About shawley

Assistnat Professor of Theatre


Stage combat has more in common with a combination of ballroom dance and stage magic than it does with any actual fighting discipline. Once an illusion is decided upon, it becomes a matter of figuring out how to best execute it within the skill level of the cast and in the time allotted. This can be as “simple” as someone being slapped and/or falling down, or as complex as a duel to the death with chainsaws. The illusion must also further the story being told and support character development. If the fight director has done their job well it should be nearly impossible to determine where the director’s work ended and where the fight director’s has begun. Melissa Hillman has written an excellent article on the hiring, care, and feeding of fight directors.

All that said, I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss why the study of stage combat is important and why acquiring some familiarity with the skills involved in portraying violence in performance should be given some priority across the various disciplines.

Safety is the biggest reason to learn stage combat. For a profession with such a badass reputation, the practitioners spend a whole lot of time and energy being concerned with the well-being of everyone involved.

Fight directors are first and foremost concerned with keeping everyone safe. This is no small job. I’ve often seen otherwise brilliant people lose their damn minds when it comes to their own safety on stage. I feel like there is an article in the news about once a year about someone getting shot onstage with a real firearm. Think for a moment about how many things need to go wrong for that to happen. I’ve often told students that “the stage is like The Matrix, if you get hurt there, you get hurt in real life too.”

Performers need to be able to identify and actively avoid situations that might lead to injury. A working knowledge of the fundamentals of stage combat is a great start. An understanding of these principles can also help them advocate for themselves in instances where they might be being asked to do something unsafe. I’ve come to believe that it borders on unethical for a performance training program to send graduates out without these basic tools.

In the past I’ve also had stage managers take my classes and workshops alongside actors. If you are not “showfolk” and don’t know what a stage manager is, they are the backbone of a production. They make sure not only that everything happens, but that it happens on time, and happens correctly. I once invited an Actor’s Equity stage manager to speak to a theater appreciation class I was teaching and explain what they do. Near the end of the talk one of the students said, “so we clap for the actors, should we bow down to you?” A good stage manager has among their primary concerns that no one gets hurt on their watch.

I’ve heard it said by some of the people who’ve trained me that it’s often the simplest techniques that have the highest risk of injury. If you are dueling to the death with chainsaws, you respect the chainsaw and go through all the necessary safety procedures. But if the scene needs someone to be slapped and/or fall down, performers will sometimes think that “they can take it.” “Taking it” might land a performer in a hospital.

Narrative Clarity
Few disciplines within theater enjoy the clarity of dramatic conflict and narrative transparency that fight directors have as a matter of course.

Any specific technique should be able to communicate a storyline (or a piece of one). If one character is striking another and they fall down, the audience should be able to follow the action of what is happening from beginning to end. That is to say, from several seconds before the blow lands until after the victim hits the floor. In a longer sequence, such as a duel for instance, each moment is a piece of narrative action. One character feinting a cut to the head, disengaging their blade after drawing a parry, and then executing a blow that is barely dodged might take less time to perform onstage than it did to read, but involves an entire series of narrative actions with the conflict being clear throughout. If there is a reversal (in the Aristotelian sense), that aspect of the storyline is generally extremely clear.

Actor training is often about having clear objectives and understanding dramatic conflict. Characters in violent conflict are among the most direct manifestations of clear objectives and conflict.

This narrative clarity is extraordinarily useful for directors, designers, playwrights, and dramaturgs. When Romeo is trying to kill Tybalt, there is little ambiguity about what the characters want, but there is no limit to how those wants might be played out.

Understanding of Illusion
While according to some scholars, we live in one of the least violent periods of history, Lt. Colonel David Grossman observed in his book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, that the majority of those who purport to study violence do so “in a world of virgins studying sex.” The overwhelming majority of any violence that anyone reading this is likely to see probably happens in the context of its portrayal in an entertainment medium, either in a context where it was composed by someone like myself, or in the context of athletic competition. Since we see so little actual violence (a good thing, I would say), a basic understanding of how the popular illusions of violence are created is useful. I would argue that an understanding of the illusions would lead us to enjoy them more, the same way that an understanding of music leads to a greater appreciation of the same.

Also, there is much to be said for having a better grasp of how specific genres of illusions are created when engaging in creating a larger illusion yourself. This is true for nonactors as well. The understanding of illusion also relates to an appreciation for narrative clarity. If one understands intellectually that a stage punch is not a real punch, that the scene in which a duel took place was a cooperative venture, and that it was composed with safety, narrative, and sightlines in mind, then the overall appreciation of the larger production can only increase.

Collaborative Synergy
At their best, composition of fight scenes involves a unified effort between the fight director, the director, the performers, designers, and technicians.

