By Julia Reinhard Lupton
Although I’ve been teaching Shakespeare at UCI since 1989, I didn’t start hanging out in the theater until the New Swan Shakespeare Festival came into being five years ago. I still base most of my teaching and scholarship on the texts of Shakespeare, but I have been gleaning insights of another order from observing actors and designers stage the plays. How do theater makers approach a problem, tell a story, transmit an experience or build interest in their projects? And how can I extend those techniques to my work as a teacher, a scholar and a designer of programs?
I witnessed my first fight call during dress rehearsals for “The Comedy of Errors” at the start of the first season of the New Swan Shakespeare Festival. Half an hour before curtain time, the stage manager called the actors to run through every scene that involved fencing, wrestling or dances with lifts – any tricky physical routine that might endanger the actors or audience.
Watching a fight call is kind of like watching a movie trailer. You see all the action bits in sequence, played before your eyes in triplicate: first in slow motion, then at half speed and then at full tilt. A fight call leaves the actors limber, loose and ready to go. And the lucky observer (me) knows exactly how the falls are faked and the slaps kept happy.
Fight calls require trust: What looks like a sword fight happening in real time is actually a dance unfolding in rehearsed time. The actors learn to rely on each other and their muscle memory to take each other through to a safe and smooth finish. Specially trained fight choreographers work with the actors to create the illusion of spontaneous physical violence. Bam! Kapow! Not.
Now I see fight calls everywhere. When my teenage son and I badger each other (my driving and his clothes, my memory and his memes), we are stage fighting, letting bursts of hostility bounce off each other like bubbles, not rocks.
When I ask my students to debate the gender politics of a Shakespeare play, I try to give each group plenty of ammunition. “I’d never set you up for failure,” I reassure them. I want everyone who participates in our agon of words and ideas to rise from the ground triumphant.
When I anticipate trouble in a faculty meeting by sounding out a compromise in advance, I am engaging in a kind of fight call. If most meetings fall far short of ballet, I am relieved if they are closer to a tennis game than a riot.
“Fight call and physical theater are not just about combat. These arts visualize the rhythm of thinking itself.”
In devised or physical theater, the actors use the push and pull of their interlocking bodies to assume all the parts in a story – not just the human characters, but the furniture, the architecture and even the weather. In the original productions of UCI director Annie Loui, the whole rehearsal is an extended fight call.
I try to be like Annie when I bring diverse groups on campus into new shared arts enterprises (UCI Illuminations). Annie builds ships at sea out of bodies that move responsively with and against each other. I plan events that require many partners and processes to work in concert. The event is a ship, but so is the great university that floats it.
Fight call and physical theater are not just about combat. These arts visualize the rhythm of thinking itself – the taking apart and putting together that animates all sorts of intellectual and creative work, from chemistry to choreography. When I decide to cook from a recipe, the deliberate gathering and orchestrating of ingredients boosts my speed and confidence on those other evenings when I compose meals directly from the fridge.
I even like to think about my religious practice as a kind of physical theater. When I pray with others, light Sabbath candles or make a Passover Seder, I am not replacing everyday experience with something mystical or otherworldly. Instead, I am using prayer to decompose and recompose the blur of normal reality in order to live more fluently. The seven days of creation are neither fact nor fiction. Instead, they are a fight call for the world and a recipe for the creative process. Divide, organize and assemble; constellate, animate and populate; rest and repeat.
A class, a meeting, a meal, an argument, a collaboration and a prayer service: They share elements of stage combat, including the benefits of rehearsal, the real risk of failure, and the horror and joy of trusting others. A little scary? I try to figure out how to do it in slow motion first and then work my way up to full speed. Any actor will tell you that that’s the best way to keep “The Comedy of Errors” from becoming, well, a comedy of errors.
Lupton is a professor of English and director of Illuminations: The Chancellor’s Arts & Culture Initiative.