If you are about to strangle someone, make sure she’s ready for you.
Along with 23 other students, I signed up to learn about stage combat — and stage combat safety — in Willamette University professor Jonathan Cole’s “Introduction to Stage Combat” on Feb. 7. His workshop was only one of a variety of workshops, lectures and lessons offered during Corban’s Arts Week Feb. 7-11.
No, we did not learn how to hit someone else. Instead, during the two-and-a-half hour workshop on unarmed combat and single-sword, we learned how to make the audience think we had hit someone else, without actually touching our acting partner.
Our first lesson, though, was safety.
“I don’t want to have to tell your parents that you lost an eye,” drama professor Tammy McGinnis said, as she introduced the workshop’s instructor.
After Cole described his background in stage combat — he is a certified teacher for the Society of American Fight Directors and has experience with martial arts, sword-fighting and even quarterstaff — he laid out the evening’s rules: “Safety first, safety second, safety always.”
Cole started the class by telling us to take off any jewelry or other objects that might get in the way.
Then we warmed up — Cole, his three student-assistants from Willamette, and 24 Corban students. After stretching, we watched while Cole and Mimi, one of his assistants, walked through the steps for “classic-style” stage slaps: find your distance at arm’s length, add on hand’s breadth, make eye contact, step slightly to the side.
The others students and I had to check repeatedly to make sure we kept the right distance from each other. Cole showed us how — after years of practice — he could walk up to a wall and stop at exactly the right distance to touch it with his fingertips.
“Decide who is Jon and who is Mimi,” Cole told our stage partners and us. “Keep your hands loose. No gouging.”
When Cole demonstrated, and Mimi reacted, their coordination made the slap look bruisingly real.
“Any questions, comments or rude remarks?” Cole asked.
None had any, but we stumbled clumsily through the steps. My partner worried about hitting me; I forgot to clap my hands for the sound effect, and I ducked too late to make the slap convincing.
After a few minutes, we moved to new partners and tried again as Cole and his assistants circled the room, correcting our mistakes. Another half-hour, and we progressed to punches.
“No roundhouses,” Cole warned us. “You don’t want your elbow anywhere near her face.”
My coordination failed repeatedly as my partner and I practiced our punches — neither of us close enough to touch each other, but close enough to make a convincing show if we could just get the timing and reaction right.
After a break, Cole demonstrated other types of stage slaps, each trying to narrow the “window,” as he called it, which allows the audience to see through a slap — literally.
At last, Cole moved on to single-sword.
I could feel the other students’ energy returning as the professor’s assistants laid out 30 rapiers, and in a short ten minutes, we learned the difference between foible and forte, the upper and lower sections of the blade, and we rehearsed thrusts and the five basic guards.
Even after the brief introduction, I thought understood the fencing guards, until we lined up and tried to practice them on each other.
I was left-handed, going against a right-handed fencer, and I immediately mixed up third guard and fourth — one is on the right side, when fencing left-hand, but it moves to the left when fencing right-handed. My partner was just as confused as I was. We also had to keep our roles separate as we traded attacks.
In a lull, Cole explained that his students train for 30 hours before they can be certified in a discipline. He suggested that interested students consider taking one of his classes to learn more about stage combat
“I’m blazing through things that we would normally spend two weeks working on,” he said.
Teaching violence during Arts Week may sound ironic, but stage combat has its own beauty.
Emily, a sophomore at Willamette and another of Cole’s assistants, has studied stage combat with Cole for about two years. She hopes to use the skills later as a stage director.
“Jonathan was my first director,” she said, “and I heard the class was interesting. It should come in handy to know how to [choreograph fights].”
About half of the Corban students that evening took the workshop as preparation for Corban’s play this spring, a production of Charles Dicken’s “Great Expectations.”
Krystal Kuehn, who plays Estella, found Cole’s techniques useful, and wishes the cast could have learned them before staging Noel Coward’s “I’ll Leave It to You” in November.
“We weren’t exactly sure how to do stage slaps without actually hurting Adam [Fields],” Kuehn said, referring to an encounter between Bobbie (Fields) and Faith (Christi Hathorn). “This way, there is much less potential for someone getting hurt.”