Swashbuckling Swordsmen: Stage Combat in The Pirates of Penzance

Michael Waterston, Ordway 7/21/15

Don’t try this at home – we’re trained professionals! Fight scenes and stunt work on the theater stage are a delicate balance of timing, athleticism, humor, and believability; relying on the actors’ abilities to flow seamlessly between dialogue, song and dance, daring fights, and high-flying stunts.

Rehearsals are currently underway for the Ordway’s production of The Pirates of Penzance, and we’re fortunate to have the delightful Aaron Preusse (Certified Teacher with the Society of American Fight Directors) working with our talented team of actors.

Aaron opened the rehearsal room door to give us a behind-the-scenes look at how he and the actors are crafting stage combat for The Pirates of Penzance.

How long have you been choreographing stage combat and stunt work?

Aaron: I have been involved with stage combat for almost twenty years; choreographing fights since I began my studies back in 1998 with the British Academy of Dramatic Combat. My first professional credit was twelve years ago in Chicago with The Mammals Theatre Company and their production of Mexican Wrestling Macbeth. Since then I have worked on a few films, but mostly theatres ranging from high school to the professional.

How do you approach creating stage combat for a musical?

Aaron: The most important thing is to become familiar with the script and what the director wants to say with this specific production. It’s my job to make the actors look good and bring the director’s vision to life. This is true for any project I go into and not just specific to musicals. The additional element to a musical is getting familiar with the score as well and using it to help with the specific movements. I usually have a couple conversations with the director beforehand just to figure out the scope and weapon choices. Then I begin to work out ideas along with the music. These are rough sketches that will change and adapt once I get into the rehearsal room and see what types of bodies I’ll be working with.

What challenges or constraints do you have to overcome regarding music, song, and dance?

Aaron: The biggest challenge is just fitting everything that you would like to do within the frame of the music. This can also be the freeing element because now you have a specific framework that you need to fit into rather than just letting your creativity run wild. Now, you must let it run wild within a very specific structure, which I find usually brings out movement choices that wouldn’t be my normal go to techniques.

How much of the combat is planned and how much of it changes once you begin rehearsals?

Aaron: A vast majority of the fight comes about over rehearsals. I usually have a few ideas or pictures that I think might be cool and then when I get into a rehearsal I try them out and see if they work. Most of the work however comes off of the actors and how the move. They are the ones that are performing, so collaborating with them, seeing how their body moves, and finding what they are comfortable with is usually the way that my fights come together. I like to chat with them about what their character would do at this particular moment and how they think they might attack. That way they own the fight and it’s more a part of them than me coming in and dictating movements to them. This production (The Pirates of Penzance) is special in that we are remounting it from a previous production in which some of the cast was in. The fight director for that show was Geoffrey Alm who is a Fight Master with the Society of American Fight Directors. He is hugely talented, and he and I worked together earlier this summer at the National Stage Combat Workshop so we were able to spend some time chatting about his approach. I have taken some key elements from his choreography and added some of my own bits so that it won’t be the same fight but there will be similarities from the original.

What is the most important element of stage combat?

Aaron: It must be a collaboration between the actors, the director, the other designers, and myself. If the stage combat doesn’t fit within the larger production, it won’t be an effective piece of the larger story.

Catch all of the thrilling action on the Ordway stage from Aug 4-16!

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