Taking notes on the details of your choreography is essential. You don’t often have the fight director there every day to make corrections and adjustments every rehearsal (you run your fights every day, right?). You’ll have a fight captain or some manner of outside eye, but without the specifics you’ll end up using valuable time during your fight director’s next visit just correcting the details you’ve forgotten.
Therefore, we have to be sure that we have the details specified by the fight director for each moment of the choreography. Nowadays, it’s tremendously simple to grab someone’s phone or tablet and take a quick video to document the choreography. I like to be sure to take two versions of the choreography:
- The whole piece of choreography at a speed at which the performers can move with accuracy and flow (no stopping unless it’s part of the scene). Include the dialogue.
- The whole scene very slowly, speaking through the choreography as it happens. Have the performers or the fight director say all of the targets and defences as you perform them: “Verezzi comes en garde in tierce, Bernardo enters distance and beats Verezzi’s blade aside in a high prime.” Also, make note of foot work and any specific notes that have been given. For instance: “watch your foot placement here”, “be sure to drive them right back into the up left corner”, “this is where you usually drop your back arm so make sure you’re holding it up in the right place”.
BONUS version: The fight director and/or their assistant performs the fight, or sections of it! Be sure to use that video as a general reminder of what the form is supposed to look like, what the style is supposed to be, and perhaps the speed you’re aiming for.
By the way, be sure to check that everyone consents to have an archival video for rehearsal taken. Some unions require this, and of course, it’s good etiquette to ask before filming people. The rehearsal video is not for the public, unless there is a specific agreement stating the video may be used in that fashion.
Not so long ago we couldn’t simply film the rehearsal and then post it where everyone has access to it. Previously, people had to take the time to write out the piece or develop rehearsal practices to be sure they retained the information. Those who did a lot of fight performances generally developed their own methods of transcribing or had the kind of memory that retains physical movement. Worst-case scenario, performers forgot and wasted valuable rehearsal time trying to remember what was done at the last rehearsal (boo!). Nowadays, it’s so convenient to make a quick archival for a memory aid, that many people have fallen out of the practice of writing out the choreography. I can understand why: it takes a lot of time to do during a phase of rehearsal when brains are already tired.
However, writing out your choreography is tremendously beneficial.
I’m not saying to stop taking video! Rather, I encourage you to both take video and write detailed choreography notes. During my study with Brad Waller at the ACA in Washington, DC, one of the Masters students in the acting class remarked on how grounding it was to have his choreography written out. When acting, we are constantly going back to the script, consulting the text, re-reading passages. We’re looking to see if we’ve missed anything or if information we’ve gleaned during rehearsal of other scenes will shed light upon the text. On a purely technical level, sometimes we’re just checking to see if we are actually saying the right words in the right order.
Likewise, when we’re working on the fight choreography of a scene, sometimes it’s eye-opening to consult our transcription of the actions. Indeed, if we think of the fight as physical dialogue, it’s best to have that “text” written out so that we can easily refer to it, perhaps gleaning new information when we do, or even just having a place to make notes on the action. It also gives us new ways to examine the fight scene, which we’ll look at in future blog posts.
Meanwhile (after the longest pre-amble a blog post has ever had), here are a few ideas for writing out your fight choreography. You can do it with good old-fashioned pen and paper, but by putting it into a digital file it can be reprinted when changes need to be made, or if the working copy gets too messy or mashed-up. Whether by hand or digitally, leave a margin large enough to take notes.
To speed up your transcription process you might invest in voice recognition software or set up macros in your word processor. If you’re typing or writing out by hand, you’ll find that your reference video of the choreography is really handy to watch and listen to! However, you might take the opportunity to see how much you retained. Try writing out the choreography from memory, and then use the reference video to congratulate yourself on how accurately you remembered the scene (we’re optimists here: we assume that you got almost everything down accurately).
Everyone’s brain works differently and your format should be something that’s useful to you. Here are a couple common practices to get you started:
The simplest set up is three columns: person 1, directional arrow describing who attacks whom, person 2. Write the attack and its corresponding defence or the successful contact under the appropriate person. In the centre column, put an arrow from the attacker pointing at the responder. Of course, the attacker is obvious when you read the actions, but for easy reference, arrows help the eye track the flow of the scene. You might add another column to number the exchanges, so that if you and your partner are working from the same “script” you can use the numbering to describe which exchange you’re referring to. Personally, I find that numbering can put performers in their heads, and I generally refer to the story of the scene (“your attack after he tells you to defend yourself”) or by the sequence of the choreography (“your thrust at the top of the second phrase”).
You may want to add additional columns on the outsides:Write any notes to self in the outer columns. Those notes should include what safety feature is being used and any other information you found particularly useful whether that be related to the execution of the moves.
The Running Dialogue
Some people prefer this layout because it’s a constant reminder that the fight scene is a physical dialogue, not simply a bunch of moves. It encourages a “they speak and then I speak” conversational awareness within the fight. Some actors find the script-like layout is more familiar and so, easier to work with.
You might choose to have the physical actions beside the character’s name, and any character notes on the next line:
Making Your Own Shorthand
At first, the reader needs a legend to read the notation, however, shorthand makes the chart more visual and is great for a quick reference in the long run. It’s also great for quickly jotting notes after a run. It can be particularly useful if you know you’re going to be doing a lot of fighting. Sometimes when there are many fights or long sequences, keeping the various pieces clear can become challenging. If you have a shorthand you’re familiar with, it’s easy to refresh your memory at a glance. You’ll want to have your translation key on hand until you get used to it. That said, shorthand can sometimes add a layer of mental processing, when all you really want is to remember what you’re doing without having to translate in your head. As always, use a method that best facilitates your process.
Take the time to write out your fight. You’ll confirm the details of your choreography immediately, and give yourself another method to reference the fight, making your rehearsal more efficient. It also allows you to dive into the material from a different angle. Consequently, you get familiar with the scene and its movement more efficiently, allowing you to get more comfortable with the action and get to the exploration of the scene much sooner.
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