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Life 101

Have you been reading our Life 101 series, where campus experts share their “how to” tips? If not, take a look at last fall's Life 101 feature and last summer's tips on how to save money with coupons and how to keep your cyber-self safe.

How to stage a fight (safely)

Theatre professor Jim Wren has always understood the value of a well-timed fall.

Theatre professor Jim Wren
Theatre professor Jim Wren

“I realized at a young age, if I pretended to fall down the stairs, I could scare my grandmother,” he says.

Years later, he's put that knowledge to good use, serving as the Resident Fight Choreographer for Triad Stage and teaching theatre students the art of physical acting in a class called “Violence for the Stage.”

His course covers everything from learning how to fall, faint, push, punch and, yes, handle weapons. Let's face it — if you wind up at a Shakespearean company, you'll need to know how to handle a broadsword.

Learning how to pull off believable fight scenes requires:

Practice. Practice makes perfect, and that's especially true in staged scenes. It's a carefully choreographed dance. Just because you're acting doesn't mean you have license to improvise. “Sometimes you put a sword in an actor's hand and they become Errol Flynn,” Wren says. “It's dead-on choreography. And not to take anything away from dancers, but it's more critical.”

Any play that has a bit of violence has to be rehearsed daily. Even on Broadway, actors come in for a “fight call” 15 minutes prior to the “actor call.”

“It keeps the muscle memory going.”

Built in safety mechanisms. It may sound counter-intuitive, but Wren doesn't use safety equipment — helmets, goggles, screens — in his class. Students who have previously learned fencing will not necessarily have the easiest time in his class.

“Fencing teaches you how to hit someone,” he says. “I'm teaching them how not to hit someone.”

One of the first steps is learning to make eye contact with your fight partner and having an awareness of where your partner is at all times. Second is making sure you stand precisely where you are supposed to be.

Wren spends a number of class sessions “setting distance.”

For example, if two actors are not standing as close as they should be in a scene, one might compensate by leaning in while the other compensates by reaching forward at the same moment. That's when actors get hurt.

Communication. Depending on the theater set up, actors will sometimes need to actually hit or slap their partners. That doesn't mean it needs to feel like the real thing.

“Many are afraid to tell their partner if it's too hard,” he says.

Now for the good stuff. Pretend you're watching a barroom brawl onstage. “In real life, violence is a blur. All is in chaos. What we try to do is effectively tell the story of the action.”

To do that:

Slow it down. The action occurs in three-quarter speed.

Preparation. Something that tells you a hit is coming. It could be something as simple as pulling your hand back.

Execution. Just like it sounds — the action of following through.

Punctuation. Generally, noise. If a slap doesn't make contact, the actor creates the noise of a slap.

Once you have the basics down pat, you can play with style — is it comical or chillingly real? But never mistake acting skills for the real thing.

“Since I spend my time making sure I don't actually hit anyone, I'd probably get beat up in a real fight,” Wren says.

Wren has always loved physical acting, especially The Three Stooges. As an 8-year-old, he became pen pals with Moe and Larry during their years in a nursing home in LA. He still has the letters to prove it.

How to feel comfortable in front of a crowd

Dr. Paul Silvia
Dr. Paul Silvia

We've all been there. Speaking in front of an audience — and something goes wrong. We have an attack of nerves. Or our PowerPoint shuts down. Or we get audience questions that rattle us. Who knows what might happen? It's the unexpected that we fear the most.

Dr. Paul Silvia, associate professor of psychology, recounts some hard-to-forget moments in “Paul's Woeful Tale of Woe,“ humorous asides in a book he co-wrote, “Public Speaking for Psychologists.”

Among the tips the book passes along:

  • It may be natural to have fear, but keep in mind that the audience is on your side.
  • Avoid talking too long. Leave time for questions.
  • And don't avoid questions at the end of your talk. Just be yourself.
  • If few people show up, no problem. Just give the talk to those who did.
  • For general audiences, avoid jargon. For them, stories and meaningful anecdotes are more attention-grabbing than stats.

And about those unexpected events:

What if your PowerPoint projector inexplicably shuts down? Perhaps a graceful quip — “Wow, even the projector is bored by my talk” — and keep going.

OK, but what if you're pregnant and your water breaks, mid-presentation? Simply announce you're going into labor, you're leaving — and to please not steal your laser pointer.

Yes, the advice can be sometimes lighthearted — but it's a knowing humor. Public speaking is a common fear.

“People are nervous, and that's okay,” Sylva explained. “They simply need to get out there, do their best and eventually they'll feel more comfortable speaking in front of a crowd.”




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