I had a great experience that was illustrative of this synergy while choreographing a scene for Aunt Dan and Lemon with Whistler in the Dark last season. The illusion for a pivotal scene involved interfacing the costume design with the set design in order for movement to be created that told the story in the script. There is a scene in the play in which a man is drugged and tied to a bed in a spread-eagled position, and then strangled with a pair of stockings by a woman who stands over him. As the man’s hands are unavailable to engage in the basic safeguards of a stage choke if the stage directions are followed, another solution must be found.

In this case, there was a piece of cloth of identical color and texture secured to the headboard of the bed. As the stockings used to choke the character are being placed on the actor’s throat, the actress reaches underneath and grabs the cloth attached to the bed, bringing it up on either side of the actor’s head, with no pressure whatsoever being brought to bear on the actor playing the man’s throat. As the character is choked, the actor played out the stages of asphyxiation from a place of complete physical safety.

On a very practical level, whatever your discipline within theater or film, understanding the basics of your collaborator’s discipline will speed up communication and deepen the process (I’m speaking broadly here as this is true of all the disciplines in theater). Specifically in regard to combat and performers, if you’re an actor, you’ll be able to learn more complex choreography more quickly, expanding the options available for the final product.

Broadening of Dramaturgical and Textual Analysis
“They Fight” is a great stage direction. And in many classics involves a lot of context. By broadening the understanding of violence on stage, we can understand how and why it might happen in dramatic literature.

Characters are always in pursuit of their wants. In Stanislavskian terms, actors pursue character objectives. To paraphrase military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, stage combat is the pursuit of objective by other means. By way of example, in Satre’s No Exit, Estelle wants Inez out of the room. At one point, she begins to physically remove her from the space, and would succeed if Garcin did not convince her to change her course of action. A similar scene takes place in Burn This by Lanford Wilson when Burton wants Pale out of Anna’s apartment, and that scene then escalates dramatically. Niether of these plays are known for their fight scenes to the degree of say, Romeo and Juliet or Killer Joe, but in all of these examples characters apply physical force in pursuit of their objectives.

Stage combat is an aspect of modern theater that really doesn’t get the attention it deserves. We can start to give it that attention by learning the basics of how it’s done, and then taking that knowledge to other areas.

Note: This article was modified from a blog post on MeronLangsner.com

– See more at: http://howlround.com/why-everyone-should-study-stage-combat#sthash.CVejAfOx.dpuf

6 ways Stage combat makes you a better actor

You’ll Be Safer Onstage

There is a common saying in stage combat circles when comparing the wrong way to do something with the right way: “Hospital. No hospital.” Your body is your instrument, and stage combat training teaches you how to keep it in one piece. You will also learn when and how to advocate for yourself if you feel that you’re being asked to take an unnecessary risk. An actor who is assured of his or her own safety in a physical scene is one who is free to create as an artist—and far less likely to have an understudy take over because of an injury. Remember: No pain…no pain.

You’ll Be Better at Performing Fight Scenes

This point might seem obvious, but it covers more scenes than you might realize. “Fight scenes” don’t just mean the climactic battles (as awesome as those are). Pivotal slap in the face during an intense drama? You’ll own that moment. Dying of a heart attack? Audience in the palm of your hand. Comic slip on a banana peel? They’ll be laughing all the way down. And if there’s a climactic duel, you’ll be better able to handle more elaborate choreography, making the most of your rehearsal time and having a far better fight than without training.

Better Overall Physical Storytelling

Stage combat is a genre of physical theater designed to articulate a clear narrative of character conflict. Practicing physical storytelling where conflict and objective are clear and up-front will only help your physical expression in any other scene. We’re in the business of telling stories. Practicing the narrative clarity of a good fight scene will carry over into your other work. When every move in a scene is a potential matter of life or death for your character, that intensity and attention to detail will infuse all of your acting technique. Which brings us to…

Significant Practice in Very High Stakes Acting

A duel with broadswords will have you portraying life-or-death situations. The stakes are not often higher than that. Training in how to get to that extreme safely and effectively will help increase your emotional range as a performer in any medium in which you find yourself performing.

Overall Physical Fitness

Acting can be hard work. The fitter you are, the better able you will be to face the demands of a role or an audition.

Deepen Your Ability to Analyze a Scene

Understanding why and how characters engage in physical violence gives us opportunities to apply dramaturgical thought in a pragmatic setting (I call this fightaturgy). What would cause your character to cross the line and assault someone? How would your character react to that kind of violation? How will that incident inform other interactions? In what cultural context does the play take place, and does that dictate how the violence will take place at all?

