Fight Scene

by David Hollander MFA ’97

Sterling Swann stands between two brawling students, like a high-school teacher intervening in hallway fisticuffs. Then he says, “It has to land here,” and throws a hard jab at one of the pugilists. Her head snaps back and there’s a slap that seems to confirm contact, but in reality Swann’s punch has missed by half a foot. “You have to hide it,” he says congenially. “And you,” he tells the actor he seems to have struck, “have to sell it.” They both nod, determined, and resume their scene, which includes hair-pulling, choking, and at least one satisfyingly loud open-handed slap.

Swann has been teaching the fine art of pretend-violence to Sarah Lawrence theatre students for over a decade, and in 2010 he formalized the role, receiving his combat teaching certification from the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD). Stage combat has become part of the wider repertoire of any modern actor: many stage dramas climax in violence, and if the audience is going to remain in that magical state of suspended disbelief, the violence must seem real—while remaining safe and controlled. “The fighting has to be seamless,” Swann says. “It should be like a music score—it supports the drama, but doesn’t replace it.”

An official SAFD fight master comes to campus at the end of each term to adjudicate the students’ performances; to be certified as actor-combatants, they have to show proficiency in two weapons as well as in unarmed combat. “Stage combat isn’t just about the fighting,” Swann says. “It’s about being present and engaged as an actor.” (And also, it’s about the fighting.)