Ne'er the twain - Some Thoughts on the Martial Arts/Performing Arts Dichotomy

Tony Wolf

"I now feel more confident walking home at night,
since I know how to throw a punch"

- an acting student's comment in her written evaluation
of a basic unarmed stage combat training course.

"Why don't you get some really good martial artists
and teach them some acting:  then we'd see some real
technique instead of that Hollywood bullshit"

- a martial artist's suggestion
on how to improve the fight
choreography on TV's Hercules.

These comments are cited to illustrate some of the basic confusions that happen when stage combatants and martial artists collide.  This essay is intended to clarify some points of contention between the martial and the performing arts, and also to suggest ways in which each discipline can benefit from the other's perspective. By way of introduction, my experience in the Asian martial arts dates back to 1977.  Further training in various psycho-physical disciplines, including both martial and performing arts traditions, followed: this eventually came to encompass steel-weapon sparring with a local re-enacting group.  As a result of this experience, I became intrigued with the potentials of reviving the ancient European methods of defense, to be practiced as martial arts as distinct from role-playing activities.  Most of the re-enactors with whom I had contact were dedicated researchers and enthusiastic practitioners, but lacked the background in martial (i.e., combat oriented) training necessary to achieve this goal.

Presently, I work full-time in the entertainment industry as a theatrical fight director, stage combat tutor, and stunt coordinator for feature films and television.   I find this to be creatively fulfilling, challenging, and rewarding work, and very much enjoy my job. Therefore, my perspective on the martial/performance issue is that of a working professional fight director with an extensive background in the martial arts (both sportive and combat-oriented), with a sincere interest in the work of HACA and similar organizations.  As such, I am in regular contact with representatives of the martial arts, stage combat, historical fencing and role-playing communities.  I have encountered a series of four basic points of contention that arise when specialists in any of these activities attempt to draw comparisons between their own field and the others.   These include:

1 - A confusion regarding the historical / cultural relationships of the martial and the performing arts.

2 - The idea that an expert in either field can "automatically" transfer his/her skills into proficiency in the other field.

3 - The belief that choreographed combat is necessarily intended to be realistic or historically accurate.

4 - A confusion regarding the difference between amateur and professional approaches to both fields.

1 - The martial arts and the performing arts, although different in terms of intent, share some common features of history and practice.

1a - Fighters and performers have enjoyed a long, often mutually beneficial, relationship.  It is likely that mimed enactments of the hunt, or of hand to hand battles were among humankind's first performing arts.  Over millennia, real events such as battles and hunts were later ritualistically acted out in dance and theater.   These mimed "war dances" gave rise to both the "kata" of martial arts (etude, pyrrachia, shadow boxing, etc.) or the choreography used in teaching combat skills as well as stage combat (Morris dance, stunt fighting, etc.) or choreography used in story telling. Certainly, during the Elizabethan period, actors and fencers were often classed together (generally as undesirables).  Richard Tarleton, a member of Shakespeare's acting company, was also a certified Master of the London Masters of Defence, and it has been established that the London Masters of Defence often held their Prizes in theaters.  A little later, the arts of fencing and ballet were often taught in the same premises, occasionally by the same Master, and the two disciplines share a certain amount of common theory and terminology.

1b - The martial/performance link has emerged organically in many cultures: a partial listing would include the Kabuki theater of Japan, with strong ties to kenjutsu and other ko-ryu (ancient schools) of Japanese martial arts: the Beijing Opera of China; the Brazilian art of capoeira, which may be practiced as a combat sport, a dance, or a fighting art; the many martial disciplines of Indonesia and Malaysia, which often maintain entire sub-disciplines devoted to performance and public display; the Ram Muay, a ritual dance performed by Thai kickboxers;  and even the modern American/European "sport" of professional wrestling, which deftly combines the illusion of combat with the demands of (crude) theater.

1c - The martial / performance confluence occurs in many areas, from concepts and practices of physical conditioning, through similar techniques of developing kinesthetic and prorioceptic awareness, and even into the more subtle areas of psychological and spiritual training. Some European and American theater training schools have recently begun to incorporate exercises drawn directly from the martial arts into their acting training programs, thus (perhaps unconsciously) rejoining a tradition extending back at least to the Elizabethan period.

2 - Expertise in either a martial or a performing art does not necessarily qualify an individual to make an informed comment upon the other, and definitely does not qualify them to "teach" the other.

2a - A professional fight director is an expert in teaching and staging safe, artistically effective fight sequences: these are specifically theatrical illusions intended to further works of drama.  No truly professional fight director would suggest that these skills can prepare a student for combat.

2b - A proficient scholar of the emerging historical combat systems (rapier fencing, etc.) IS SKILLED AND KNOWLEDGEABLE IN THE METHODS of realistic attack and defense with these weapons, both in sparring applications and, theoretically, in terms of actual combat.  No such scholar would assert that these skills have prepared him/her to teach or stage a theatrical fight sequence.

2c - Although superficially similar, these two disciplines are often diametrically opposed in terms of practice.  For example, stage combatants learn an elaborate and precise system of cues and signals - invisible to the audience - to ensure that neither catches the other off guard.  Weapon sparring exponents must master the skills of broken rhythm and the ability to attack explosively from any position, so as not to telegraph their intention to their opponent.  Actors work co-operatively, as partners, to tell a story; fighters work competitively, as opponents, in a contest for recreational or research purposes.