Stage combat is an element of theater and film wherein so many other elements combine, and yet it’s often relegated to “supplemental” training. Many performers find that getting trained in this facet of acting will yield dividends in every aspect of their lives as theater artists.


Meron Langsner

Phenomenololgy acting cont.

I believe the best way to understand and implement this theory is to investigate the scriptures to get a better understanding of what this means through a Christian perspective. The basic idea behind Phenomenological acting theory centers on self, and identity. As said in the above paragraph the actors self and identity is wrapped up in the actor’s own individual experience. I typically start my classes out by saying that God has created us. You are unique there has never been anyone like you and never will be.  If, as the phnemonolisys contend that truth only come out of our experience then our experience with the God of truth brings out a fuller understanding of Character. Also, Our experiences can be used to influence and help of connect to the charters dialogue whether or not we fully understand what the charter has gone through. For example, I do this exercise which ‘I call transference in which the students bring in an object that has great sentimental value to them. They then bring in the object and tell the story behind it: why this earns something to them, how did they get this object, how this object affects them. Once every student performed this piece the students then pull out there monologue, from a play), which they have been working on for a week and perform the monologue, but now with the image of the object or experience of the object in mind.  This exercise enables students to turn their own God given uniqueness and experiences into another character. Lots of students bring in their own religious artifacts or objects in which talk about their relationship with Christ and then use that relationship and memory of their conversion to pull them through a page of text with their monologue. The product of this exercise is amazing students connect with their piece with stronger emotions and understand the relationship better after using this technique.

Another idea expressed by the phenomenologists that I use in my Christian worldview is the idea of understanding your true self and the true self of the character. While the prior contend that the idea of self is not consent on what one thinks, speaks or determined by human nature but is a negotiated between society and hegemonic political views on the person’s race, and gender (Eastope 67); however, I would argue that the concept of self was long before Cartesian history based upon the ideas of King Solomon which he wrote in Proverbs, “ For as he thinks within himself, so he is”. With the ideas of Solomon in mind it becomes paramount for the students to understand who they are not just based on what others say they are but how they see themselves, and how God sees themselves. In order for me to use this method in the class, I try to get my students to se how God views them. I tell them to search in the scriptures to se what the Bible has to say about them.

Phenomenology and acting

A revolution has occurred in the world of acting theory. Over the past twenty years numerous scholarly studies emerged to make use of a wide variety of critical methodologies including Phenomenology, Derridean deconstruction, cultural, contextual, intellectual and psychological acting theories in order to train and describe the process of acting to burgeoning students. Within the above-mentioned ideologies of acting theory, there seems a consensus on how these “new” theories approach the actor’s cultural context, body-mind connection, and the idea of the actor’s connection with the character. Despite the seemingly novel elements that each theory claims to treat each of these areas, there is a richness and apparent grounding in biblical thought and approach to each of these new acting theories.

This paper will examine how some of these new acting theories reflect sound Christian theology.

Stage Combat

Stage Combat Training

Whether an aspiring actor or a seasoned veteran of stage and screen, you can take advantage of our superior training courses and programs utilizing a variety of weapons and unarmed stage combat techniques, all taught by our own Certified Stage Combat Instructors. Only these qualified members may teach a Stage Combat Skills Proficiency class and only an SAFD Fight Master may adjudicate the test. Our classes focus on specific stage combat disciplines with compulsory techniques. We test these required stage combat techniques for safety, theatrical commitment and believability within a dramatic context.

Stage Combat Skills Proficiency Rules and Regulations

Our official rules governing the Stage Combat Skills Proficiency Test, including information about who may teach the Stage Combat Skills Proficiency Test, and more.

Stage Combat Required Techniques

We currently train and test in eight stage combat weapon disciplines:

  1. Rapier and Dagger
  2. Single Sword (sabre, single rapier, Hollywood swashbuckling)
  3. Broadsword
  4. Broadsword and Shield
  5. Smallsword
  6. Knife
  7. Quarterstaff
  8. Unarmed.

