Field Dispatches

Switching Places Under Fire

The Hammer Trinity
, playgoers may recall, was composed of three plays, spread out over twelve hours (albeit with plenty of intermissions). What nobody but the opening day/night audiences witnessed, however, was an actor playing one of the main roles dislocating his shoulder during the first installment and his understudy stepping in, script in hand, for the remaining six hours of myth-infused action and reading from text during the final showdown, "he fights fiercely, seeming to be everywhere at once" while delighted spectators cheered the imaginary swordplay.

The incident did not go forgotten. When TimeOut magazine announced the winners of their Theater Awards, the recipients in the Critic's Picks division included the following citation from chief reviewer Chris Vire:

"Best under-rehearsed swordplay: Aaron Latterell, The Hammer Trinity" - "Latterell, an understudy for the House Theatre of Chicago’s nine-hour fantasy trilogy, previously unknown to me, had to go on for the injured JJ Phillips at a press performance, despite not having had an actual understudy rehearsal yet. The show was delayed about twenty minutes as he and the cast went through a careful fight call, but once the lights went up, Latterell never betrayed any hesitation with a line, thrust or parry. Casting directors: This guy knows from heroic efforts."

Sword-thief caught in Flagrante Delicto at Colorado RenFaire

It's not the first time that a Renaissance Fairegoer has succumbed to a combination of summer sunshine, immersive fantasy and strong ale, but when a drunken churl at the Colorado Renaissance Faire tried to steal a knight's weapons, he should have expected some retaliation.

Ironically, it wasn't the Noble Cause jouster who first responded when an audience member took advantage of the performance-in-progress to jump the tiltyard fence and attempt to remove a sword sheathed in a hay-bale. No, it was the knight's wife, sitting in the audience with their infant child in a stroller, who took immediate action, leaving the baby in the care of bystanders and proceeding to pursue, tackle and pin the thief in a headlock until police arrived.

All this was accomplished, by the way, in view of several thousand spectators, with both parties dressed in full period costume. Stephen Chapman, a freelance photographer who caught the whole thing (see, told the Denver Post, "I thought they were playing until she took him down in a headlock,"

The Ever-Expanding Swordsmen Clan

After nearly twenty-five years as one of the highest-paid acts on the Renaissance Faire circuit, the Swordsmen cohort just keeps getting bigger. First Doug Mumaw and David Woolley, aka Dirk Perfect and Guido Crescendo, introduced their distant cousins, the Bold and Stupid Men (Jeff McLane and Mike Mahaffey as Bolt Upright and Gianni Vespa, John Bellomo and J. Alex Cordaro as Dash Valiant and Garibaldi Fortissimo). Then, in the summer of 2012, when health reasons kept Woolley from fulfilling his contract at the Bristol Faire, Sam Hubbard took on his role under the title of younger brother Bravo Crescendo.

Nobody sustained any injuries this year, mirabile dictu (that's Latin for "Whew! What a relief!"), but Mumaw has signed on to directing a pair of historical pageants in North Carolina, so the Swordsmen appearing at Oklahoma's fabled Muskogee Castle will reveal another fighting relationPierce Perfect, played by multiple award-winning fight designer Geoff Coates.

Are there sisters lurking in the wings, do you think—a Coloratura Crescendo, perhaps, or a Gert Perfect? Claire Yearman, Kathrynne Wolf, Alison Dornheggan and Missy Styles, are you available for some outdoor swashbuckling sport?

nt-Doubling As Bouncers in L.A.

Every so often, a fight spills over the fourth wall unexpectedly. Actors have been known to cross the footlights and scold disruptive audience members (playgoers know to shut off their cellphones when Brian Dennehy is in the cast), but apparently they play even rougher out on the frontiers of Hollywood.

A production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at Repertory East Playhouse, it was reported, had been repeatedly interrupted by a drunken theatergoer whose harrassment continued unabated by any response from the company management (apparently SoCal theaters don't hire security) until it finally breached the level of tolerance when its perpetrator called Brick Pollott, played by Anton Troy, a "faggot." According to a witness seated in the house, Brick's father "Big Daddy" Pollott, played by John Lacy, then stepped off the stage to confront the heckler.

