never fight a clown...

Sunday, October 28, 2018

radius & ulna

The relationship between sword and forearm is a wonderous example of the body moving in harmony with an object that was well designed. If you think a little deeper about the design of both sword and forearm there is a fantastic correlation to be had between the edges of the weapon and the bones within the forearm.
When I am manipulating a sword either cutting, thrusting, parrying, or even just freely moving the sword through space. I try to imagine the way the radius and ulna move. To be specific the way in which the false edge moves with the radius and in turn how the ulna moves with the true edge of the sword.
By visualising this relationship, I enhance my ability to move in synchronization with the blade and more over the way in which it may have been designed. In turn I am extending my intention through the whole sword. From thought, through my centre to the tip of the sword.
The amazing design of the forearm in terms of its ability to pronate and supinate allows for such a great range of movement. The combination and use of my thumb, pointer finger and middle to pinkie finger provide an interface with the hilt of the sword to gain control of the blade. With practice I can combine specific placements my fingers to advance the best performance of the blade regardless of the hilt shape i.e. swept hilt, sabre hilt or a simple cross guard.
The more the actor gains (literal) inside knowledge of the anatomical function of this process the more they will gain control of the sword being manipulate in their hands.  I would even go so far as to say any prop being wielded by an actor could benefit from this greater understanding.
To be continued…

don't give up your centre

Spiritually and combatively if we give up our centre we are undone. When you lean on some thing or some one how much do you give away your centre? 

When you lean on a balcony to take in view do you give all your weight over to the balcony? If the balcony gave way you would fall. It would be advantageous to take agency over our centre so we don’t fall over or get hurt.

Whether performing stage combat or doing movement of any form that requires shared body weight. It is important that we don’t give up our centre. Maintaining your own balance is integral so if you give away your centre it will be even harder to maintain balance. 

Combatively speaking your opponent will often be attempting to take your centre away form you so if you give it up you’ve done a lot of their work for them. So it would behove us in the replication of combat to not give away our centre. 

I have a maxim: "don’t compromise your own structure to get what you want." In simple terms I mean if you allow you own centre to operate away from your base without any care you will be placing yourself in danger. To be specific: danger of falling probably. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

the victim does NOT do all the work...

I was reflecting on some thoughts and concepts that I was introduced as gospel in stage combat the other day. One of the fundamental principles I was told when I started my formal stage combat training was – the victim does all the work.

A maxim that states that while performing something like a hair grab for example the victim is the one leading the move. Here is a link to an example of the thinking I am referring to – hair grab YouTube link. (disclaimer – I am in no way having a go at this tutorial it is just an example)

Hopefully you took a quick look at the video it’s only a minute long – here is my problem with this line of thinking. The main concern for me is that the aggressor becomes a passenger in the experience. It necessitates that the aggressor must ‘follow’ the victim when in fact the image we are generally trying to convey to the audience is that the aggressor is the ‘dominate force’. It is another great example of making stage combat look stagey. Which again reinforces my notion that we should not be calling it stage combat in the first place. After all when I play a doctor on stage I’m not referred as a stage doctor am I? I’m called a doctor. But I digress.

I am curious by nature and therefore question everything; so why can’t the aggressor control some aspects of this technique? We know it’s not real… we know we are working together to create the illusion... so why does only one of the actors have to ‘control’ everything?

If we look at a waltz as correlation to the work, I am describing; the lead person is ‘guiding’ the other through two strong points of contact - the hand and the back. But even in this scenario the person being led knows the choreography it’s just these points of contact allow for subtlety and nuance in the delivery of the choreography. So why not bring the same level of subtlety and nuance via listening to combat for stage and screen?

I am not saying the victim has it easy, if we look at the dance for example the person being led must do it backwards for want of a better phrase. It’s just that I feel there is a better way to represent this type of violence. Which could be through stronger structure and alignment and guided communication from the ‘aggressor’. In the example in that video linked above - even if the male actor had grabbed the female actor’s elbow to create another point of contact he could have looked a little more involved with the picture / story.

