If you’ve seen the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Player’s production of The Pirates of Penzance (running through Nov. 10) or the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s Little Women (running through Nov. 9), you’ve seen the work of Kim H. Carrell, a professional fight choreographer. Carrell earned his MFA in Shakespeare directing from the University of Exeter and began his stage combat interests while at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. I sat down with Carrell to talk about how he got started, how he approaches teaching students and what his advice is for emerging fight choreographers.
How did you get into fight choreography?
My first training came from studying in San Francisco. I went there to do the Actor Training program at the American Conservatory Theater. Right after I found an apartment and got moved in, I saw that there was a stage combat workshop being done over the weekend by a different trainer than the one from ACT. I thought it sounded really cool and interesting so I signed up for that. I also did the training with ACT’s guy during the training program. It was the first training I’d ever had in stage combat. Up until that I’d done mostly musical theater, and there’s not a lot of call for sword fighting. I had a fantastic time doing it. You’re playing with swords: How can this not be fun? I put it on my resume under “Special Skills” and didn’t use it for several years. When I moved to New York, I’d go on auditions and directors would say, “I see you have stage combat on your resume. Can you stage the fight for me in this show?” I realized I had better do some more studying so I knew how to do it.
How did you pursue that training?
One of the jobs I had in New York was working at the New York Renaissance Faire. It’s kind of the playground for all the best fight choreographers in New York. If you land that gig, you’re working with some of the best people in the business. You’re not only getting to do the best fights and have fun, but you’re learning from some of the best people there are. The best problem solver fight choreographer was a woman I met in New York. I would up cast in this extremely complicated four-person sword fight. I had all of the moves memorized, but it never felt right and I couldn’t figure out why. I didn’t feel like I was showing the character’s full intent in the moves. This woman Ricky watched the fight for 15 seconds and knew what the problem was. She noticed that every step I took, my foot would slip in my boot, which was causing hesitation. With thick insoles in my boots, the problem was immediately solved. I started thinking like that on my own. When you figure out what the problem is, it often hooks that actor. It’s what turned me onto it. I have one of the few jobs in the 21st century where knowing how to use a sword is part of my job.
What is your approach to teaching students stage combat?
The first thing I have to do is teach them the basics of how to keep each other safe. You’re never thinking of the other person as an opponent; you are partners in a staged fight. Staged combat is absolutely not a martial art; it’s an illusion. It’s convincing the audience that something violent is going on, while in actuality, you’re looking out for each other’s safety. Teaching them to communicate through eye contact is important. Before the fight begins, eye contact with your partner signals to them that you are (or aren’t) ready. If you break eye contact, start again; the audience doesn’t know that wasn’t supposed to happen. The audience doesn’t come knowing the fights. In the case of Pirates of Penzance, they come knowing the music, but not the fights. It’s totally fine to raise the sword, and if you’re partner’s not ready, to start again. Everyone in Little Women and Pirates was very good at staying conscious of that. They really caught on right away to checking in with their partner and making sure everything was cool. From my end, nothing could have happened to make it a better experience. I’m really happy with how things look.
What are your tips to those interested in learning stage combat?
The number one thing would be to find a good teacher. Learn the basics from someone. There are people who try to learn the basics by watching YouTube or through books. There are very good books written by professionals who have been in the business for decades. The information in the books is great, but every single one of them will tell you, “You can’t learn stage combat from this book. You have to work with a teacher.” You have to have someone watching what you’re doing physically who can adjust things, who can look at the cut you’re delivering. If this is a cut going to the head, that’s not safe; you’re going to want it lower. If you don’t have a teacher to work with, no one can tell you that. Additionally, it doesn’t matter how perfectly a staged fight is executed if you’re not carrying the character’s objectives through the fight. I recently saw a production of Romeo and Juliet in which moments of the fights lost me. It was mechanically beautifully executed, but I saw two actors methodically go through their fight. I didn’t see Mercutio and Thibault’s reasons for fighting. Just because the fight’s started, it doesn’t mean you can stop acting. You need to find your own acting moments in the fight.