"It was almost like he [Big Daddy] was still in character," said the witness, who assisted in escorting the offender out the door amid applause from the audience. Lacy then asked, "Is everybody okay? Do you want us to continue?"  Everybody did.

The aftershock occurred when Lacy was fired in retribution for his action, prompting Troy to also quit the show, forcing its producers to cancel the remainder of its run. Both actors defend their stance, Troy declaring, "I support my cast mate. John is a seasoned professional and an honorable man. It should never escalate to a point where the talent has to handle an unruly drunk in the audience themselves, regardless of the outcome. This fish stinks from the head on down."

Fighers on the Off-Broadway Bench

This is what happens when you gotta violence designer on the judges' panel. No sooner did the Village Voice appoint Rick Sordelet to the selection committee for the Off-Broadway/Off-Off-Broadway awards (aka "Obies") than honors went to Emmanuel Brown and Sonya Tayeh for their collaborative martial arts-dance instruction in Signature Theatre's premiere production of Kung Fu, David Henry Hwang's biodrama recounting the life and times of action-film star Bruce Lee. With an experienced eye assisting in the decisions, look for theatrical combat to enjoy increasing recognition even in a tradition-bound citadel like New York City.

Two Wars (Not with Each Other), But Only One Field

In plays, families frequently wage war on their fellow citizens over land disputes, but what happens when two very different kinds of shows, both relying on likewise diverse representations of theatrical violence, suddenly find themselves at odds?

Our Class, Remy Bumppo Theatre's account of a Polish village's persecution under the Nazis, the Russians and their own neighbors was drawing sellout crowds to the Greenhouse Theatre Center's ground floor auditorium, sparking rumors of an extended run. What was unanticipated was the Greenhouse's upstairs rental going to Chicago Commercial Collective's remount of the star-making centerpiece in Steppenwolf's 2012 Garage series, Hit The Wall—a docudrama of the Stonewall Riots of 1968, recounted with drama-verité intensity fueled by Ryan Bourque's rampant physical violence and a live rock-and-roll band spewing forth electric thunder.

The ensuing clash of sound systems was not wholly unforeseen. As long ago as 1979, a production of Athol Fugard's two-person Statements After an Arrest in the downstairs space was consistently disrupted by Stephen Wade's Banjo Dancing, a one-man-with-acoustical-instrument show whose enthusiastic hand-clapping foot-stamping audiences could be heard in every part of the building.

Noise-bleed is a common hazard found in playhouses carved out of industrial architecture. Indeed, one of the first rehab chores of businesses proposing to convert storefront, warehouses or municipal offices to theaters is to soundproof the common walls—something that both the former and present owners of the Greenhouse obviously neglected to do. What fight designers can do to guard against warring occupancies leading artists to stressed relations where none are needed, is to ensure that theater managers, directors, and all creative staff are made aware of any special effects encroaching on the surrounding environment—whether it be sight, sound or smell, the 1812 Overture or the Battle of Agincourt.

Don't Fall On Your Sword 


This winter's long stretch of knee-deep snow and icy curbsides saw a few aged cavaliers utilizing swords for ambulatory assistance on treacherous ground-surfaces. This practice is not only ineffective—wet blades will rust and then snap in two under the slightest stress—but likely to get you arrested. Just because a wall-hanger isn't a very good weapon doesn't mean it won't attract suspicion. (Try walking the streets brandishing an unsheathed bread knife and see what it gets you.)

Ah, but those swashbucklers for whom a cane is infra dig will be elated to hear that the correct equipment for guarding against frozen spills also displays the swagger of a fighting implement. An alpine climbing staff will make the owner look like a member of the Adventurer's Club™, and a stout wooden cudgel (in a pinch, you can always fake one with a broom handle) will conjure visions of Celtic lairds laying brigands to waste along dark country hedgerows.

In surroundings where the prospect of violence is less common, however, both are handy for testing the depth and texture of potential obstacles, as well as providing an instrument for maintaining their owner's center of gravity—balance being the real key to navigating potholes, pavement fissures and other irregularities in urban terrain.

