Behind the Scenes: Stage Fighting

Perhaps one of the most visually exciting moments in any Shakespeare play is where the tension comes to a head in physical conflict – angry words are thrown by the characters, swords are drawn and loyalties are put to the ultimate test. To help bring this all to life in our summer production of Macbeth, Iris Theatre once again enlisted the help of Roger Bartlett from Fights4Stage. With many years of experience in everything from judging stage fencing competitions, working as a stunt action performer and of course directing theatrical fights himself; we couldn’t wait to talk to him about his craft and the current rehearsal process for Iris’ Macbeth.

Roger Bartlett Headshot 2016.jpg

How long have you been in the world of stage fighting, film and theatre, and where did that journey begin?
I first started training in stage combat in 1991 when I first went to drama school to train as an actor. It really was “love at first sight” so to speak. I knew right away that this was what I wanted to do.

Tell us more about the research and training that goes in to creating an authentic fight scene.
It’s more about telling an interesting and exciting story. What are the characters after, what sort of emotional response do they have to the violence and how does it affect them going forward? It always starts with what story the director wants to tell and then finding actions that help the actors tell that story.
Sometimes we have to research specific fighting styles, or how specific weapons were used, but this kind of research, for me at least, is about being able to give the story a flavour rather than trying to recreate historical styles perfectly.

In terms of teaching stage combat, do you have any particular specialties?
I don’t think I do have any specialties. I just really enjoy working with people and helping them develop and improve their own skills and their confidence. I love this art form and I thoroughly enjoy passing that on to others.

We hear you are an associate of Iris Theatre! Tell us more about shows you have worked on, your role within Iris shows and your experience with working with the company, especially within the rehearsal context.
Yes, I have been lucky enough to be an Associate for a few years now. It was a great honour when they asked me. This production of Macbeth will be the fifth show I have worked on with Iris Theatre (previous shows being As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Richard III, and Treasure Island). My role as Fight Director is to help realise Dan’s vision of the show and make sure the violence fits into that vision. It also involves training the actors to perform the fights and violence required in each show and this ranges from a simple grab or fall right through to big battles involving the whole cast. I am also responsible for sourcing the weapons we use and creating the blood effects that hopefully enhance the moments of violence. It is my job to make sure the actors, crew and audience are safe during these moments.
Rehearsals are great fun. Its a joy to work with actors again year after year but it’s just as good to meet new people and see how we can all work together to create something really exciting. Dan always manages to present us with some challenges and it can be hard work, but it’s always enjoyable!

This year you are Fight Director for Iris Theatre’s Macbeth. How has the rehearsal process been?
The cast have been working incredibly hard. Technical rehearsals were tricky, working in the blood effects, seeing how their costumes may affect what they do, putting everything into the performance space. But I am very pleased with the outcome.

What do you love most about your job?
Everything! Seriously, I get to work with incredible people in amazing venues like St. Paul’s Church and I get to play with swords. What’s not to like?

Have there ever been any funny moments that have happened while you were teaching?
Lots. But as usual with these things they are only really funny in the context of the classroom and what was happening at the time. There was a twerking moment recently which had us all in hysterics but it would be unprofessional of me to say any more than that.

We hear you have just released a book with Nick Hern Books – can you tell us more?
I have. It’s called Stage Combat: Unarmed and is available in bookstores and online. It covers a wide range of techniques from strangling to falling over, punches, slaps and kicks. It is aimed at anyone who is interested in how to perform and stage an unarmed fight in the theatre. As well as the usual written descriptions of how to do the techniques, there are loads of photos to help and there are something like 40 videos online as well to help people see exactly what the techniques should look like. It’s a great resource for people who want to learn, people who have done some training and want a reminder but also a great companion resource for people who are currently training. It’s main aim though is to help people stage small moments of violence in shows safely and effectively.

To watch the live action unfold, see our behind-the-scenes video here!