One Summer, Three Hamlets: A Practical Guide to Flow Fight Direction
The concluding sword fight in Hamlet . . . after 400 years, has been staged in almost every conceivable way—from Lord Olivier’s florid and athletic fencing exhibition (including that extraordinary leap) to Mel Gibson’s gritty minimalism. . . . Since Hamlet is one of the Western World’s most frequently produced plays, it is likely that someone using this book will be called upon to direct or perform its final, fatal fight. What would you do to bring new life and luster to this best-known of all stage combats?—Richard Lane1
As a Shakespearean scholar and a fight director, it was simply a matter of time before someone hired me to stage the iconic duel in Hamlet. It just so happened that the first of many such opportunities came not in single spies, but in battalions. Over the course of summer 2016, I was hired by two different companies to choreograph this scene for three different productions of Hamlet. The first production was a site-specific theatre-in-the-park production by Apollinaire Theatre Company in PORT Park, Chelsea, Massachusetts. The production was strolling, taking advantage of the park’s many places to create different backgrounds and facades for the play’s varying locales. “To be, or not to be” (for instance) was delivered while Hamlet stood high atop a salt pile the city stored next to the park, introducing the very real possibility that Hamlet might jump from the pile at any moment to his inevitable death on the concrete below. The second production was performed by Apollinaire’s children’s summer program. Middle-school actors (with no prior stage combat training) presented a bilingual performance of Hamlet in English and Spanish, often transitioning from one to the other in the same line of text. It was performed outdoors on a thin strip of park land. The third Hamlet was a concept piece titled Bad Hamlet (written by John Geoffrion), highlighting the differences/similarities between the Q4 text of Hamlet and the F1 text of Hamlet. This production presented at the Providence Fringe Festival featured six actors performing the various characters from Hamlet—three actors speaking from the 1623 First Folio, and the other three from the 1604 “bad Quarto.” For the big fight, I worked with four actors playing two Hamlets and two Laerteses conducting separate, but intertwined duels on a traverse stage.
The challenge of creating the same fight three ways was a true test of my approach to fight direction, and gave birth in my mind to a vocabulary for this approach. With so few treatises on fight direction available in print (the notable exceptions are almost all older texts at this point: J. D. Martinez’s Combat Mime ; William Hobbs’s Fight Direction for Stage and Screen ; J. Allen Suddeth’s Fight Directing for the Theatre ; and Richard Lane’s Swashbuckling  are the major industry texts on the matter), it seems worthwhile to explicate these methodologies. Martinez, Hobbs, Suddeth, and Lane all recommend a prescriptive process for fight direction, in which the fight director choreographs the entirety of a fight outside of the rehearsal space before teaching it to their actors (and perhaps even before meeting their actors). My method, by contrast, involves the actors and director in the process of fight creation, allowing the shape of the fight to be guided by collaborative theatrical forces in the room. [End Page 53]
One of the reasons the Hamlet fight is such an intriguing challenge to choreograph is because of several textually demanded specifics that Shakespeare wrote into the surrounding scenes. This duel features two characters whose prowess with a blade has been revealed, in one way or another, by the text of the work before act 5. Let us talk about Laertes: the text of Hamlet very strongly suggests that he is a classically trained Italian/Spanish fencer. Laertes is being schooled in France. In Shakespeare’s time the French fencing schools looked heavily to the Italians for influence: the first French fencing manual was written by Henri de Saint Didier in 1573, and it declared the Italian forms to be the best available fencing style. As such, Laertes’ style can be safely presumed to have a heavy Italian influence. There are a few other textual hints about his fighting that must not be overlooked: when announcing the king’s wager to Hamlet, Osric praises Laertes’ abilities with a sword and acknowledges how well-known this proficiency is to the court: “You are not ignorant of what excellence Laertes is . . . for his weapon; but in the imputation laid on him by him, in the meed he’s unfellowed” (5.2.3784–87).2 Osric says that Laertes’ weapon is “rapier and dagger,” an Italian fighting style generally at war with the English style of sword and buckler during Shakespeare’s time (Craig 1028).
Hamlet, on the other hand, is not well-known as a swordsman. After the King’s wager has been finalized, Horatio (arguably the person who knows Hamlet best) states bluntly: “You will lose this wager, my lord” (5.2.3844). Hamlet replies by assuring Horatio that he has been at constant study of the sword since Laertes has been in France. While Hamlet ostensibly takes place in Denmark, it has been long established that the settings of Shakespeare’s plays generally mirror England as the Bard would have known it. As such, it can be assumed that Hamlet would likely be comfortable in the English rapier and buckler mode of fencing. These textual clues hint strongly that Laertes fights in an Italian mode, likely adorning his style with flourishing Italian point-work, while Hamlet is a more brute-force fighter, using his heavier blade and shield as primary methods of engagement rather than any sort of finesse.