Steep Theatre's Motortown Scares away Audiences

"There's an extremely disturbing and violent scene in Steep Theatre's Motortown" cautioned Windy City Times critic Scott Morgan, "Theatergoers averse to onstage depictions of mental and physical abuse would be advised to avoid it." He later went on to issue potential viewers another warning concerning the play's "flashes of ugly and unsettling violence." Keith Griffith of the Chicago Reader declared, "The violence in Simon Stephens's twisted drama is so grotesque that, on opening weekend of this Steep Theatre staging, one viewer got up and left, trailed by the envious gaze of several Jeff committee members."

"Yes, I staged some violence," admits fight designer Matt Hawkins, "but I'm not sure it's all that intense." The scene that shocked critics out of their customary indifference to theatrical combat, according to William Endsley's reconnaissance report (Click for review), involves burning with cigarettes, threatening incineration wth flammable liquids, a shooting at point-blank range and floods of blood, all occurring at close quarters to spectators. Audiences frequenting storefront auditoriums—notably Profiles and Mary-Arrchie—are by now accustomed to gallons of flying gore, however, and gunfire is likewise frequently heard in the confines of loft and basement playhouses. So what made this homicide different?

Could it be the exhibition of the victim's terror—a phenomenon sometimes dubbed the Sadism Factor? (For an illustration, compare the television series Person of Interest, with its high body count almost wholly comprised of thugs dying instantaneously, to  Criminal Minds, where a large portion of screen time is devoted to the agony of the helpless captives.) Whether Motortown's error was its actual violence, or the reactions of the characters witnessing it, it appears to have pushed playgoers' attentions out of the story in progress onstage. In the future, directors asking their fight designers to defy the limits of cultural norms defining "tasteful" restrictions on graphic spectacle might reassess their projected levels of audience discomfort merely as a matter of practical consideration.

Smoke 'Em if You Got 'Em: The Return of Cigarettes Onstage

After years of cumbersome subterfuges—like the "faulty lighter" trick (where the durn thing just won't ignite) and the"dry burn" (where the actor mimes lighting up and then conducts the necessary stage business with an unlit cigar, pipe, etc.)—increasing numbers of theaters are taking advantage of a commercial invention called the "electronic cigarette." This device consists of a plastic replica cigarette equipped with a mechanism for delivering its contents to its operator without scattering it into the surrounding atmosphere. Originally designed to dispense nicotine to those desiring it without disturbing those who don't, it can be modified to expel harmless water vapor not unlike the "stage smoke" employed, in larger volume, as a scenic element.

When you also take into consideration the actor's option not to inhale the vapor, but instead, to let it waft from the "glowing coal"—actually produced by an LED, thereby skirting fire codes—what you have is a ready-made prop allowing theaters to once again stage period plays requiring smoking as part of their action. Hard evidence of this phenomenon is the announcement of an upcoming Illinois production of Jean Kerr's Mary, Mary.

In this once-popular romantic comedy, tobacco consumption is built into the very fiber of the plot: the estranged lovers recount how they met amid the sidewalk smokers at a play's intermission. All but one of the characters indulges in what was, at one time, a ubiquitous social custom, and its rites and paraphernalia—packaging, ornamental containers, ashtrays—are frequently referenced. When the time comes for the couple to reunite, the event bringing them together is a frantic scrabble to find a cigarette and their shared distress at the prospect of failure in their mission. (The non-smoking contender for the affections of the ambivalent gentleman expresses bewilderment at their frenetic search, thus affirming her status as Miss Very, Very Wrong.)

So rejoice, all you Marlborough men, femme fatales, evil generals and prisoners facing firing squads! Directors, feel free to choreograph scenes where characters puff smoke (flirtatiously or scornfully), scratch matches in dark alley, or wave long ivory holders about and say "daaahling!" repeatedly. As long as they're the glorified drinking-straw variety,  you can once again defiantly—and safely—brandish your "cancer-sticks" with impunity and oh-so-daring panache.

Real Fight at Chicago Shakespeare

It's a scene you often see enacted in honky-tonks, but seldom expect to find transpiring on an opening night at the posh Chicago Shakespeare Theater, nor would you imagine the participants to be members of the press and the Joseph Jefferson awards committee. That said, guests at the post-show reception for Henry VIII nevertheless recounted how a certain theater critic notorious for his lengthy unsolicited diatribes cornered a Jeff judge and proceeded with his customary did-you-see-so-and-so's-play-let-me-tell-you-what-I-thought-of-it attack, only to have his target's companion order him away angrily, advancing on him, and straight-arming him across the room toward the main lobby.