Stage Combat Training Courses and Workshops

 We teach these here 🙂

Mr. Meisner

Every actor in the class deserves all the individual attention I can possibly give. Working with them makes me feel that I have one of the best jobs in the world: i.e. imparting what I believe to be important artistic truths to receptive people for whom I feel boundless affection.
            Why is the ‘repetition’ exercise so  difficult? ‘Repetition’ was my introduction to Meisner – as it usually is for everyone – but it turned out to be the last element that made complete sense! Therefore, the weight of the more advanced exercises and my attempts to use them, first as an actor and later as a teacher, produced a result that felt wobbly and unfinished.
            There are reasons for this that speak to the heart of the ‘problem with Meisner.’ I would like to say, however, that I have nothing  but great admiration for the inventor of this technique. The principles that underlie all its aspects – including ‘repetition,’ ‘naming behavior’,  ‘knock at the door’ improvisations and the use of the fabulous The Spoon River Anthology – require nothing short of genius to enlist them in training actors.
            However, let us put ‘repetition’ under a microscope. Pure ‘repetition’ isolates ‘following one’s impulses,’ and therein lies the reason why I couldn’t master it for so long – and why most people find it so difficult. It is counter-intuitive to isolate any one element of the human psyche. But repetition is the only acting exercise I know where it is useful to do just that. We are all familiar with the expression to be ‘beside oneself.’ I think that in ‘pure repetition,’ one enters a state of total reaction, which mimics being at the extreme of anger or, less likely, hurt – with fear attaching itself to both. (Positive emotions are not discussed here, since we are talking about feelings that relate to conflict.)  And obviously, being ‘beside oneself’ is not the same as being ‘inside oneself.’ In other words, we have separated from ourselves as we know ourselves to be. It is a state of attack that is rarely attained – fortunately – in normal life.
            Even if one has a quick temper or a tendency toward hurt or depression, it is unlikely that we will be flipped easily into these states by another actor pushing us. Why not? Well, most actors aren’t crazy – despite all evidence to the contrary. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist…) Like most everyone else, we have our guard up against the dangers of extreme emotion. So our deeper inhibitions keep resisting the requirements of the ‘repetition’ exercise, speed and strength – dare I say ferocity – of reaction.  According to whichever our tendency is in life, we will err on the side of withdrawing from the conflict or pushing ourselves into it, instead of reacting truthfully to the negative stimulus that is coming straight at us.  There is no way to speed up our ability to do this exercise; we can only practice it and follow the critique given by a – hopefully –  informed teacher.
            In the way that I teach the technique, we move on very quickly into ‘naming behavior.’ This is very confusing to the student – and from this point on, my use of Meisner’s great discoveries would be anathema to a strict Meisnerian. What I am doing is quickly integrating aspects of Method training with Meisner.  Why drive everyone crazy by doing it so fast? Well, an easy explanation would be a comparison with cooking a lemon filling. The eggs have to be spun about immediately with the butter, sugar and lemon – otherwise you get lumpy yolks, more useful for a salad than a pie.
            Now for the long, boring explanation. Sorry but I’m still figuring out how to make this really clear. In acting techniques which do not include systematic memory recall, it is believed that memories comes up automatically and inform everything we do. Yes, as long as what we are doing is ‘real.’ But acting is only partly ‘real.’ That’s why it’s called ‘acting,’ not ‘reality.’  I suffer from both a terrible temper and depression, which caused a lot trouble when I was learning to act. And I’ve had students who couldn’t control their rage and who were unable to drop the anxiety and grief when they weren’t working specifically on their acting. The former type I had to let go from my classes and the latter usually drop out of their own accord.
            So acting isn’t just ‘natural feeling’ and scripts have to be analyzed in order to uncover the appropriate spectrum of emotional responses for each character. Even if scripts were completely ‘real’ and not artistic compilations of fact and imagination, we would still have to analyze them; the difference would be that the element of conflict would not be constantly present. Characters would not continually mislead, often unintentionally, as people do when they are in conflict.  Sometimes, characters lie on purpose, but they only do it because they believe on some level that this is necessary for survival. Rarely can anything that is said in a good script be taken at face value. Characters say the opposite of what they mean, and without close analysis of the text, an actor can become totally confused. So how does the next step in the Meisner technique, ‘naming behavior,’ help with all this?


Knowing the business

The culture of this work environment is networking. If you don’t network you will never be a successful actor in LA. It is all about whom you know and how they can help you in the entertainment industry. Some ideas I have is to arrange informational interviews by attending events. The best way to talk to people is to go to major events that are full with people that you can connect with. You are most likely in a laid back environment which opens the door for you to talk to that person. After they are comfortable you can begin to talk about your career. Another way to get information is to go to seminars and talk to people who are working actors. You can ask them how they got started and what your particular steps should be. Attending plays and industry night in Hollywood are beneficial as well. You can talk to professionals in the field one on one and create connections that can lead to you being invited to more exclusive events. It is all about creating business relationships and networking is how this is done.

What is an artist

What does it mean to be an artist?

I’ve been asking myself this question, in various forms, for most of my life. It’s a question that bears repetition because there are so many possible answers, and my own personal answer sometimes changes. When I first began creating, the question wasn’t clearly formulated and the answer was simple: Joy! As I grew older and awareness of economic realities intruded, the questions became How can I be an artist? and Should I even try?

