Friday night fights

Mar 17, 2011   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Incarcerated performers

Two weeks ago, I started a fight at Sing Sing.

If you don’t know Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, there is a sprawling, protracted, chock-full-o-storytelling unarmed fight between two characters late in the second act.  I was apprehensive about staging the fight because, in the playwright’s stage direction, “It goes through phases,” and while I have some training, I am not a fight choreographer.  I am not certified.  Would I be able to tell the full arc of the fight?  How would I teach my incarcerated actors to realize whatever I might cook up?  Could I keep them safe?  How would I deal with the ‘machismo’ question: professional actors sometimes get too wound up, too enthusiastic, want to go too fast too soon in the middle of working on stage combat – might that be more complicated with my incarcerated actors?

I needed some help

Through a mutual connection, I begged the favor of some time, some insight and some moves from thoughtful, creative, generous and extremely capable fight director Dan Renkin.

Because it is a complicated and protracted struggle in its own right to get a new volunteer cleared to work in a maximum security prison, I asked Dan to work with me to create the fight in a rehearsal studio in New York; with volunteer actress Kate Kenney (“Lil Sister” to the men), who is performing in Superior Donuts with the men, I would teach the combat inside the facility.

We began with some stage combat basics: that safety is paramount, that eye contact is the key to safety, that slower is better than faster, that stage violence is more like a dance than it is violence, that it exists in order to tell some part of the characters’ story that can no longer be explored through language.  Because of where we’re doing this production and the ultimate goal (which is rehabilitation not just for the guy playing the lead, but for the whole group), we did some warm-ups and some basic moves with the whole group.  Does this slow down the process?  You bet.  But my work with Rehabilitation Through the Arts is all about the process, so suck it up, slow it down and connect everyone.  We worked on mirror exercises for eye contact, making naps, throwing ‘punches’, ‘selling’ the move.

Girl fight logistics

A girl can’t just go into a fight rehearsal at Sing Sing in her Lululemon yoga pants and a sports bra.  Women have to be very careful about what they wear in a max at all times: baggy clothing, tunics that cover the hips, high collars and at least ¾-length sleeves are routine accessories.  Women likewise need to be very careful about what kind of physical contact they have with the prisoners.  If a corrections officer perceives that the contact is inappropriate, then it is.  Full stop.  There is no appeal; there is no explaining; there is no recourse.  So Kate Kenney and I have to teach the fight to the men without touching them much.  We have to teach the fight principally through performing it with one another (while navigating far too much fabric) and then with precise verbal description.

At one point, Kate was giving an adjustment to the three actors who portray the characters who watch the fight while I worked with the two combatants.  Caught up in the work, I forgot where I was and threw my arm around my actor to show him the next move.  I realized in mid-move what I had done.  I finished demonstrating, grateful that no guard had walked by at the moment to potentially misinterpret the physical contact, and restored that critical ‘max’ distance.

The fight rehearsals have been focused and disciplined, but sprinkled liberally with laughter and a sense of play.  Kate and I are exhilarated when we walk out into the cool night air after each one.

My incarcerated assistant director wrote this in his rehearsal journal:

“I never thought the day would come when I would learn how to fight from a female.  But that day has arrived.

“Today Kate began to choreograph the fight scene for the play and it was nothing short of engaging.  Just ask the onlookers who threatened to form a crowd outside our classroom – gawking in amazement as Lil Sister grimaced in agony, slowly slumping to the ground backwards, as Special K (me) menacingly mock pulled the girl’s hair out.

“I, along with everyone else, enjoyed the rehearsal but not due to the display of violence.  Rather, due to the clarity and efficiency in which it was taught.  Impressive.”

[He went on to confess that, despite being impressed by my “book smarts,” he had harbored doubts about my ability to direct a play that would resonate with his peers at Sing Sing, but that he now saw that I could do so.]

We have taught about two-thirds of the choreography to the two actors who will play the fight with one another, and just like their professional brethren, they want to go too fast.  But they are keen to learn and they listen to me when I caution them to slow down; our trust continues to grow.  They’ve let me know that certain moves are not cool, so we’ve made modifications.  We say “Matrix” to remind everyone to move like Neo, in nifty slo mo.

We had a hair pull built into the early moments of the fight and I could see that it didn’t sit right with one of the combatants.  I speculated that maybe he felt the move was too ‘girly,’ but when I questioned him about it, he said, “I really don’t like to have anyone touch my hair.  No one has touched my hair in sixteen years.”  Every actor has that one point of contact with which he just isn’t comfortable.  So we cut the hair pull and Dan helped us adjust the choreography.

This Friday night, we will probably finish teaching the fight, and then we’ll have fight calls, just like any production anywhere.  I’m looking forward to seeing how an incarcerated audience will experience the fight in Superior Donuts, especially now that my assistant director thinks I can pull it off.

  • Very cool. Thanks for sharing Kate.

  • This is awesome. I can’t wait to keep reading about this.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Chris!

  • Yojimbo Stark

    I’m an SAFD Certified Teacher. You are a fight director.

  • Anonymous

    I’m a director who is staging a fight, with some consultation from an SAFD Certified Teacher.

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