These characterizations are nonnegotiable; they are carefully wrapped in the text by Shakespeare, and to ignore those textual clues would be to ignore the playwright’s insight on the characters themselves. Similarly, Shakespeare has built several narrative objectives for the play’s final fight that must be honored with specific timing and order. Here they are, in brief, in order as presented by the text:
• Hamlet and Laertes are fighting a courtly duel in front of an audience. They are fighting a sport-fencing match with rapiers, per the script.
• Laertes’ rapier is “unbated” (that is, has no point protection and therefore is actually capable of stabbing someone and doing damage); it is also poisoned with a “deadly unction.” Laertes knows both of these things, and because of this knowledge holds back for the first several passes of the fight. This allows Hamlet to score a few points before being murdered.
• There are at least three formal fencing passes that the combatants make. Between each of these, there are lines delivered by both the combatants and the assembled court. These interchanges suggest a “reset” between each pass, as the combatants have an opportunity to converse, take a drink, or allow their mother to wipe their brow. There is also some sense of “place” in these resets, since Hamlet and Laertes speak semi-privately with other characters onstage at various points during the fight, and as such need to be positioned near these characters to prevent awkward meaningless crosses.
• The first pass Hamlet wins in a touch that Laertes calls to judgment (because of suspicion that the hit was illegally or ineffectively made).
• The second pass Hamlet wins in a touch that Laertes freely admits; this hit must therefore be both direct and clear.
• By the end of the second pass Hamlet is “hot and scant of breath” and therefore must have worked up a bit of a sweat to justify Gertrude’s text. [End Page 54]
• The third round begins. Before either combatant can score a legal hit, there is a scuffle that justifies Osric declaring “nothing neither way” (that is, some sort of “close-call” pass, in which the movement of the combatants is complicated enough that the fencing marshal needs to explain it to the onlookers).
• At some point after this Laertes enters the fight with a cry of “have at you now.” This outburst implies frustration on Laertes’ part—perhaps understandable, given how he has yet to land a blow in the fight.
• During this pass Hamlet is wounded with Laertes’ poisoned blade.
• Once the wound occurs, the combatants switch blades in the scuffle.
• Laertes is wounded by Hamlet with what was previously his own blade; it is unclear whether Laertes is armed or unarmed when this occurs.
• The combatants work up to enough of a brawl that the King calls out, “Part them, they are incensed!”
This is quite a complicated set of instructions and moving parts to keep in mind while choreographing. Because of this, the Hamlet fight is as much an intellectual game of Tetris as it is an iconic theatrical moment. The stakes in this scene are incredibly high, not just for the characters, but also for a fight director. This series of moments constitutes the climax of the show and impacts every character onstage; the work that all actors have done leads up to this point. The fight will fuel the show’s dénouement and change the lives (and deaths) of all present figures. If done correctly the duel also becomes a memorable moment for the audience: exciting, action-packed, and complex—a tour de force of physical storytelling. Putting these pieces together once to work for one production, and one set of actors, is one thing; doing it multiple times to work for multiple casts in many different spaces with many different practical requirements is quite another and demands a different way of working. Suddenly I was forced to creatively justify the same beats and moments in three very distinct ways; each fight had to be unique while still being the same.
The way that I work with actors allows me to get creative about these similarities, as well as about the differences that each fight innately demands. The task of working on these shows tested my own creative process and forced me to hone my ideology of work. I did not arrive at this methodology—what I call “flow fight direction”—over the summer of Hamlet, but rather the summer of Hamlet proved its value as a process. It also makes an excellent case study for presenting my method to an outside audience, since it demonstrates the strengths of the method clearly and succinctly. What follows is not so much a manifesto of flow fight direction as an instruction manual, a set of guidelines that I hope will help directors to better understand how best to use a fight director and to help other fight directors more specifically think about their own choreography process. While my three productions of Hamlet served as the impetus for this note from the field, these guidelines certainly extend beyond Shakespearean productions (and indeed I have used the method on plenty of modern pieces over the years). Flow encourages a more concerted approach, and thoughts on these tenets might also foster thinking about fight direction in new ways within collaborative theatre-making efforts, such as Viewpoints and the proliferation of devised performances.