Anyway, my one year old is hungry so must away. Hope that pricked your curiosity as well.

Stay curious...

You Tube Channel

Thursday, September 13, 2018

the wonder of gravity

Gravity is something that is always acting on us and yet it’s not until we have a bad fall that we realise how much it is acting on us. 
The trick when falling, tumbling and rolling is to learn how to develop the appropriate amount of force and momentum to exert so as to be in harmony with gravity. Too much force and too little force - both have unfortunate results. 
I like to enter these sorts of moves with an image of focusing on the first half of the technique. For example, if I were to do a forward roll. I focus on the amount of energy required to get my feet above my head knowing the gravity will take care of the rest. Rather than putting enough energy in to complete the whole roll. This approach also aids with the process of feeling like I have more time during the technique.  
I can also consider gravity when asked to ‘push’ another actor and choreographically they are to ‘fall’ over. For me when I’m pushing the actor to the floor. I’m doing this with the full understanding that I’m making a connection between their centre of gravity and their base knowing full well that gravity is in the equation. 
Visually I’m portraying the image that I should be robbing them if their centre and thus over balancing them. However internally I’m guiding the actor in harmony with gravity. I know traditional thinking is the victim does all the work. However, the reality is that I’m still involved in the work and connected to the other actor so if that is the case my thinking is: how can I best help them find the floor? Then answer lies in working with gravity.  
“You must learn to avoid the jar that affects the nervous system and organs which are in line and through which the jar is transmitted. When a man expects to fall upon his feet he will instinctively bend his knees and hips at the moment of impact and very little of the jar reaches the body.”
Chapter IV – Lupino Lane’s – How to Become a Comedian 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

illusion & reality…

The conception and application of these two seemingly opposing words is one of the biggest conundrums face when staging a disciplined and effective staged fight scene. For without a full understanding and distinction of these two words an actor can never hope to really grasp or perform the art form.

Inevitably however a lot of actors are obsessed with ‘reality’. Did that look real? I want it to be the truthful!  Where do I start!? After all what is real and what is the truth? Is truth a perspective from where one remembered an event? Is it something that is about to happen? When was something real? When we remember a truth (with a view to play that truth) have we dulled its truthfulness? Is that real?

When we as actors are asked to give the ‘truth’, what are we giving really? Are we doing anything real or truthful? I mean really, we are on stage or in front of a camera after all. When our character must kill another surely, we can’t be doing that for real? If we did that would only be a one-off performance. Even if we are asked to draw from life experience how many actors have killed anyone? Based on that thought, we are really giving an interpretation of reality and truth.  Though, we are for the most part learning truthful and real combative techniques in a lot of cases. That’s real.

When an actor has created a world of truths for themselves based on the given circumstances of the story it is easy to watch them as they are in the now – in their reality! When an audience is not observing technique, it must be easy for them to follow the story that is being told because the audience is now in their reality. But it was an illusion that got both the actor and the audience to that reality.

My point is that the two concepts go hand in hand; Illusion and Reality. A balance needs to be struck, in the comprehension of them while building a fight scene without it an actor will be lost. The same balance is faced by the fight director. If one is obsessed with only one of these attributes the other will suffer. Not many actors ask: Did the illusion work?

Thursday, August 23, 2018

slapstick & knock-a-bout...

Slapstick: A slapping device dating back as far as commedia del arte maybe even earlier. Used to make hitting sounds etc. However in today’s theatrical community the term ‘slapstick’ has taken on its own modern meaning. Most audiences and even theatre practitioners have an image of clowning around, bumping into stuff and falling over. In some way the meaning is still there it has just taken on a larger definition.
Falling and bumping into things, is something that I do a lot of in performance and have done for a long time. Someone once asked me why and when did all this start? And for a long time I just assumed it was because of my profession or some bizarre natural ability. But it was only recently that I remembered that as a child I used to ‘practice’ falling a lot. I would stand on the edge of my bed and practice various ways of 'dying', I was especially inspired by the guy who fell from the tower in the opening credits of F-Troop. For anyone too young it was a show on TV back in the early seventies. I can remember falling for hours, that’s children‘s hours… so it was properly only a few minutes. Little did I know at that age I was training my body to deal with the various positions that the body finds itself in when falling. Don't take knock-a-bout for granted!!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Talking with the bones. Listening with the muscles.

