Interesting article on Slate today written by Patrick Vala-Haynes, who teaches stage combat to middle and high school age students. If you aren’t familiar with the practice, stage combat training is focused on creating the illusion of violence while ensuring the safety of the participants. For example, when someone is grabbed by the head and thrown across the room, the basic practice is that the person being thrown has primary control over the act, not the thrower.
Vala-Haynes notes that recently he has been asked to stop teaching the contact face slap because it may trigger students and make them feel uncomfortable. The subtext seems to be that the face slap is more likely to be part of a student’s lived experience versus other stage combat scenarios like choreographed sword fights, kicks, gut punches, Shakespearean suicides by poison and daggers.
Vala-Haynes notes that even after 35 years, he is occasionally taken by surprise by a perfectly executed slap delivered by his students so there is always an opportunity to be injured physically, mentally and emotionally during stage combat.
Throughout the article he goes into great detail about the value of learning stage combat. While he doesn’t mention professional wrestling, you can see parallels in his mention of how stage combatants need to be responsible for the welfare of each other as they bring a heightened sense of excitement to the storytelling.
I don’t know these young people’s families or backgrounds. I can’t know everything they bring to a scene. And quite frankly, I don’t want them to experience the violence; I work with them to project the intent of the movement, to act with proficiency and care, and to understand that telling a story involves elements of morality, of choice. I give them tools to which they can refer when emotions might overwhelm them and threaten their control.
At its best, stage violence is dialogue, both between actors and among actors and their audience. It can be mumbled and misunderstood just as words can. The actors’ comfort with what I’ve given them is paramount to their craft. A slap is craft. All of us in theater, no matter the level, search for those perfect moments that elevate a writer’s words to epiphany. The slap is only one syllable in a long story, but one we work to get right.