Fake it to make it safe and convincing

Look Back in Anger is full of aggro, so Lawrence Carmichael, the salon:collective’s head of movement, has been working with the cast on unarmed combat principles. He explains how Meisner technique can hold a fight scene together

When practicing Meisner technique, as actors we can get so used to working for depth and creating a reality for ourselves that it’s easy to forget that some things can NEVER be real or even seem to be real while doing them. One example would be a magic trick or illusion, another would be a facial punch or slap.

This is where stage fighting has a lot in common with Meisner-style independent activities — in fact I would argue that it is an independent activity. The quality of the selling of the ‘trick’ that makes physical conflict look real becomes your independent activity and your success depends on how personally you take up this task.

Keep it ‘less’ real?

Trying to make a fight real for your own internal experience can in fact make a moment of violence less real to the audience and more dangerous to the actors, as the performer runs the risk of exposing the gaps or pulling the audience out of the moment.

Hitting for real is cheating – it does not make a scene more raw or convincing, whatever anyone tells you. In order to create emotional content you have to give your fellow actor(s) room to be emotionally truthful and uphold the needs of their craft. If they’re worried that you’re going to hit them, they have no room left. The body knows when it’s in danger and will show tension ‘expecting the hit’.  If you’ve ever seen an abused dog pull away when it’s on a lead, you’ll know exactly what I mean. And if you’re worried about hitting someone, this will register too.

To truly raise the violence and emotional connection there has to be virtually no possibility that anyone will ever be hit. This comes from repeating the choreography constantly so that it’s in your body and you know it as well as your spoken text, and then applying this very specific choreography having personalised the consequences of success or failure in terms of the illusion (independent activity).

Some fights need to become a playful game, played very seriously, between you and the other actor. You might upset your mum in the audience and you might upset the director, but you won’t hurt each other. It’s not so much the movement that upsets the other actor but your personalisation of it.

Now you see it

Sightlines are extremely important when it comes to violence, which is another reason why actors need to keep their wits about them. On film the action is generally shot from only one viewpoint, the camera lens. There is only one sightline that needs to be convinced of the impact. Editing does the rest. In theatre there could be 300 to 500 sightlines that need to be convinced. Imagine you have 500 cameras pointing at you from different angles and every single one of them needs to be convinced that the character got punched.

One way is to take advantage of the audience’s lack of depth perception by moving the action little further away and then flattening it into a more 2-D movement, skirting your hand along an invisible wall, sealing off the sightlines for a wider range of audience. In cases like this, moving closer to your acting partners face does not make the illusion any better. In fact it flaws it.

We’re applying all these principles to Look Back in Anger Act 1 where we have a punch, a grapple that starts on the floor and causes an accident, and a slap and grapple that ends in a passionate kiss or the beginnings of sex.

Getting to grips with grappling

Grappling is halfway between co-operation and competition, and based on much more real fight concepts than a slap or punch. You’re helping each other and challenging each other at the same time to make engaging shapes and navigate the scene with a agreed guiding principles.  Body contact is much, much higher than in a slap; leaving very little room for modesty.

The basic concept is that if a part of your body is already touching your partner firmly, it can’t be accidentally hitting or scratching them.  If you put your face against the middle of another actor’s back during a grapple, you’re guaranteed never to get elbowed in the face. This assured safety gives the other actor a huge amount of freedom to really let their anger fly.

The final rules are simple.

  1. No matter what type of fight it is, be yourself under the imaginary circumstances and the movement will be believable.
  2. Fight scenes grow through constant repetition so the actors can gain ownership of them, otherwise they collapse and die. So everyone has homework, repeating the moves every day.
  3. Stay safe and sustainable! Both you and your partner need to be able to carry off the fight every night and still be able to complete your scene, complete your show and carry on with your amazing careers afterwards.Look Back in Anger is at Clun Memorial Hall, Shropshire on May 7 as part of the Osborne and After festival. Read director Dominic Kelly’s blog and catch up with more production news and the cast’s video rants

Nick Skaugen (Cliff) choreographing a grapple with Simon Donohue (Jimmy)


Alison Latham (Alison) learning about safe hitting distances


Lawrence tells Simon Donohue how to keep Jimmy mean and safe


Anabel Barnston (Helena) thinks it's funny (for now)

Anabel Barnston (Helena) thinks it’s funny (for now)






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