In recent musings I have made reference to my  Emptiness Compass: a process driven approach to my movement training. This has been the launching pad for many of my musings over the last year. Riffing on last week’s musing about spirit and energy I wanted to share my maxim I made up many years ago: Talking with the bones and listening with the muscles.

If we subscribe to the notion that when an actor grabs another actor, pushes another actor (hands or feet) or even crosses swords with another actor – a “conversation” is taking place. On a deep physical level - one person is “communicating” with another. I believe my maxim is relevant to humans not just actors but hey; to the musing at hand. Therefore, it follows that if one actor is ‘talking’ the other actor must be ‘listening’. This doesn’t have to be the grabber or pusher – in fact the actor being grabbed or pushed can / could be the one ‘talking’ and vice versa.

So, if someone is talking and someone is listening what are they taking with and what are they listening with? It is a physical landscape after all so it’s not our mouths and it’s not our ears. Yes of course we use our awareness but to be more specific for me: I talk with my skeletal structure and listen with my muscles, ligaments and tendons.

Due to the straight nature of my femur, tibia, fibula, humerus, radius, ulna, they have a direct line to someone’s core - after all that is what I am talking to, even if I am grabbing their elbow, ‘push’ kicking them or pushing them. Ultimately, I am talking to their ‘hara’. So, if my bones are talking to them – they must be listening. When I am being grabbed etc. I am listening with the subtler parts of my anatomy in this case my muscles. (I include ligaments and tendons in this). My muscles can absorb what is being ‘said’ and interpret it for my ‘hara’ so I understand what is being communicated and work our how best to deal with is, so my balance is not compromised.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

spirit & energy

The Emptiness Compass I have been referring to in some previous blogs is comprised of 12 paired words. These paired words when used together are designed to help keep a participants and students focused on an exercise / task at hand to ensure they are remaining in process rather than a product or outcome driven mode. 

My musings for this week’s newsletter bring me to one set of those paired words: Spirit & Energy. So, what do I mean by these words and what am I hoping a participant will gain by focusing on these two words?

“The floppies” is a term that I use when a person has no spirit or energy. No Life force as it were Being energised and tapped into your spirit is a must for this sort of work. Not only for your own safety but more importantly having your spirit and energy ‘switched on” on means you are actively accessing your physical communication receptors – meaning your body is alert to stimuli. Conversely you are sending information for someone else to read as well.

Mistakenly actors seem to perceive being energised with being tense and spirit with intent. For me being energised is about making your structure and alignment bristle with liveliness and by spirit I’m referring to your essence.

The combination of these two elements: spirit and energy make for a deep human body ‘space dish’. If trained, honed and tapped into; can allow the actor to pick up on the subtlest of information being transmitted. Thus giving the actor an extra set of eyes and ears on what is actually going on around them.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

"Can you direct our fights but make sure they're safe"

“I’d like you to choreograph a fight for our production, but can you make sure it’s safe?”

For the record questions like this continually do my head in. Surely, it’s implicit in the job title isn’t it? Fight Director. We work in an industry that over the last decade has been going through huge overhauls to its risk assessment process. In terms of both physical and emotional safety in the workplace. Which is fantastic and a natural response to high injuries, bullying and a lack of policy and procedures over the previous decades.