Thus rousted, the intruder retreated before blows were exchanged, but was reported to have demanded that the management call the police and have his adversary arrested. The lady's gallant protector, in the meantime, was assured by those observing the incident that the audience sympathies were on his side, even to being commended by your writer of stage combat stories on his excellent strategy in propelling the skirmish in the direction of a crowd while making clear the source of his fury.

As a witness noted afterward, "Conflict among theatre critics is often heated because the stakes are so low, but sometimes a boor just gets what he asks for." Shakespeare couldn't have said it better.

Smash, Crash & Flying Glass

Movies have accustomed audiences to deafening crashes followed by showers of flying glass, but when such spectacle must be executed night after night in enclosed spaces, the hazards—not to mention the cost—usually make fight designers look for other ways of producing that primal thrill associated with sheer anarchic destruction. What do you do, though, when the play is Long Way Go Down, and the Jackalope Theatre production requires a cornered combatant to defend himself by smashing a bottle against his attacker's head?

The cheapest way of staging this scene is to station a stagehand backstage with instructions to drop a box of broken crockery at the instant of impact, after which the attacker brings his hand up into view and brandishes his jagged-edged bludgeon. The most expensive way is to import bottles made from boiled sugar, long the mainstay of Hollywood studios. Alex Farrington rejects both solutions.

"Sugar-glass hasn't been used since the 1980s! When the pieces separate and fall on the floor, they sound like plastic. In humid theaters, instead of breaking, sugar-glass bends, and it also has a tendency to melt in actors' hands. Breakaway bottles nowadays are more likely to be made of resin, which is far more brittle, allowing them to disintegrate with less force. Oh, and after the show every night, the broken bits can be collected for the manufacturer to recycle." (Asked where one procures these resin facsimiles, Farrington claims access to a "secret supplier" whom he refuses to name.)

How then, did he contain the resin shards spraying in all directions? "The blow was angled upstage toward a small pocket on the set where the fragments could collect. We were also lucky that the scene was followed by some action on the other side of the stage, so our actors had time to clear away any debris that might trip them up."

That's a lot of trouble for a one-second effect, but Farrington declares it worth the preparation. "The director and playwright wanted [that moment] to be very abrupt, very unexpected and very alarming. Breakaway effects may be hard, but in the end, the payoff is phenomenal!"

Breaking Props in Steppenwolf-on-Broadway's Virginia Woolf

The Steppenwolf 50th anniversary production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf arrived on Broadway in October, and Moulinet field correspondent William Endsley was there to see how New York audiences received Edward Albee's drama of marital warfare served up Chicago-style by the theater company renowned for its visceral physicality.

“Associated Press critic Mark Kennedy’s review of the opening night performance noted a mishap in the second act where a desk lamp was accidentally broken, but safely restored by the third. He returned to this incident several times, saying, 'If only the characters onstage were as easily repaired ... this group adds even more illumination, despite the broken lamp' and concluding 'A lamp may have been sacrificed, but this is a production that burns brightly nevertheless.'

"I was there on a subsequent night to cover the play's literally-rendered fights, but as a former stage manager, I'm also trained to watch out for lights, props, spills and other stage elements. So for me, the suspense-generating question became, when and how did they break the lamp?”

"In the first act, Martha grabs George around the neck and smacks his face a couple of times to wake him up for the fight—affectionate rough-housing that sets up the fracas to come (and producing more laughs than I'd expected.)"

"Later the tone grows darker as Martha describes an entertainment in which she and George participated in a boxing match. They attempt to restage it in the living room, with Martha attacking George from across the stage. As Honey jumps on the couch, cheering 'vi-o-LENCE! vi-o-LENCE!', Nick pulls Martha off her opponent and swings her away—ah, the broken lamp moment! Tonight, though. Nick prevails in keeping George and Martha separated and the light fixture survives.”

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ran at the Booth Theatre through March 24, 2013.