The Basic Tenets of Flow Fight Direction
The basic tenets of flow fight direction are simple:
• Work with the actors, space, and tools that you have
• Work with the realities of physical situations, not imaginary pre-rehearsal fantasies
• Work with the creative and physical energies in the room
• Allow well-studied spontaneity to fuel the process of creation [End Page 55]
What I mean by this is that a fight director must do her homework, know her text, and understand what it is that she needs to build; but rather than pre-stage the product of this knowledge, she ought to create it live, in the room, with the actors. As directors, these tenets might not seem ground-shaking—actor discovery fuels creation in the rehearsal room every day. Fight direction, however, is an art that has long been documented as a prescriptive process; as noted above, all current, major industry texts advocate choreographing the fight in full before stepping foot into the rehearsal room (see Hobbs; Lane; Martinez). In this regard, flow mirrors what other practitioners of theatrical art do all the time: namely, collaborate spontaneously and productively. This is part of why the method is so effective, because it seamlessly integrates into the theatrical process in a way that prescriptive fight direction does not.
These tenets are deceptively simple and worth expanding on individually to further define and examine the method.
Work with the Actors, Space, and Tools That You Have
I like to say that I choreograph actors, not fights. Choreography is motivated by the physical abilities of the actors involved and the unique demands of the current project. Choreographing fights becomes a matter of featuring what specific actors can do, and avoiding the things they cannot do. These individual requirements create a necessarily unique fight, custom-molded to the situation at hand. A great question to ask actors in early rehearsals is if they do any “stupid human tricks.” Here is where one might discover that one actor can do a full split, another can do back walkovers, and a third has training in a specific martial art. These skills are not necessarily things that a fight director can imagine when composing privately, and they are certainly not skills that can be imposed upon the actors’ bodies, but they serve rather as important contributions that these individual artists bring to the table. On the other side of the coin are actors’ limitations: movement impingements, injuries, fears, or previous trauma leading to discomfort with certain movements. Such limitations are easily accommodated using flow, since the choreography is customized to the actors themselves. While creating a fight together, one may incorporate and choreograph the actors’ capabilities into it by playing to their strengths, rather than imposing ideas upon what these actors should or should not be able to do.
Contrast this flow-fight-direction method with more traditional models of fight choreography: pre-staged; move by move; planned; and packaged. Flow allows the actors space to breathe inside their roles like a suit custom tailored for their bodies; it also allows movement to be organic and conform to the actors’ movement styles and preferences. Placing the actors in physical situations and asking them, “Okay, what does your character want to do now?” allows them to communicate how their bodies are primed to react, as well as to how their character work requires them to react. This in turn creates a fight that is more organic to the characters these actors are building, rather than the characters that a fight director imagines them to be building. It is also more natural to the actors’ bodies, thus helping them to acclimate more quickly to the fight and “store it” in their muscle memory—a huge benefit for rehearsing on any kind of compressed schedule.
This method gives the actors and director more ownership over the fight and also allows fight captains to have a say in the process of creating what they will later be responsible for monitoring. Thus the process is collaborative rather than dictatorial, honoring the contributions of others and challenging the fight director’s ideas about what moves are appropriate. Actors will often contribute phases to fights that I never would have discovered in other ways. For instance, in the outdoor production of Hamlet we wanted the last phase to take place on a bridge overlooking the rest of the playing space (fig. 1). For that to happen, the actors had to disengage from their “fencing strip” at the court level, move about twenty feet upstage then up a flight of stairs so that they would arrive at the mesh grating on the bridge. Since we could not anticipate the mechanics of this in the rehearsal room, we had to adjust accordingly when we used the actual space. [End Page 56]
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The actor playing Laertes did not think it was in character for Laertes to run away from Hamlet at the fencing strip. I agreed with him, but had a hard time finding an alternative solution. Eventually, we discovered that there were some bushes located cater-corner to the strip—the perfect cover for a tactical retreat. I staged Laertes moving backward, eyes locked with Hamlet, heading for those bushes in hopes that he could use them as a barrier between himself and Hamlet. But the latter interrupted the movement, redirecting the flow of the fight to drive Laertes up the stairs and onto the bridge. The moment became an expression of tactical fortitude on Laertes’ part rather than cowardice—a choice driven by the actor and the environment that we had to work in rather than the practicalities of staging.
Work with the Realities of Physical Situations, Not Imaginary Pre-Rehearsal Fantasies
Flow means that one can accommodate for any unexpected complications at the time of creation. The theatrical process is capricious, and often the performance conditions that I discuss with a director pre-rehearsal are not the reality when fight rehearsals begin (and may even change over the course of the rehearsal/production process). Flow allows for accommodation of these shifts as they occur, rather than preplanning a fight that may not work within the given reality. Space constraints are often an issue here, as in the four-character Hamlet fight I composed for the Providence Fringe. This piece was performed on a narrow traverse stage—so narrow that both sets of duelists could not fight simultaneously beside each other, because then the tips of their weapons would be perilously close to spectators in the front row. Instead, we crafted passes that allowed four people to fight on different ends of the traverse stage and still come together to switch partners or interact at critical moments. The variables that go into creating a safe fight space are often too numerous to logically [End Page 57] account for: not just the width of the stage space, but also blade lengths, the lengths of actors’ arms, stride lengths, costuming limitations, and so on. Flow technique incorporates these variables as part of what makes the fight, rather than as obstacles in creating it.