With respect to physical injuries in our industry. I’d be curious to see the proportion of injuries sustained through a staged fight that has been choreographed by an appropriately trained fight director and injuries in other workplace areas of theatre for example but not limited to; working from heights and electrics. My instinct is that given how long fights have been choreographed for I would imagine our collective safety record as fight directors must be high comparatively speaking. If anyone has stats out there I would be very welcome to see them.

My observation over the last 30 years since choreographing my first fight in the mid-eighties has been: that safety is built into the frame work of fight direction. I’m basing this opinion on the years of development that have gone into the art form. My impression is that safety is in fact within the scaffolding and foundation of the choreographic process. Even a novice would consider basic old school principals like: the victim does the work, eye contact and cueing. It strikes me (pun intended) that this long-term development of safety within fight direction positions the art form at the forefront of risk assessment.

I’m not saying the industry wasn’t (or isn’t currently) safe - I’m just making the observation that for the fight director, safety awareness appears to be built into the language and vocabulary when discussing and building a fight scene with actors. As opposed to (certainly in the years gone by not now-a-days) if I were doing a scene as an actor that didn’t appear to involve ‘combat’ there was no discussion around ‘be safe while rehearsing or developing that physical scene’ or even having a discussion around safety after a scene was explored.

I have this ability to see an incident or accident before it’s going to happen based on my years of experience as a performer and choreographer. The cues for seeing possible incidents and accidents are not always obvious; they could be as small as an unusual foot placement, prop being held in pronation rather than supination or an actor appearing a little ‘off’ emotionally one day.  I’ve trained my eye to see beyond safety towards a future that hasn’t happened yet. It is focused on the possible domino effect from one small movement. Seeing into the future like an upside-down pyramid of risk. 

So, I find it frustrating sometime on jobs when people outside the process of fight direction say: ‘that doesn’t look safe’. I acknowledge that different people have their own sense of what is; or appears unsafe or dangerous however if I’m employed to make something safe then surely it follows I’m qualified to know if something is safe.  Knee jerk reactions after a failed first attempt at an idea during a rehearsal like people saying: ‘well that has to change’ or ‘that’s not safe’ are further frustrations.

Have we gone too far though? Therefore, the question in my head is: are we behaving like helicopter parents with our actors? Are we being overly cautious? To be extremely clear I am not saying be reckless. I am not inferring we explore physical scenes in an unsafe way. I’m just expressing my observation around how safety is perceived and managed.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Venn diagram of Stage Combat & Martial Arts

When it comes to concepts and skills in terms of delivering a stage combat class. I constantly refer to two ‘spheres’ of knowledge. One is the art form I am delivering of course; stage combat and the second is naturally martial arts. Both with a series of skills, concepts, codes and practices which must be understood and honoured by the student. Eventually they will need to embody those skills and concepts in order to apply it when called upon. 

From my experience of teaching actors there is a wide continuum of understanding in relationship to the two circles of knowledge I have mentioned.  This ranges from the complete novice in both spheres through to those who have a great knowledge of both.  Ultimately, I believe we are trying to bring both spheres together like a Venn diagram. The larger the cross over in intersection area of the Venn diagram then the better chance I have of creating an actor who has more versatility across multiple weapons systems.

So, the task when training actors is developing exercises that work to align both spheres to help increase the intersection of knowledge for the learner. 

To be continued…

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

problem solving & multitasking Part II

“Years ago, I remember dropping a glass with liquid in it on stage during a performance. I could feel the condensation on the outside of the glass slowly undermine my grip of the glass. As it was slipping from my fingers; externally I was presence, delivering lines and listening for cues. Internally however I was developing a process to deal with the glass that was about to break at my feet and the feet of fellow cast members. My mind was developing a strategy for how to clean up the glass.  I even considered going off stage and getting a dust pan between my lines. I was even deciding on how to incorporate the soon to be broken glass on the floor into the scene should I have to or need to. The glass did indeed break and all ended well. However, what stuck with me the most after the show was how ordered and calm my thoughts were.” …

“Play with knives expect to get cut.” = “Performing slapstick expect a bruise.”

