Fight choreographer instructs students in the fine art of theatrical brawling

A stage combat workshop, held Thursday afternoon, provided Williams students with an unique opportunity to be introduced to the techniques of theatrical fighting. Jamie Newcomb, an expert in the art, led the workshop. Newcomb is on campus as the visiting fight instructor for the theatre department’s upcoming production of Twelfth Night. Thursday’s workshop gave the entire Williams community occasion to benefit from Newcomb’s considerable skills.

After the requisite warmup, Newcomb began the workshop by emphasizing the virtues of Lasell wrestling room’s padded flooring. “The mat is your friend,” he explained, “It really likes you; you really like it.” The foursome participating in the workshop soon utilized this newfound friend as they practiced a variety of tumbling exercises. The participants were not hesitant to succumb to the full powers of gravity as they practiced integrating the tumbling moves into a sequence of mock gunfire.

Hair-pulling, the next exercise, demonstrated the general stage combat technique of victim control. The principle of this technique being that the “victim” in the dramatic fight maintains control of the interaction. This reversal of power allows the victim to direct the action or stop it at their discretion.

The hair-pulling demonstration was also an opportunity for Newcomb to explain the importance of accurately depicting to feigned injury. He emphasized that “what sells [the stage fight] is the display of pain.” Shrieks and moans must be choreographed to fit the location of infliction. The vocal quality of the pain differs with the place of assault: the higher the injury, the higher the pitch of the vocalizations. Thus, the bouts of hair-pulling called for much high-pitched shrieking.

Trust was another principle of successful theatrical fighting stressed by Newcomb. If two actors in a combat sequence could not trust each other to meticulously follow the choreographed moves, the scene would fail as timing would be skewed by unintentional hesitance. He illustrated this point with anecdotes from his lengthy experience as an instructor of such staged violence.

Newcomb is a veteran of the Shakespearean stage. In addition to his work teaching the art of dramatic fighting and dueling, he is an accomplished actor. In fact, his interest in fight choreography began while working with Shake-speare & Company (Newcomb was an original member) when he became inspired by working with B.H. Berry (the fight instructor whose work includes choreographing conflict in Polanski’s magnificent screen production of Macbeth). Under Berry’s tutelage, Newcomb learned the art and traveled widely to share his expertise. In addition to his freelancing, Newcomb has served as the fight instructor to multiple Shakespeare festivals (including a seven year stint as the resident choreographer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). He currently is an instructor at the University of San Diego.

Newcomb was brought to Williams as visiting fight instructor for the theater department by Professor of theatre David Eppel. Newcomb and Eppel worked together this past summer, in San Diego, on productions of Othello and Much Ado About Nothing. Newcomb’s experience on the stage and as a fight instructor encompasses much of Shakespeare’s works and innumerable productions of his more popular plays. Newcomb’s time at Williams will be spent working with the cast of the upcoming production of Twelfth Night. According to this experienced Shakespearean, one of the strengths of Twelfth Night’s fighting scenes is a fight “that doesn’t happen.” The mismatched fight between two dueling pairs is “ridiculous, but fun.”

The students who took advantage of Newcomb’s expertise in the stage combat workshop also had a good deal of fun. Newcomb gave an overview of many classic fight techniques. In addition to collapsing from bullet wounds and hair pulling, the participants learned the basics of giving and taking a fist to the gut, slamming against a wall (head first, of course) and the time-honored stage slap. Instruction in realistic “knaps” (the sound effects for the various jabs) accentuated the realism of the staged blows.

Eventually these various skills could be strung together in an extended sequence of violence. Newcomb explained that a successful fight scene must be carefully timed, like “a series of beats.” He guided each student through just such a carefully executed sequence, first punching the victim in the stomach, grabbing them by the hair, snapping their head back and finally, smashing the student into the wall.

The workshop participantswere fortunate beneficiaries of Jamie Newcomb’s unique theatrical expertise. The Williams community will further benefit from his talents in the upcoming presentation of Twelfth Night.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *