunate because I've been given singers who really are interested in embodying a character and bringing a character to life through their voice,” Collins says. “We spend a lot of time to try and find all the nuances of character.”
For this show, it’s the broad behavior that poses extra challenges. The hardest things for actors to do convincingly on stage are love scenes and fight scenes, and “Romeo and Juliet” has plenty of both. In the course of the play, the characters settle their differences at the point of a sword more than once.
A stage sword fight may only be a minute long, maybe even less. But that brief bout of stage mayhem takes weeks to create. For “Romeo and Juliet,” Sarasota Opera brought in fight choreographer India Marie Paul to take charge of the process.
One step, one slash at a time
The term “choreographer” is a precisely accurate job title, Paul says, because fight scenes are prepared in much the same way as dance routines.
Paul, who has a masters degree in directing, says she’s always been fascinated with how movement can be used to further the narrative. There are three fight scenes in “Romeo and Juliet,” and each one is part of the story.
“We talked about what's going on emotionally for each character, and that informed the movement and the type of movement that I did for each fight,” she says.
But even as the fight should fit within the context of the story, it has to fit within the time constraints of the musical score. And the performers have to sing immediately after the last thrust — “And so that was a big consideration on how much movement we could do, but I still have them running around.”
Paul says she likes to draw up her ideal fight choreography, then once she starts working with the performers, adjust for reality. Throughout the process, she and Collins worked together on those adjustments.
“What’s so fantastic is to have someone like India come in who truly approaches all this but from a theatrical, dramatic point of view,” Collins says, adding that Paul also has a great eye for seeing what each performer can do and and re-choreographing to their strengths.
“It was great having Martha in the room with me,” Paul says. “She could see what things were working and what weren't while I'm focusing on all the technique.”
In the end, Paul says, you want a scene that looks good, moves the story, is something the performers feel confident about and, above all, is safe.
Taking a stab at it
Paul says she had no idea what kind of skills the cast would have or if there’d be some trepidation among them at the prospect of wielding lethal weapons.
Not a problem, Collins said, “They were rabid. They were so excited from the first day they arrived."
But Paul did what she always does, started them off slowly, with two days of basic sword fight training. First, Paul says, it makes it easier to teach them the choreography step by step if they knew the swordplay lingo.
It also allows them to get comfortable holding the weapons, wearing them, walking around with them. These aren’t plastic prop swords; they’re real rapiers. Their weight surprises a lot of people.
“I made sure they all stretch their wrists,” Paul says, “because that's something that you don't really use every day, your forearm and your wrist.”
It’s important they have the conditioning to handle their weapons with precision. Fighting on stage requires big, exaggerated moves. You’re playing to the balcony. The trick is to be able to make it look like you’re fighting with abandon when actually you are in complete control.Early in the process, Paul had the cast work on their control — and their wrist strength — by taking swings at plastic water bottles, the object being to stop the swing and to come as close as they could without touching the bottles.
Ideally, Paul says, the performers get to a point of control that a fellow actor could do the entire scene with them while unarmed and their sword would still never touch him.
Another thing to consider, Collins adds, there’s one fight scene in which the stage is filled with onlookers. “They can’t get killed, either.”
That would also require a boatload of confidence on the part of both combatants in themselves an each other. Safety and confidence build off each other, and it’s important that happens as the cast goes from learning the choreography, starting with step-by-step slow motion and gradually brings it to swashbuckling performance level.
One lunge forward, two steps back
The cast members were getting close to that level less than two weeks before opening night. when they were handed a new challenge, their first dress rehearsal. Now they had to perform those precise moves while wearing big boots, poofy hats and puffy sleeves, and in the case of a few dandies, capes.
There were a couple slips, a few issues with overly flowing fabric or accessories shifting inconveniently. It was nothing they wouldn’t adjust to quickly, and once they get it, they’ll have it.
A bigger possible challenge will be when an understudy fills in for one of the principles. The understudies also train and rehearse, but going back to the dance comparison, Paul says, it’s like having a regular dance partner whose individual style you’ve gotten used to. The new partner may know all the moves, but they don’t move the same way. You have to adjust.
"With fight choreography, it’s harder,” Paul says, "because whenever you fight, you have to fight in measure.” That means you keep a swinging distance of 6-8 inches away, based on the person with the longer reach.
“So not only does that measure change because of different height or different length, but you're also working with someone who might take smaller or bigger steps,” Paul says. You might both be good, but can you adjust quickly enough to be good together?
With fight choreography, there’s a lot more at risk than maybe getting your foot stepped on. That’s why before every performance, there is what is known as fight call. About 30 minutes before curtain, every fight scene gets a complete run-through.“You never want to go into a performance without having done it once fully,” Paul says.
It’s important to constantly brush up, Collins says, especially at a company like Sarasota Opera where you can go a few days between performances.
.It’s a lot of extra work, but it’s the only way to do fight scenes right, which is to do them safely.
Now, as for those tricky romantic scenes — Well, they knew what they were getting into.