“(Disclaimer: I am not advocating to push through injuries or to perform with a reckless mindset. What I’m entertaining here is that with a solid training approach, actors can safe guard themselves and be mentally and physically prepared for when things go wrong) “…

“Therefore; the trick is to develop exercises and tasks in training that replicate choices under pressure. The main principle of my approach is prioritising how to deal with; and respond accordingly to an issue or accident that arises. A way into this approach is to start looking for a range of variables within a spectrum of scenarios that an actor may find themselves in. By seeking the order in this spectrum of perceived chaos, one can start to reduce stress levels because a series of responses can be programmed in the conditioning training level.”

Part II

When contemplating and designing training exercises that help to advance problem solving & multitasking as an asset in the actor’s tool kit I naturally look to my own experience and how I honed those skills across the last 30 years. I fully realise that nothing will ever replace experience. My goal in the development phase of exercises is however to decode my skill base as a resource.

The key to problem solving and multitasking as I see it is: experience combined with an ability to see past problems and tasks. To train the eye to see pathways that lead to solutions rather than seeing a series of obstacles. The more time spent in a variety of situations the more likely one can see patterns and the range of variables that will present themselves. The development of this insight will lead to informed and calculated decisions that can be made more effectively under pressure. Worth noting when I say multitasking I know we are not really ‘multitasking’ but rather we are prioritising and switching between tasks. That said our ability to switch between tasks with accuracy is what we can train or develop.

Experience has also taught me to remain open as you move through your career to the full range of opportunities that are presented to you. Every performance, rehearsal or class is a chance to see the order in the chaos. This could be as insignificant as observing the differences between a sabre hilted sword landing on the ground as apposed to a rapier hilted sword. Noting how they behave differently as they land. Or something as insignificant as the tempo with which a chair falls backwards after it goes past its point of balance. Witnessing the way gravity acts on these activities. The smallest of details can be filed away. Each time they are filed away compare them to the last time you saw the same thing happen and note the differences and similarities.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

humility, humour & hope

In previous blogs I have made references to my 'Emptiness Compass.' Which utilises a set of coupled words to form my process driven approach to movement for actors. Over the past 20 years or so three other words have continued to take meaning and purpose in my process: humility, humour and hope. So much so I use them as a bi-line for my academy. 

Why do I use these words at Combat Circus? The words have always been in my verbal lexicon. But over these years the relationship between them and the order with which I use them has become clearer for me. They are designed in that order as a mantra of sorts.

Humility is a great platform from which to start any activity or class. The warm up can be a great place to defrag from the day. To empty the mind and see the people before you as equals. To warm up before the work in a place of peace and tranquillity. To drop the personal baggage at the door. To aid the process of seeing the work about to be presented to yourself from a lack of judgement. 

Humour is always a fantastic way to see oneself. The class content before the student is always designed to  be challenging. To challenge the sense of self and the physical abilities one thinks  they may have or abilities they didn’t know they had. To see ones failures in activities as gifts not obstacles. To give over to the process. To take oneself lightly. 

Hope is the natural progression then in this context. To grow from humility and humour and see that there is hope in the work and the greater world before oneself. Hope in the approach to the work. Hope in the ability to  push through any difficulties that one may have with the work. Hope that the work will engage in the greater journey for the student.

From hope we can pass onto humility again and thus the cycle begins again.

Thursday, June 7, 2018


In a previous blog (link) I made mention of the word 'Harmony' coupled with 'Empathy' in the context of my Emptiness Compass.

I'd like to extend my thinking a little more on what this word means for me and more importantly the how and why I promote it as way of guiding actors to a deeper understanding of self, others and environment.

The image of a butterfly moving against the wind comes to mind. The butterfly isn't fighting the breeze but yet is moving forward. Or a sail boat working in sync with the cross breeze and yet moving forward. The harnessing of energy for a greater good.