For a year or two, I chose not to be an artist. Oh, I still dabbled in this and that, but I wasn’t wholly or even halfheartedly invested. It was a dark and boring time.

When I recommitted myself, I felt such a deep sense of relief. I was spending my time the way I was supposed to again. I was focusing on what was important again.

Perhaps that relief, that sense of purpose, is part of what it means to be an artist.


We can judge our artistic success on so many levels:

1. Financial: how much money we make, can we make a living as an artist
2. Recognition/acclaim: receiving opportunities, reviews, awards
3. Size of audience: how many people experience what we are doing
4. Growth as an artist: how we are improving and/or taking risks as an artist
5. Producing a piece or performance that works the way we wished it to

But perhaps being an artist doesn’t have so much to do with traditional success. Some of the most lauded artists labored in obscurity in their lifetimes. Many famous writers self published their own work. Vincent Van Gogh, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Jan Vermeer, Franz Schubert, Henry David Thoreau.

If money and fame are of less importance, then what does it mean to be an artist? It means we create. It means we dream. It means we explore the fundamental question of what it means to be human: what it means to be conscious, what it means to experience emotions because of a painting or a symphony or a poem or a novel, what it means to have the capability for empathy. The exploration is inherently of value, regardless of the outcomes.

Stephen King said, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” Art supports life; it creates meaning, some semblance of order created from the complications of existence. It takes us outside of ourselves and pushes us more deeply inside of ourselves. It raises as many questions as it provides answers.

Being an artist, then, is about more than a job or a career. Being an artist becomes a state of mind. 

And the seven-year-old me was right after all. What else does it mean to be an artist? Joy!


—-Amy Sandburg

Why you didn’t get the part

This is from an article written by casting director Amy Jo Berman:


Yes, I’m writing about why you DIDN’T get the part. Yes, even though your audition was amazing and you were totally on your game and you lit up the room with creative acting genius, you still might not get the part. I know, I know…you’re probably thinking, but Amy, you are always so positive. Why are you talking about something negative?

First, it’s not negative to understand why you didn’t get a job because it will free your mind of all that monkey-mind chatter that happens when you find out you didn’t get it. Second, and this is the important part so pay attention, it doesn’t matter. By the end of this article, I hope you understand that.

Since this is one of the most frequently asked questions I receive and the one that hangs you up the most and twists you into knots as an actor and a creative being, let’s get into it.

Based on my years and years of experience as a casting director in film and television, these are some of the reasons you didn’t get the part.

1. You’re too tall.

2. You’re too short.

3. You’re too pretty.

4. You’re not pretty enough.

5. You’re too fat.

6. You’re too thin.

7. You’re too blonde.

8. You’re not blonde enough.

9. You’re too old.

10. You’re too young.

11. You’re too serious.

12. You’re too funny.

13. You look too much like the lead.

14. You don’t look enough like the lead.

15. You’re taller than the lead.

16. You’re shorter than the lead.

17. You remind the producer of his sister, and he hates his sister.

18. You are too ethnic.

19. You are not ethnic enough.

20. You were the first one to read that day.

21. You were the last one to read that day.

22. You’re more like the best friend than the lead.

23. You’re more of a lead than the best friend.

24. You’re too character-y.

25. You’re not character-y enough.

26. You look like the director’s wife and he had a fight with his wife right before he left the house this morning.

Okay, this is a small sample of the some of the reasons you didn’t get the part. Have you heard any of these after one of your non-bookings? Can you tell what the one common thread is among this small sampling of reasons?

None of these are within your control. NONE.

Yes, of course there are many other things that are within your control and we will definitely get into those in a future article. But these are the ones that drive you crazy. Right?

What you must understand is that your only job in an audition is to do your best work. Everything else is not up to you. The role you are reading for is one piece of an entire jigsaw puzzle. It must fit with the rest of the puzzle or the puzzle won’t work. The casting director, producer, and director are fitting pieces of the puzzle together all day long. Your only job is to be the best “piece” you can be. Whether your edges fit in the slot for that piece is not up to you.

Just go to your audition. Do your best and let it go. If you’re good, they will remember you. And the next time you hear one of those things, remember these words, let a knowing smile creep over your face, and go enjoy your day!

Art and Life

In the echoing words of Oscar Wilde “Art can make life”, I concede this truth especially when it comes to the power of theatre. On stage whether metaphorically or literally we, the audience watch life unfurl onstage. we capture moments of pure truth that touch our soul. I believe theatre has the power to change our perspective; it has the power to show us new forms and if we let it has the power to open up our minds.