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Before I get started with this article, I would like to say that I am in no way endorsing abuse, violence, or carnage of any kind. Unless it’s on stage, in which case BRING IT ON! This isn’t intended to be some sick violence-glorifying statement, or statement on the perpetual warlike nature of humankind, but the fact is combat needs to be authentic when it’s called for in live theater. I say this because I recently saw a show (for the sake of the production I won’t name it, not that it matters for this article) which called for two acts of violence to occur. The first was supposed to be when a character in an interrogation suddenly snaps and punches the subject. The whole scene had been building up to this moment and when it finally happened – windup, hit the floor, windup, hit the floor – the only thought crossing my mind was, “Man, people don’t punch like that.” One lacking sequence may have been acceptable, but the next act was unforgivable.
At the final scene of the show, the lead character was going to be executed by being shot in the head. The moment finally came, the gun was drawn and… he just slumped forward. No muzzle flash, not even a sound effect. At this point the show earned the status of “Dud” for me. If you can’t perform the violence, at least don’t be lazy about it. Even if you were having trouble getting the sound to cue properly, creativity is the heart the heart of theater. I was once part of a production of Romeo and Juliet where Paris was killed by a bad guitar solo; the combat can easily be metaphorical.
We have a habit of censoring violence when it is on television, why is it so bad if its not in theater? Because theater is alive in front of you, the act of performing the violence in stage combat is just as important as performing a good dance number in musical theater. If it makes the viewer uncomfortable, then that’s what the playwright wanted to happen. You wouldn’t accept slapdash dancing and choreography in a musical would you? Why shouldn’t that same logic be applied to a straight play? If I can’t believe the violence, how can I believe any of the characters or their emotions? Of course I’m not talking about actual violence, theater is all about the art of making the not real convincing enough to be real and safe for the actor. Good combat is just as important to maintaining immersion as good acting – don’t neglect it. To paraphrase Anton Chekov, if there is a gun in the first act, it had better make a sound effect when it goes off in the third.
If you liked this, check out:
Thoughts on Theater: Film Adaptation