2d - It is at least unethical, and at worst dangerous, to teach any skill that has the potential for injury without the genuine ability and qualifications to ensure that one's students are a safe as is reasonably practical.  No one who has learned either stage combat or sparring combat on a casual basis (through a short-term workshop, by reading a book, from watching TV and practicing in the yard, etc.)  Can ethically promote themselves as teachers of these disciplines.  You simply have to earn the qualification, whether through a formal process such as the gradients of proficiency developed by the Society of American Fight Directors, or informally through a reputable organization or tutor with a good safety record (in either sparring or choreography). In either case, the would-be teacher must be prepared to make a considerable investment of time, money and sweat.

3 - Stage combat (or broadly, "stunt fighting" to include film/TV choreography as well), is seldom intended to be "realistic", let alone a showcase for historically accurate fighting techniques (even though it is a major influence on the uneducated public -- HACA Ed.).

3a - The martial artist quoted at the beginning of this article had what I call the technician's perspective, which might also be summarized by the old saying: "to a man whose only tool is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail".  Watching the Hercules series, which is obviously an outrageous fantasy complete with monsters and magic spells, and then complaining that the fight scenes lack realism is missing the point entirely.

3b - An individual with a martial arts background will naturally tend to technically critique a fight sequence in a work of drama, just as someone with an interest in clothing design will tend to focus on the costumes.  But either of them, as specialists, run the risk of losing the overall perspective: the idea that every aspect of a theatrical or televised production is designed to further the plot and mood of a work of fiction.   A realistic fight is sometimes the best way to accomplish this, but not often - typically, there is an element of stylization in the script (such as in Shakespeare's plays) that would render a realistic fight out of place. The fight director in consultation with the play director, the production designer, and other professionals working on the project make decisions vis--vis the level of "realism."

3c - It is as illogical for a fighter to criticize a staged combat on technical grounds as it is for an actor to criticize a sparring match on aesthetic grounds.  The former is typically geared towards entertainment, the latter towards education or competition: both are perfectly valid, and neither necessarily gains anything by comparison with the other.

4 - All of these points, though obvious to advanced practitioners in either field, may seem subtle and confusing to students, "weekend warriors", fantasy role-players, and other amateurs.

4a - The woman who felt that she was capable in self-defense after attending a 15-hour basic unarmed stage combat course is an extreme example of this. The carefully designed, completely illusory stage punches that she had learned would be of no use in a self-defense situation. But because this student had never given any thought to fighting prior to this stage combat program, she was entirely nave when it came to the idea of throwing a punch, to the extent that she misunderstood a basic premise of the activity even as she was undertaking it.

4b - "The confidence of amateurs is the envy of professionals".  I once designed a battle sequence for a large-scale, outdoor production of a Shakespearean tragedy.  The cast included a skilled and enthusiastic steel weapons sparring combatant, who took it upon himself to stage a brief duel sequence during the battle.   What he came up with was, indeed, a realistic and historically accurate sequence: it was also theatrically ineffective and extremely dangerous, and I immediately cut it from the show.  Similar situations have been reported in which amateur stage fighters have offered to assist weapon sparring tutors, despite having little or no training in sparring techniques.

4c - Advanced practitioners of either approach can gain from studying the other. Sparring practitioners who study stage combat may find that it assists them in performing well-presented public demonstrations -- i.e., it could improve their presentation in terms such as rudimentary concepts of audibility and staging for optimum audience sight-lines, etc. Fight directors who study sparring techniques may discover a source of choreographic inspiration and gain greater appreciation for realism. However, novices and even intermediate students of either approach will likely find the technical differences confusing and contradictory if they attempt to "cross train" too early.

4d - It is, perhaps, the responsibility of truly skilled, experienced and qualified practitioners to monitor the world of swordsmanship, both martial and theatrical, and encourage young amateurs to seek out quality training in whichever discipline best suits their needs.  To do so would require an open mind, an appreciation of the advantages that each approach can offer, and an understanding that they are not opposed, merely different.

In closing: it may be that the time is ripe for an organized, serious, and dedicated approach to revived European martial arts.  The martial arts world is notoriously faddish: over the last 20 years or so, a succession of crazes has swept the martial arts, including Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do approach, the Filipino arts, Ninjutsu, STREET JUJITSU AND GRAPPLING, and most recently the "Ultimate Fighting Championship" and it's various imitators. Consider the success of swashbuckling period films (Rob Roy, Braveheart, the Three Musketeers, Zorro, etc.), the renewed popularity of the works of William Shakespeare, and the vacuum that exists in the martial arts at present.   We can predict an upsurge in public interest and acceptance regarding the idea of rapier fencing, in particular, as a sport/martial arts system.

Perhaps in thirty years time one will be able to enroll in a professional LONG-SWORD or rapier academy as easily as a commercial karate dojo. After all, the Asian martial arts were originally hobby activities when they were introduced to America: now there is a multi-million dollar industry dedicated to serving the martial arts community. And things move a lot faster, these days ... If we are to be primed to catch this wave, then let us not let history repeat itself and allow the "new" martial arts to become embroiled in politics or one-upmanship. Let's allow actors to be actors, fighters to be fighters, and who knows ... perhaps they will discover more common ground than "no man's land", after all.

Tony Wolf is a fight director, stage combat tutor and practitioner of physical theater based in Wellington, New Zealand. His credits include numerous film and television work.

Back to the Essays Page


Note: The word "ARMA" and its associated arms emblem is a federally registered trademark under U.S. Reg. No. 3831037. In addition, the content on this website is federally registered with the United States Copyright Office, © 2001-2022. All rights are reserved. No use of the ARMA name and emblem, or website content, is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and its respective authors is strictly prohibited. Additional material may also appear from "HACA" The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999-2001 by John Clements. All rights are reserved to that material as well.