Aikido use the a great word - blending and sometimes; musubi - a form of unity. Great ways to conceptualise what is needed from a task at hand being explored when both Uke (attacker) and Nage (the one exploring the technique) need to harmonise to ensure the task will breed a successful application and understanding of a technique.

The Uke must attack with truth. It is the only way for Nage to truly get a grasp on what is to be explored. A careful act of listening on both parties especially the Nage who is utilising subtlety and responsiveness. The sensitivity required will allow Nage to responds according to any slight variations of the attack and thus be listening to the moment. 

This approach to training always struck me as a possible useful tool for actors to explore the physical world of their craft. I think harmony as a noun is a tricky way to visualise what I’m referring to. However when used as a verb; to harmonise. I think then it can be an action word and thus a stronger word for actors to enact in their work.

By generating exercises that promote
a collective focus both actors must work in harmony to get results. By generating exercises that facilitate a feeder and a receiver (Uke & Nage), it enlists an honesty and drives actors away from performing martial arts but rather asks of them to explore the truth of a technique and be present. Not to over play any one moment over another and to truly honour the value of a specific movement.

Put simply: to guide actors to focus on the other.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

form & function

"Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling. It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law." Louis H Sullivan (wiki)

The above was from an article called "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered" Lippincott's Magazine (March 1896). This paragraph went on to be shortened to: form follows function. A maxim that influenced architects for years to come I’m sure. For some reason it often plays on my mind when I watch an actor move. A move, action or gesture (form) must follow its function, it’s purpose.

What is the function of the a move an actor may have to perform? Let’s look at a lunge in the context of swordplay: to bridge distance for an attack. Its form should be driven by its function in this case for the lunge - the most economical bridging of distance,  while maintaining balance and power. This should be enough of a clue to help an actor truly represent this move. Any other physical unnecessary form layered in should really only be driven by style or genre and character choice. But at its base learning as a skill set. Its form should follow function. 

What about something as weird as a reaction to a hair grab?? I must admit this is one of the most over acted actions I see in a performance. But if its function is to convey that someone is being restrained by the fact that their hair is being pulled. Then surely the form I take should support that function. The stillness required to ensure I don’t hurt myself anymore when having my hair pulled would / could / should help inform the amount movement needed to fully and truthfully convey the staging of this reaction. My form should follow the function. 

Marcus Virtruvius Polio a Roman architect and engineer is said a structure must exhibit three qualities: Solid, useful and beautiful. I think these are useful too!!

Monday, January 15, 2018

I hate stage combat

Now that I’ve got your attention… sorry; I hate the words ‘stage combat’! There I said it out loud! To be clear: I don’t hate stage combat. I have just come to dislike the assembly of these two words together used in a common theatrical language to express an art form I believe is so much deeper. Why the dislike I hear you ask?

I believe there is lack of depth that the words ‘stage combat’ offers to truly grasp what is going. By ‘going on’: I mean in terms of the actor's learning and the way in which it is viewed. When conducting a stage combat class, the first thing I will ask the participants is: What are they here to learn? I do this before I use the words stage combat. This question usually elicits responses like: fake fighting and pretend punching. It’s these types of responses that undo the work that has been going on for the last 20 years to develop the art that are hard to stomach. That said – I get it. It’s not real! So, it’s fake and pretend.(watch this spot for a further blog on this)

Some of our practitioners have tried to rebrand it over the years. Staged Combat, Theatrical Fighting, Theatrical Aggression and Acted Aggression just to name a few. But for me none of them really get to the heart of what the art form truly encompasses. To the lay person these two words also negate other areas in our field like; physical comedy, domestic violence, sexual attacks and even some broader uses of what we bring to the table as practitioners in terms of movement.

All that said I don’t know what the answer is and given how much traction the words have gained over the last 50 years I guess we are destined to live with them now. But it highlights that we as practitioners have a duty of care. We have become guardians for the continued education of the broader context for these two words and the responsibility for their greater understanding.