Lory Leshin (The Stranger), quarterstaff in hand, is about to best Greg Coleman (Robin Hood). He's cocky. She's sure. He lunges. She parries. The staffs meet at waist level. He whips his to knock her off her feet. She jumps over the staff as it sweeps the floor.
"Slow, Greg," she says. "I can see you're getting wired." He laughs. "What's next? I forget." She frowns, puts hand to forehead and says, "I think it's knee, knee, lunge. Let's check." Out comes a page of choreographic notation. And they're at it again.
Leshin, certified as an actor combatant by the Society of American Fight Directors, has been teaching Coleman, an actor and theater technician, how to fight on stage. A Washington actress and dancer (with Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange), she has specialized in teaching movement to actors, particularly stage combat. "Most people act from the head up," she says. "Physical training has not been in our acting tradition. Fortunately, that's changing."
Not all of Leshin's stage movement involves combat, but, she says, "physically it's a very powerful way of moving. It's exhilarating, especially if you're a woman. You usually haven't had this form of physical movement." Stage combat "involves a kind of attention that's 300 percent. If you don't watch out you can get hurt, or hurt someone else." Every second of a fight is choreographed, and then rehearsed, slowly at first, "over and over, until it's in your kinetic memory," Leshin says.
But even carefully staged fighting "can be very traumatic," she says. "You're dealing with violence, even though you're dealing with illusion."
Coleman pulls a screaming Leshin around by the hair. She trips him and picks him up by his shirt. All illusion: As he drags her she holds his wrists, and as she tugs on his shirt he holds her wrists, pushing himself off the floor. "One time I had to pick up a man wearing no shirt," Leshin says. "So I held on to his chest hair. The audience groaned."
Illusion should not become so convincing, Leshin explains, that the audience worries about the actors. She cites, as an example, a mock hanging so realistic that "the audience became upset. It didn't go over well at all."
Choreographed fights, used primarily on stage and more recently in films, provide a "much safer alternative to stunt work," Leshin says, "a whole different category. Stunt people don't rehearse much. They pad themselves like mad. They know how to fall and dive and roll." And many get hurt, she says.
Occasionally, because of faulty concentration, both Leshin and Coleman have been hurt. "I did get punctured in the stomach with a sword," Leshin says. "My partner knew, but my eyes said, 'It's okay, let's go on.' " "It's hard to continue the fight when you think you've hurt your partner," Coleman says, recalling an instance when, hitting a padded section on a sword, he heard a dull thud instead of the expected metallic click and thought he had hit his partner's fingers.
Appropriate vocalization increases the combat realism. "The sounds have to be orchestrated as clearly as any other part," Leshin says. As Coleman pulls her by the hair she whines, tight-mouthed. When he whacks her between the shoulder blades, she grunts. As she elbows him in the stomach, his air escapes with a whoosh and a groan.
The sounds of the blows must also coordinate with the action. Either combatant may make the "nap," the sound of the hit, always masking the action from the audience. For example, an audience concentrating on a blow to the chest will not see that the actor being hit has slapped his thigh, timing it with the feigned blow.
Leshin, her back to the audience, brings her elbow back, readying her right fist for a swat at Coleman's head, held in her left hand. As her fist comes forward she releases his head, slapping her hand. His head and shoulders reel backward and he cries out in pain. Coleman hits Leshin in the stomach, making the nap with back of his hand against her tightened stomach muscles. She doubles over, groaning. He worries about hurting her.
"Greg, you're not really hitting," Leshin admonishes. She tightens her stomach and hits herself hard to show him it won't hurt. And they rehearse the move again.