Payson Burt - Payson is Certified as a Fight Director and Teacher of stage combat through the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD). For eleven years he served on faculty teaching movement/stage combat in Philadelphia at Temple University's professional training program. Other teaching credits include Curtis Institute of Music, the University of the Arts (Philadelphia), the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, University of Colorado and Cal Poly Pomona. He is currently teaching at North Carolina School of the Arts. Payson has taught internationally at various workshops including; Fight Directors Canada's National, the Paddy Crean and The International Stage Combat Workshop.
The Integration of historical styles.I'm charged with the task of defining my personal point of view of the integration of historical styles into the art of theatrical combat. In order to do so, I find myself needing to explain my experiences and views on stage combat and how they came about.
When I first started my study in stage combat 20 years ago, there was little historical depth. Historical styles were much more general: a simplified illustration would be that rapiers and smallswords differed mostly in the amount of cuts one performed. Over the years, I have witnessed with much satisfaction the growth of stage combat in the area of historical research. I remember being a young aspiring stage combatant / teacher asking questions and not getting answers, forcing some friends and I to do research on our own. I was very driven to expand my knowledge of historical styles, sometimes to the consternation of my peers and instructors. I was continually advised to "remember that stage combat is primarily a theatrical medium and our main objective is to tell a story." Good advice, and interestingly enough now I find myself saying the same thing today to students of the craft, especially as historical choices from western Europe are now being taught with a new fervor not seen since the Renaissance.
Interestingly enough, as I explored new styles based in history, the stronger my basic technique became. As if the outward exploration of forms and styles helped to distill, or refine, a more basic "foundation" that I found applicable to all weapons. The more I understood concepts such as form and line, the more choices became available to me as an actor. I found the most value in the fact that I could choose to deviate from form to highlight moments on stage. Also, at the same time, came the awareness of the universality of martial laws and that all systems from all cultures and times have common threads. It is this commonality that has helped crystallize my performance and makes my teaching more economical.
The entire world of Stage Combat has grown immensely in the last 25 years. What used to be in many cases the "fight guy" who would come in to teach the actors how to fence or box, has become an integral part of the production team. Fight directors are now responsible to safely stage and direct a scene with weaponry ranging from fists to pitchforks while integrating this event smoothly into the life of the production. One of the reasons this has come about is, as fight instruction has become more available, an influx of diverse theatre artists have now joined in the investigation. Actors, directors, teachers, movement specialists and many others have all joined what used to be a much smaller group and, in the process, they have widened the understanding of stage combat's role and helped it to be more respected in the industry. The needs of this craft has developed a system and pedagogy that is unique in the world of martial philosophy in that it is presentational instead of tactical. In other words, it is made to reveal intentions instead of hide them.
As the popularity of stage combat has grown, it's definitions have grown as well. Observe the multitude of stage combat troupes and historical reenactors forming around the country. In some cases it has become a sport; a physical activity for it's own sake. With others, there is an investigation of historical techniques. Even in the theatre stage combat manifests itself in many ways; the spectacle, such as "The Three Musketeers," where our hero laughs in the face of danger and fights off five of the cardinal's guards, or the gritty realism represented in a play such as "Oleanna." Because of this, it is sometimes hard to pin down a definition of a craft that has so many incarnations. It is this new popularity that has spurred such debate in the value of historical accuracy. For instance, a group of historical reenactors desire to show the public a demonstration of Elizabethan sword techniques. They put together a fight that clearly shows these sword techniques in a clear, well proportioned and accurate physical event; and in the process, they are performing stage combat. Now, this example and two actors performing the Tybalt / Romeo fight in Romeo and Juliet might have much in common, but there is a vast difference in the context and expression: yet they are both performing stage combat. Which has more validity? It depends on your point of view. With such a broad interpretation of our craft, discussion can be both complex and passionate.
Defining historical research's role in stage combat is a complex answer and I would not want to give the impression that I downplay the importance; quite the contrary. But it's like trying to define how much butter to put on your asparagus; everyone uses a different amount at different times. However, my perspective on this art has always been defined by my training and experiences as an actor. Over time, this perspective has been expanded by my experiences in competitive fencing, martial arts and my historical research, but that acquired knowledge has always been filtered by what I consider my main responsibility as a Fight Director or an actor in a dramatic production: to tell the story as dictated by the circumstances of the piece. I want the audience to experience the texture of a naturalistic act, not a reenactment of historical fact. On the other hand, on the occasions when I do a demonstration to inform an audience about history, or the craft of stage combat, my priorities change and the choreographed fight has a much different dynamic.
To further complicate things, stage combat in a dramatic situation, from my point of view, is about aborted intentions. The very nature of conflict is a world where intentions and form are not allowed to congeal as the opponent attempts to "disrupt" the other. As actors, I believe we need to be able to show good form which, in turn, allows you to show it dissolve in front of an audience as your character either exhausts their options, or the fight simply becomes "messy." This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the craft, but for me, the most rewarding. The hardest job of any actor is to be vulnerable on stage. This is especially true while fighting: allowing yourself the permission (supported by a safe, consistent technical skill) to lose a moment, or allow yourself to look unbalanced or weak. Appropriate use of this skill propels the craft of stage combat into an art. So, in this context, I find myself asking why does Tybalt lose to Romeo? Not because Romeo shows better form than Tybalt or is a better fighter, but because Tybalt is overrun by Romeo's passion for Mercutio's death. Historically accurate moves then become secondary to the overall intention of the piece. Compared to Tybalt's first fight with Mercutio, I doubt Tybalt shows good form as he desperately tries to hang on while this madman blindly attacks him. As a fight director, I would need those actors to have the ability to show good form in the first fight which begins lighter in spirit, so that the second fight, in contrast, could be a messy, bloody collision of passion. So, after years of research, with so many styles to choose from, that vast vocabulary of moves I have built up simply becomes a way to define form: and form provides clarity which can create a deep contrast when I, as an artist, choose not to have good form for a particular moment on stage.
So what is the role of historical styles in stage combat? In my world, these styles provide that larger vocabulary, a bigger buffet table from which to choose appropriate moments in a fight. Whether I am performing in an interpretive piece within a fictional context, or reenacting a historical fact, it has great value. It informs my work, and just as any artist worth his salt will continue throughout his life to refine his technique and expand his horizons, historical research and the new styles emerging on a daily basis allow us more choices and more contexts to tell these stories.
As a Fight Director, Payson has over 100 credits including Theatre, Ballet, Opera and Film. He is currently the Fight Director for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.
Payson has had numerous articles on acting and stage combat published in various journals and is author of "Of Paces" a training manual for stage combat. He is chairman of the research committee for the SAFD.
Now based in LA, Payson is president and a founding member of the Los Angeles Fight Academy (LAFA): a non profit teaching institution dedicated to the "expressive body in motion".