Bits ‘n’ Pieces: Stage combat instructor aims to give performances punch

By Ashley Swanson, Columbian Features News Coordinator



A punch that the audience sees coming is something David Bareford wants to avoid. As a stage combat instructor, Bare- ford teaches actors how to engage with fisticuffs in a way that is realistically believable. “I think that the important thing in any stage fight is not that any audience can explain moves, but they must know what’s going on between characters,” he said.

Bareford calls himself a violence designer over the more traditional fight choreographer. “A lot of things that happen in a play are violent, that aren’t fights,” he said. “The cool thing about designing violence, every choice I make develops character.” Like an actor saying a playwright’s lines, Bareford’s choice of how an actor will commit stage violence gives even more depth to character, he said.

Bareford moved to Woodland in 2012 from Chicago, where he had spent 16 years with Richard Gilbert developing stage combat scenes for more than 200 theatrical productions. He became involved with Magenta Theater as the choreographer for the sword fight scenes in the April production of “Romeo and Juliet.” An aficionado of historical martial arts, Bareford said when he first learned stage sword fighting, he was taught to swing a sword like a steel baseball bat. That’s why his focus has been on using historical scholarship and realistic fighting to modernize stage combat techniques, creating what he calls the “Chicago School.”

Bareford will be offering an unarmed stage combat workshop titled “Put ‘Em Down, Take ‘Em Out: Close Quarters Violence for the 21st Century Theatre.” He will be teaching a variety of techniques and concepts that highlight his style.

“Audiences have gotten used to stage combat, but their senses aren’t fooled, and that is part what this class is about,” he said. “We have to change the way we do illusions so it’s fresh for our audience.”

In Chicago, Bareford noticed the standard techniques and illusions of traditional stage combat were not holding up to the type of theater Chicago liked to specialize in: intense dramas in small theaters. “Tricks that would work 40 feet away don’t work when the audience is four feet from the stage,” Bareford said. He felt it was a disservice to the playwrights who were using violence to create an impact with their audiences.

It has become increasingly difficult to get 21st century audiences to believe in stage violence, thanks to growing realism in cinema and television, Bareford said.

“I want the audience to see the story of characters in violent relationships, not actors doing stage combat,” Bareford said.

The key is making sure the stage combat is safe, repeatable and involves some actual struggle. Bad stage combat is easy to identify, Bareford said, when the audience sees two actors cooperating as they go through the choreography.

Instead, Bareford teaches “cooperative struggle.” If the script says a character is struggling with a person, “I want to make you really have to pull away from me,” he said.

“It should be personal, painful and desperate. I’m trying to hurt you to death, but the stakes are so high that all I can do is fight,” Bareford said.

The stage combat workshop will begin at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 8 and run Mondays through Oct. 6 at Magenta Theater, 606 Main St., Vancouver. The class costs $95 and is open to ages 16 and older. Visit to sign up.

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