Sleight of Fist

by Suzanne Walters Gray MFA ’04

SlegLike a skilled magician, a successful stage combatant sells his routine by using the audience's limited sight lines to his advantage. It requires good footwork, but also good teamwork. "Stage combat teaches partnering and trust under some pretty extreme conditions," says SLC theatre faculty (and certified stage combat instructor) Sterling Swann. "And it's easily the most exciting way to earn PE credit at Sarah Lawrence."

Sleight of Fist

Knap Time

"Where's the knap?" Sterling Swann asks these brawling actors. He's not suggesting that they look sleepy. A "knap," in stage combat parlance, is the smack of a blow hitting its mark (or seeming to), made surreptitiously by whichever performer is best positioned to obscure the sound's source.

In photo 1, you can see Katie Kurtzman '15 "landing" her punch, which she drives through the target (which happens to be the face of Saibi Simran Khalsa '15), creating the impression— from the audience's vantage—of contact. But the illusion is only effective because of its audio component. In photo 2, snapped from upstage, you can see Khalsa's palm slapping Kurtzman's leg. The attacker's crouching form keeps it all hidden.

"It could definitely be louder," Swann says. "Don't worry, Saibi—you're not gonna hurt her." In fact, this kind of light contact—a knap made against a leg or chest, or a controlled tumble to the stage floor—is all in a day's combat. "The students are learning how to safely engage one another on stage," Swann says. "It's all about control."

Don't Knap in Public

Sleight of Fist

A simple way to hide a knap is to put the aggressor's back to the audience. In this sequence of photos, Jon Athon Culver '14 is himself a human shield as he makes his openhanded attack (photo 3).

In photo 4, you can see his opponent, Emma Lipschutz '13, setting her hands to make the knap; she keeps them low and completely obscured by Jon's body. When the blow is delivered (photo 5), her head snaps back and she claps her hands together with gusto, holding them tight to her body to maximize concealment. Even Swann is impressed by the volume of the (apparent) strike. "Emma is really good with knaps," he tells me with obvious pride.

In fact, Culver and Lipschutz are experienced athletes with outstanding body control, which helps them sell every aspect of this illusion. They seem to be playing for keeps; Jon swings with enough aggression to distract the audience from everything but the shock of impact, and Emma lets out a little cry as she's "struck."

A Soft Spot for Sword Fights

Sleight of Fist

"You can really sell this one with your reaction," Swann tells Jeremy Pearson '13. He turns to Emily Johnson '13. "And Emily, try not to look so bored. You're about to kill a man."

A classic hidden-sight-line maneuver, this killing thrust seems to deeply pierce Pearson's side (photo 6). But in reality, his gloved hand is catching the foil's (filed-down) point (photo 7) and grasping it tightly enough for Johnson's strength to bend the blade.

"The trick is in the angle of delivery," Swann tells them, correcting their placement on stage for optimal concealment. Then he backs off and has them go through the motion several more times, with increasing speed. "That looks really good," he grins from his position downstage.

"Single Sword is still my favorite," Swann later says. It was the first weapon he trained in, back in 1979. Many stage combat aficionados share his partiality; as the late Hollywood fencing guru Bob Anderson once said, "When you get into a sword fight, you're standing toe to-toe with someone who's trying to kill you and you're looking him in the eye—now that's thrilling."

A Bloody Shame

Sleight of Fist"I'm glad I remembered to leave my blood kit by the door this morning," Swann says, adding to a growing tally of sentences most of us will never have the pleasure of uttering. He squirts some deep-red acrylic into a plastic baggie, cinches it tight, and advances on Jeremy Pearson with the masking tape. "Oh man, I'm gonna get stabbed again," Pearson groans (photo 8).

Sleight of Fist

Sleight of Fist

This time, it's daggers at close quarters. After Julia Sinclair '12 parries Jeremy's initial thrust by grabbing hold of his wrist (which also helps her remain balanced), she drives her own weapon home (photo 9). Of course, the blade is actually gliding right past Jeremy, upstage and hidden from view. When he brings his palm down to grab at his fresh (non)wound, he's actually driving the flat of the dagger onto the blood bag, which explodes on contact (photo 10).

"Don't complain to me," Julia says to her gore-streaked opponent. "I wanted to get stabbed." Swann commiserates. "Don't worry, Julia, someone will kill you next time."

Keeping it in the Family

Sleight of Fist

Swann is certified to teach seven forms of armed combat: Knife, Quarterstaff, Broadsword, Small Sword, Single Sword, Rapier and Dagger, and Sword and Shield (photo 11). He packs up his impressive array of theatrical weapons the way some humans pack a briefcase.

The love of theatrical violence runs in the Swann family. Sterling met his wife of 30 years in a stage combat class (they squared off in a scene from a Western and went on to work together in the stage-combat ensemble Fights-R-Us). His son Trevor, 23, is an advanced actor combatant with the SAFD, and sometimes assists Sterling with productions. And his daughter Casey? Well, she’s not in the business, though she’ll soon be able to treat its consequences. "She's studying to be a chiropractor," Swann says with a smile. "Every stage combat family needs one of those."