Q: Who should I study Stage Combat with?
A: Everyone you possibly can.
Stage Combat is an art and everyone has a different way of doing it. You will learn something useful from every teacher. Indeed, every scene partner you have will be a unique experience, and will teach you something about how to work.
Even Classical Ballet — an artform that has a set syllabus with right and wrong ways to do things — has half a dozen styles, each with its own characteristics and slight variations in technique and expression. Among those, each and every teacher has a different way of describing the movement, different images for expressing an idea, varied experience with dancers’ bodies and specific issues, not to mention different personalities. So you can imagine that in Stage Combat — an extremely young artform with no world-wide governing body to place guidelines for syllabus or progression — there is an extraordinary variety out there. Each teacher has their own backgrounds (mime, dance, acting, martial arts…), experiences (their own teacher(s), schools, work record) and preferences (screen or stage, favourite weapon(s), or a generalist,) to draw upon. Even if you learn only what not to do, every instructor will have something useful for you.
In my ideal world, actor/combatants will approach this art with the same dedication as a musician or a dancer in order to find their ultimate in expression, flexibiltiy of style, and full integration of acting and storytelling. One teacher or instructor cannot do this for you. Yes, there are many brilliant teachers out there, and you may think you have found the holy grail, but I assure you, that person has some habitual pattern that you cannot see when they are the only person you have studied with. (I’m not saying that your teacher is not a very knowledgable and talented person with a fantastic personality, only that he or she is still human.) In the worst scenarios, the student sees their teacher as “The Paragon Of All Stage Combat” and the teacher encourages the hero-worship. Furthermore, some of these people, in fear of losing jobs to other fight directors, instuctors, and eventually to their own students, will deter you from studying or working with anyone not approved by them — which is usually everyone else — with words like, “Fight Directing is incredibly dangerous. You shouldn’t attempt it without years of apprenticing,” or “Don’t work/study with that person: they’re incredibly dangerous; they’re completely unsafe.”
Let me respond first to the former statement. Many of the people who are now fight directors are largely self-taught. Years of experimenting have given them the skills they have today. I agree with an underlying idea of the former statement: there’s a lot involved in being a fight director and it’s to your advantange to spend some time as an apprentice to learn from the experience of others. However, my problem with the example above is that the language fosters a tone of fear, rather than one of education. In my opinion, you should start building your own fights as soon as possible. Grab a colleague and throw scenes together! You’ll practice choreographing and your acting. Grab a camera and add to your reel! If you are asked to direct fights in a non-union context, and you feel that you have enough time and skill to carry out the whole commitment, do it! If you’re nervous, you may consider having your instructor come in to “safety” your fights (a double-check that everything works), or have them sit in on the fight rehearsals and give you suggestions afterwards (potentially more nerve-wracking, but a different learning scenario). The exception is, if you’re asked to fight direct in a Canadian Equity situation, the theatre is actually obliged to seek fight directors from the CAEA list first.
To the latter statement, remember that, firstly, the person who says these things may be trying to scare you away from studying from anywhere but with them, again encouraging an atmosphere of trepidation, not one of knowledge and understanding. Secondly, you may not be able to see the layers of safety at first glance because another fight director or teacher may be using a principle that you are not familiar with. Stage Combat’s primary concerns are safety and telling the story, and there are many ways to achieve this, which is another reason for seeking as many teachers as possible. That said, there are certainly people that I would recommend over others, but this is solely based upon my own experience. “The Best” teacher to me, may be only so-so for you.
When seeking a teacher, remember these two things: safety is the number one priority, and this is an artform that tells a story! The purpose is to keep performers safe so that the scene can be performed night after night, and take after take. If you aren’t sure what’s making a move safe, ask. Your teacher should be able to show you precisely what makes this move repeatable, and what makes it sell to the audience. Be aware, and take care of yourself.
Above all, remember that you are not submitting to a doctrine or dogma, you are an independent learner and artist. Ask questions, build your repetoire and gain the widest breadth of experience you can manage. In this way, you can become an artist with full expression, a wide library of techniques and concepts, and be the most giving, caring, responsive and responsible scene partner that you can be.