This story was originally published by UNC Media Hub.
On a Sunday night, a small crowd files into the Carolina Ballet, shaking off the January cold and exchanging stories of recent productions: set changes in Playmakers Repertory Company’s Stick Fly and a double-sword fight scene in Studio 1’s Macbeth.
These people are actors, and they’re here to fight.
The dance studio is wide-open, with gray floors scuffed by the feet of countless past performers in countless past rehearsals. It’s a blank slate that still bears the echoes of everything it’s held. A cluster of spray-painted blue columns stands against one wall, and ballet bars circle the room. The floor-to-ceiling mirror along the front wall gives the room the appearance of being larger than it is.
Dressed in sweatpants, leggings and t-shirts for easy movement, 10 students spread across the floor, giving each other a wide berth for the weapons they wield.
It’s the first day of quarterstaff training. Six feet long, made of hickory or ash and polished to a smooth shine, the quarterstaff offers an important lesson in owning the space around you.
The resounding smack of wood hitting wood—with the staff occasionally clattering to the ground—echoes throughout the rehearsal space.
From teachers to directors to dramatic arts students, there’s a wide range of experience in the studio. Some of the students grip the staff uncertainly in their gloved hands, while others balance it easily, Comfortable with the muscle memory of previous training or performance.
This first class of the new semester is about getting comfortable with the basics; and, always, it’s about having fun.
Jeff A.R. Jones is a certified teacher and fight director who has been choreographing and teaching in the Triangle for more than 20 years. He choreographs for Carolina Ballet, Playmakers Repertory Company and several other theater companies throughout the Triangle.
For almost as long, Jones has taught this stage combat class each Sunday, now called the Collaborative Combat Movement Arts. The class, which is $20 per two-hour session, prepares students for certification in as many as eight different weapons, including short sword, broadsword, quarterstaff and unarmed combat.
Over the years, it has become a community for actors from the Triangle and beyond to connect through the precise technique of this shared passion.
The class is broken into semesters that roughly align with a college schedule. Each semester is devoted to one weapon in the rotating cast of eight. At the end of the training period, students have the option to perform for adjudicators who issue certificates in mastery of individual weapons. As certificates accumulate, participants can work up the rankings of the Society of American Fight Directors, the organization that certifies actors as fighters and teachers of stage combat.
Though stage combat training is not a requirement for most actors, it’s a skill that can enhance an actor’s overall performance and presence on stage.
And this training doesn’t just come in handy in elaborate Shakespearean brawls and swordplay. Even the briefest unarmed tussles require good technique and safety precautions to keep the actors safe and the performance convincing.
“Acting is all about conflict, and combat is the physical language of conflict,” Jones said.
Class begins with a warm-up of stretches and lunges, imaginary weapons raised high as a playlist shuffles everything from orchestral music to Pink’s “Raise Your Glass.”
Kira Cornell knits her brow in concentration, testing the weight of the staff. She spars with the air in front of her, feeling out the way one movement flows into the next.
A first-year dramatic arts major at UNC-Chapel Hill, Cornell first discovered her love of stage combat as a high school student in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
She’d been active in local and school theater, but something clicked for her when she began combat training.
She loves the community she finds in the art, as well as the way mastering fight techniques increases her confidence on stage and her ability to fully commit to a role. She dreams of one day becoming a certified teacher and fight director.
“Throughout my journey to workshops and classes, I love being around fight people,” Cornell said. “Getting to be around them for a point of time in the week is really, really great.”
Cornell remembers enacting dramatic stick sword fights in her backyard as a little kid, sparring with trees and imaginary opponents.
“Whenever I say I do stage combat, people who knew me as a little girl are like ‘Yeah, that makes sense,’” Cornell said. “I feel like this is what I was leading up to my entire life.”
One of the actors Cornell has become good friends with is also a UNC-CH student.
Benjamin Tarlton is a junior dramatic arts major who has been taking Jones’ class since 2016. UNC-CH does not offer a stage combat class for undergraduates, and Tarlton frequently receives requests from student theater groups to consult on fight scenes and choreography.
He initially discovered his love for stage combat when playing Edward in a 2016 production of Henry VI, and he’s now certified in five weapons.
Kira Cornell’s father, Jeff Cornell, is a dramatic arts professor at UNC and also a regular attendee of Jones’ Sunday night combat class. Though he’s participated in stage fights before, Jeff Cornell had limited fight training experience prior to this class. Through this study of technique and form, he’s found new ways to become fully immersed in scene and character while onstage.
“The form becomes a vessel into which you can throw yourself with release and abandon, which is, for a performer, what we’re always looking for — ways that we can be more spontaneous and less controlled,” Jeff Cornell said.
There’s no doubt that this training develops the motor skills, spatial awareness and technique necessary for a successful fight scene. But just as important, stage fight training also enhances trust and communication between actors and self-confidence both on and off the stage.
“It becomes a little lesson in life and, of course, our discipline,” Jeff Cornell said. “Whether it’s voice training or movement training or text work with Shakespeare, there’s a way that Hamlet doesn’t seem so intimidating because you’ve got tools to whittle it down to size and find your way into it.”
After spending an hour or so mastering the movement and getting comfortable with the staff, the class partners off and begins a slow motion sequence of attacks and defense.
Built into each move are the safety precautions necessary to make both parties feel comfortable and confident in the fight.
Slice one end of the staff toward your opponent’s side and let the other end land against the outside of your arm, absorbing the motion and controlling exactly when the swing stops. Rather than aim for the knee, aim just above it, so if anything goes wrong it doesn’t cause any serious injury.
As for blades, they are carefully dulled and tested before use.
After class, the students cluster at the front of the studio to exchange their quarterstaffs for single swords, last semester’s weapon. They partner off and launch into the choreography like a second language.
On one side of the room, Jeff and Kira Cornell engage in a graceful spar to the sound of metal singing against metal. On the other end of the studio, two students improvise a dramatic death scene. One lunges forward and the other deftly tucks the outstretched blade under his arm, letting out a dramatic wail and collapsing to the floor, gloved hand wrapped around the blunt metal blade.
He breaks into laughter, reaching up to grasp his partner’s extended hand. He brushes himself off, and they raise their swords, ready to fight again.
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