“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.