For Constellation Theatre’s recently opened production of “Zorro,” local fight director Casey Kaleba choreographed a three-person duel, a complex scuffle involving a human shield and an altercation in which the weapon of choice is a bag of change. But a good fight director doesn’t merely produce realistic simulations of violence, which is why director and co-writer Eleanor Holdridge keeps collaborating with Kaleba.
She can trust him with more than fisticuffs and swordplay. He sat in on auditions and helped shape character arcs.
“And the other night he came by, and I realized there was this one moment that I just sort of roughly staged, and I said, ‘can you make it funny?’ ” Holdridge said. “And he did. He said, ‘Oh, okay, I can do that. Let’s see what you have.’ ”
Kaleba’s work also crops up in the Folger Theatre’s production of “Henry V,” opening Tuesday. He brought the Battle of Agincourt and the siege of Harfleur to the stage. But, as with “Zorro,” his influence extends beyond the raucous rumbles; it permeates each step and informs every line. Director Robert Richmond asked Kaleba to train the entire cast in movement and sword handling to plunge the performers into a soldierly frame of mind.
“What he wanted was a sort of boot camp for the actors to get this feeling of what it was like and what the weapon could do,” Kaleba said. “Even though in ‘Henry V,’ we’re going very stylized, and our reference points are more dance than history or violence, we’re starting with everybody in the room understanding what it is we’re stylizing.”
His comprehensive approach perhaps comes from the fact that he started out studing acting and became interested in physical performances, as opposed to an athlete who fell into theater, which is the trajectory for many fight directors. Kaleba, 34, began studying fight choreography in 1992 and has worked professionally in the field since 2000.
“To me, this is just dancing with props,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as a martial artist or a boxer or a fencer or a wrestler who adapts their work for the stage. I think of myself as a movement artist. It’s just a body and whether you’re a dancer or an acrobat or an athlete or somebody who makes coffee all day, there’s a physical language that we all use.”
His past acting studies may also explain Kaleba’s respect for the text of a production. He constantly circles around intention and context, and he takes an unusually active role in the rehearsal process.
“He is a storyteller,” said Richmond, who has worked with Kaleba on a number of shows. “He is really about finding what works best to tell the narrative of the story and what the situation is and what the character would need to do to get through that piece of violence. It’s not just about flash.”
Of course, there’s that, too. Anyone who saw “Young Robin Hood” at Round House Theatre last month can attest to Kaleba’s knack for swashbuckling theatrics. But each show demands a singular approach, so the fight director’s process starts with considering rhythm and texture. Is the production supposed to be slick or gritty? Should the action feel smooth or syncopated? He comes up with vague outlines before meeting the actors.
Kaleba learned early in his decade-plus career that coming to the first rehearsal with carefully formulated setpieces can be problematic. Actors have limitations, scripts need rewrites and, sometimes, Tybalt may turn out to be a southpaw, undoing a fight director’s painstakingly orchestrated plan.
“It never occurred to me that he’d be left-handed,” Kaleba said. “And I’d worked out this amazing sword fight in my basement, and it was going to be the greatest sword fight that had ever been staged, and all of it went out the window.”
With “Zorro” and “Henry V,” Kaleba has been working simultaneously with stylistically and thematically opposed productions. One is fun and action-packed; the other is a darker look at the human cost of war. The conflicting moods are reflected in subtle body language.
“On ‘Zorro,’ it’s a lot of chest, a lot of proud chest. It’s magnificent, you know, how do you stand in the most elegant way, the most classically gentleman way?” Kaleba explained. “And on ‘Henry V,’ it’s hips. It’s low and it’s heavy, and it’s armor and impact.”
And where there’s violence, there will probably be scripted injuries — and worse. Both directors remarked on Kaleba’s understanding of anatomy and physiology, and “what would or wouldn’t happen with a weapon, whether it’s a broadsword or a machine gun,” Richmond said. The fight director also choreographs believable deaths.
“Every single Desdemona I have ever worked with has wanted to know what happens when they get smothered,” Kaleba said of “Othello.” “Almost every single Mercutio I’ve ever worked with — and I’ve done 20-odd productions of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ — wants to know what wound is ‘not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve.’ So it really helps their process to have an answer for them.”
Kaleba may be a virtuoso of violence, but Holdridge credits his smiling demeanor for putting actors and directors at ease. There’s a sunny disposition behind all that bloodshed.
“Violence is scary; we are taught not to be violent. It’s almost like, for an actor to slap someone else, to actually do any hand-to-hand physical combat, they have to feel really comfortable with their ability not to cause violence,” she said. “One of the great things Casey has — he’s so fun. He makes it okay for the actor to do things they wouldn’t normally do.”
As the actors become more relaxed with the moves, they can commit more fully, which in turn captivates the audience. Kaleba’s holistic approach to each punch and stab works toward snapping spectators out of their lull.
“One of my first rules as a fight director and as an artist, especially working with violence, is that I don’t want an audience to be bored,” Kaleba said. “Morally and philosophically, I just have a problem with an audience being bored by violence. It can make us excited, it can make us gasp, it can make us upset, it can make us hurt, it can make us cry, it can make us laugh, it can do lots of things. But it should never bore us.”
runs from Tuesday to March 3 at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. For more information, call 202-544–7077 or visit their Web site. Ticket prices range from $30 to $68.
runs through Feb. 17 at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. For information, call 202-204-7741 or visit their Web site. Ticket prices range from $35 to $45.