Similarly, in the open-air Hamlet, the mesh bridge on which the combatants completed their final pass made it possible to drop a sword into the bridge. When Hamlet disarmed Laertes we could place the tip of the blade inside a hole of the mesh floor and allow the sword to fall so that the hilt rested upright on the bridge and the blade hovered in the air beneath. As one cannot frequently drop a sword into the stage, this discovery was not something I could have accounted for without actually being in the space while we created this fight scene.
Work with the Creative and Physical Energies in the Room
Stage combat is always a delicious challenge and often excites the imagination of everyone in the room. Directors, actors, stage managers, fight captains—many will glow with excitement at the process of creating a fight together. Flow allows for this and for requests from these participants, creating a fight that is more than the sum of its parts. I find this to be particularly useful when working with children. Kids love swords, and they love being treated as creative colleagues in the theatrical process. If I ask young actors “What do you think might happen now?” they become excited and suggest ideas that I probably would not have planned, and then they feel to be the proud owners of them. This facilitates learning the fight and feeling more engaged with the choreography. Our children’s Hamlet was the last version of the play that I choreographed that summer, and as such I was running short on ideas for how to disarm Laertes. Fortunately, the young actor playing the character had some of her own, including an ingenious twist of the wrist that I am not certain I could replicate myself. She was able to perfectly execute it each time, and this was all I needed to include it in the sequence. By listening to my actors I was able to revise the choreography and not simply revert to a trick I had already used in one of the other Hamlets.
The same rules that govern working with young actors also apply to directors; flow allows me to review and ensure that the fight looks and feels the way it should during the process, instead of after it is completed. This advantage benefits the actors as well, because choreography, once learned, is difficult to unlearn or relearn. The vast majority of actors with whom I work have limited or no previous stage-combat experience, therefore learning the choreography is doubly fraught, since they are also simultaneously learning safe fight techniques. It is easier for actors to learn precisely what they will be asked to perform and nothing more. This also makes the fights safer, because if there is less likelihood of confusing the choreography, there is greater likelihood of executing the correct technique.
Allow Well-Studied Spontaneity to Drive the Process of Creation
None of this is to say that safe fights are made by walking in to a rehearsal room with no plan, no training, and no idea about how a fight should work. The rules of safety that govern stage combat are what allow safe execution of techniques. I never encourage actors to simply spar, but rather to talk through what they might like to do, and to show me (slowly and carefully) how that could flow from one move to another. Often, I will ask actors to repeat a choreographed sequence several times so that I can see what might happen next or to allow a creative impulse to take us somewhere new. This serves the dual purpose of also helping the actors to learn the choreography and fostering muscular memory of the sequence, which is important in choreography retention.
Flow technique only works when you have the ability to safely execute what the actors want to do. There may be times when an actor comes up with an idea that is not feasible due to the theatrical, [End Page 58] strength, or mobility limitations of the actors involved (“Hey, can we do a flip kick here in this moment?” “What if I picked him up by his throat and hung him over the balcony?”). The larger a fight director’s movement vocabulary, the greater the likelihood that requests can be accommodated, at least in part (“Yea, not a flip kick, but we can definitely do a high kick here”; “Okay, we don’t have a fly rig for safety, but we can do a choke from the front”). During these moments, spontaneity and big dreams can continue to productively drive a rehearsal process, rather than quash progress. Knowing how to shape and form these big ideas is a matter of experience, and any fight director should continue to expand theirs as frequently and humbly as possible.
The flow-fight-direction method is one of the most productive tools in my arsenal, and I use it for every piece I work on. Its greatest strength perhaps lies in its very nature of productive collaboration—many minds make more interesting work. To best implement this method a fight director should approach the choreographic process with a sense of openness and willingness to listen, absorb, and react. As any improvisational artist will attest, there is more power in saying “Yes, and . . .” than there is in saying “No.”
Danielle Rosvally, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University at Buffalo/SUNY. She teaches acting, public speaking, theatre history, Shakespeare, and stage combat. Her current research focuses on nineteenth-century New York theatre-makers, and the economics of Shakespeare in America’s nineteenth century. She works actively as a professional fight director, and regionally as a digital-project coordinator with the Folger Shakespeare Library.
2. All quotations are from the Arden Shakespeare edition of Hamlet.