Monday, October 17, 2011

Falling Down on the Job

[Today’s Theatre Safety Blog post is presented by Guest Blogger and author Jenn Zuko Boughn.  She runs the Daily Cross Swords blog at and wrote the book Stage Combat – Fisticuffs, Stunts and Swordplay for Theatre and Film.  Jenn is an instructor at Metro State College in Denver, Colorado, and her student-run stage combat club can be found on YouTube.  Further information on the subject can be found at]

As a stage combat instructor (and performer); I always say that knowing how to fall properly is probably the most important movement skill one can learn.  The main reason for this is that it’s something that shows up in plays way more often than actual fight scenes do, and therefore is very often not accommodated for by the hiring of a fight choreographer or specialist.  Yet, an actor can be seriously injured if she merely hurls herself to the ground repeatedly without knowing what she’s doing.

When I teach advanced stage combat, I use different language when we learn basic skills for live theatre (stage falls), martial arts (break falls, rolls) and skills that are more for film, i.e. stunt work (being thrown, air break falls, falls from a height).  These three categories of how to fall down are vastly different in execution and are meant for very different things.

Live Theatre techniques are built for the world of the stage.  This means that actors, not stunt people or people who have training, are doing the falling.  They’re doing the falling in real time, on a hard stage floor, and with no special effects or safety equipment to speak of (barring knee pads and the like under a costume).  Most actors are not tumblers or martial artists with years of training, and even if they are, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to translate their falling skills from padded mats to a hard stage seamlessly.  Alongside the safety aspect of falling on a hard surface, there is the need for the fall to be theatrical—that is, an audience needs to be able to follow the physical move, not be yanked out of suspension of disbelief in concern for the actor, and most importantly the fall must be in line with the character’s arc. It’s not merely a cool move, it’s part of the story unfolding.

In live theatre falls an actor (again, not an expert) needs to be able to execute the move with all the above, multiple times.  A standard run for community or professional local theatre is around a month for rehearsal, and a month or two of performances.  An actor must be taught techniques that will allow them to perform these falls multiple times, often in short time frame, without injury.

Martial Arts techniques can be useful to a certain degree when it comes to staged combat for stage or film, especially as a style choice, but in general, martial arts falls aren’t a great idea for the stage.  Break falls and rolls are ways to cushion the blow of falling without undue injury when engaged in actual self defense.  The issues that arise from translating this to stage are threefold:
1)      Actual combat situations are much too fast and small for a live audience to be able to follow.
2)      Break falls and rolls on a hard floor will cause minor injury — even if done perfectly by someone with many years of training.  When done ‘adequately’ by someone who just learned how, they can result in devastating injuries.
3)      Rolling makes the character look particularly skilled in a unique way.  It’s rare that one actually plays a ninja on stage that would have these moves naturally occur within the course of the character’s story arc.  In other words, the martial arts version of falls, including rolling, can help anyone save themselves from in a variety of calamities from stage combat mistakes to slipping on the ice, but it can and will cause injury to the non-master, and is not nearly as theatrically useful.

Stunt work is different than stage combat falling in that the moves are inherently very dangerous, many not even possible to do on a regular hard stage.  This includes any falls that catch air, or come from tumbling mechanics, anything that must land from a height (even just a table), or anything that can’t be done without elaborate safety equipment in place, such as crash pads.
Stunt-type falling is typically done by a stunt person, not the actor, and is not done in real time, but rather in small bits, with many takes to ensure the best reaction makes it into the film.  Stunt work may be done repeatedly for the multiple takes, but not repeatedly in the same way over time that live theatre requires.  Wires, pads, and other equipment are available to help with the safety of the stunt person.  These things don’t violate an audience’s suspension of disbelief because they can be hidden off-camera, edited out, or otherwise concealed.

The only time that stunt-style falling can be appropriate for live theatre is if the stage itself is built for such things.  For example, the Spider-Man or Indiana Jones stunt shows seen at amusement parks are made with crash pads, wires, sprung floors, stunt people as actors, and other efforts to make the live show that is centered around the stunts.  In this case, the very visible equipment is part of the audience’s expectations, in that the show itself is not as much an immersive story but a display of skill.
This type of show is a different experience than what one would see in most live theatre, and in fact some current Broadway spectacle-musicals, such as Tarzan and Spiderman: Turn off the Dark tend to come under critical scrutiny because it’s apparent to an audience that the equipment is pervasive and clunky (which takes the audience out of the action), or the actors are in constant danger (which in effect does the same thing).

If an audience member is distracted by either too much equipment function showing, or by a true concern for the actors’ safety, there is no longer a suspension of disbelief, and therefore the audience is not engaged in an effective theatrical experience.

For falls on stage that not only work theatrically but are also safe, a trained fight choreographer must be used in the early rehearsal process, to embed the physical moves in the play in such a way that the actors may do their work without fear, and the audience may enjoy the piece without concern for their safety.

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