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Talking Shop: Stage Combat Secrets

Broadway Inbound

At 9 AM on a Monday morning, you wouldn’t expect a group of high schoolers to be this awake, let alone this excited. But as the 30 or so students file into the rehearsal room at Pearl Studios, there’s energy in the air.

Some of them set their bags down along the wall and look around expectantly, while others talk eagerly in small group. A few take advantage of the floor-to-ceiling mirrors to practice their tap dancing.

They’re part of a high school musical theatre group from upstate New York—a mix of performers, crew, and musicians—and they’ve spent the weekend in the city attending workshops and seeing shows. In their first workshop they learned “All That Jazz” from Chicago before seeing it performed that evening.

But today’s workshop is different, something most of them have never had the opportunity to try before: stage combat.

As the instructors Anastasia and Johnny explain, stage combat takes things that would otherwise be unsafe and makes them safe. What looks like a violent fight to the audience is more like a technical partner dance to the performers.

The students are in good hands. Both Anastasia and Johnny have trained with the legendary Rick Sordelet, who has worked on over 40 Broadway shows and has taught stage combat for decades. They explain that technique is what keeps everyone safe, and they stress the importance of paying attention at all times.

After a quick warm-up, the group is set to learn their first move. Johnny and Anastasia square off with their hands on each other’s shoulders and begin to struggle, pushing each other back and forth. Johnny explains how the person with their hands on the inside is the one who is really leading the movement and how the other person is really just following along.

One student raises her hand, “are you really supposed to push?”

Anastasia walks over to her and gently places a hand on her arm. Then she grabs her tightly. Well, it looks like she does. “Do you feel that?”

The student shakes her head no. Anastasia explains that simply by putting tension in her hand it looks like she’s gripping tightly, by putting tension in her body it looks like she’s shoving hard, but really the movement is very fluid and gentle.

As the students pair up and try it out for themselves they are reminded that “intensity, not speed” is what makes the fight look real while keeping everyone safe.

And it does look real. The first time the instructors lock arms and demonstrate a struggle the room falls silent and gets tense. When they break apart and a punch is thrown there are several audible gasps as Johnny doubles over in pain—then he stands up smiling.

It’s about storytelling, they explain, reframing the unfamiliar physical work in a context these students already understand.

They go on to cover hair pulls, several punches, tackles and—importantly—how to fall safely. As the pieces come together, the sounds in the room begin to change. The students are laughing less, they’re still having fun, but they’ve stopped feeling so self-conscious, and they’re really selling the fight.

When it’s time to go they file out the way they came in, talking about where they might be able to fit their newly learned skills into their upcoming production of 42nd Street.

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Author: Christine Nyland