The Magic of Stage Combat

Profile of Kristen Pilgrim, Deathtrap‘s Fight Director

Kristen Pilgrim, Fight Director

Photo courtesy of Kristen Pilgrim.

There’s a reason why we enjoy an action-packed movie, or a Shakespearean swordfight. The danger seems real and the adrenaline starts flowing. Suspense thrillers, such as Deathtrap, can have the same effect, especially in the intimate, black box of NextStop Theatre. Theatrical realism relies on the audience’s suspended disbelief; the acceptance that what is onstage is reality while simultaneously being outside of it. Suspended disbelief in a murder mystery, like Deathtrap, is important when potential killers lurk around every corner. The weapon-laden fights you’ll see in the play have been meticulously choreographed to achieve that effect.

That’s right– choreography is not limited to dance numbers, although you may remember Fight Director Kristen Pilgrim’s fight choreography from this summer’s Kiss Me Kate. Pilgrim also created the fights for NextStop’s Into the Woods and returns as Fight Director for Deathtrap. She has agreed to share some of her story and secrets behind the magic of stage combat.

Pilgrim has been training in stage fighting since college, and is currently working on Advanced Actor Combatant certification through the Society of American Fight Directors. She’s also worked with many local fight directors and teachers in the fight community she calls “an amazing family.” Her first mentor, David “Pops” Doersch really influenced her “technique, aesthetic, and mind set about fights.”

After five years of fighting as an actor, she started choreographing a couple years ago. Pilgrim uses her directing and acting experience to influence her fight choreography.

“Fights are microcosms of plays– all of the storytelling elements and attention to detail required to make them effective are the same,” Pilgrim said. “Plus it’s great fun– who doesn’t want to make up a banging fight and get paid for it?”

When choreographing a fight scene, Pilgrim starts with the story the fight and the participating characters. Making sure the actors can safely commit to the movement required is a large part of the job, especially since actors have varying levels of fight training. When the actors can safely commit to the movement and the story, the fight will be able to “sell,” or seem real to the audience.


Peter Holdway and James Finley in Deathtrap. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

“We can communicate all of that information physically through things like stance, rhythm, circular versus straight lines, et cetera,” Pilgrim said. “It’s a collaborative process in that the actors really have to feel connected to the movement both mentally and physically.”

Pilgrim has dealt with several challenges when it comes to creating stage fights, from working in different spaces to teaching more difficult weapons. While one might think working with weapons would be different than creating unarmed fights, Pilgrim’s process still keeps the same goals in mind.

“A weapon is an extension of the body and different weapons can accomplish different things in the same way your hand can slap or punch to accomplish different things,” Pilgrim said.

Accomplishing believability comes down to several elements, but Pilgrim shared one of her secrets to a good stage fight—focusing on breath and sound.

“Breath is immensely powerful and often forgotten about. It helps you get into a fight effectively by building tension, and that is arguably as important if not more so than the fight itself,” Pilgrim said. “Sound is also really important. People make such an interesting variety of noises but we often just hear grunts when people fight onstage. The sounds weapons make communicates a lot as well. Connecting to these elements adds another level to a fight and makes it more visceral.”


Karen Vincent and Paul Scanlan in Kiss Me, Kate. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

Pilgrim’s favorite weapons include the Single Sword (used in “swashbuckly” Errol Flynn movies or The Princess Bride) and knives because they are “nasty and visceral.” The broadsword can be the most challenging to teach because instead of swinging it around, as people are tempted to do, the weapon is better used by letting the “momentum of the weapon and counterbalance do the work.”

As a woman in a field dominated by men, Pilgrim has faced challenges in being cast in fighting roles due to limited opportunities for women characters to fight in films or plays. But when she choreographs fights, there can be some advantages to her gender.

“If people aren’t committing physically to a moment I can call them out on it,” Pilgrim said. “I’m five-foot-three and if I can shove some six-foot tall dude around with enough force to move him, they certainly can.”

NextStop Theatre’s concrete floor can make falls difficult, and the seating can make covering vertical sight lines challenging. But the space also has some rewarding aspects for Pilgrim as a fight director.

“The small space is also nice because it means when you really nail something you’ve nailed it,” Pilgrim said. “You don’t have distance to hide behind so the moves are that much more powerful for an audience seeing it up close.”


–By Amanda Herman, Marketing and Development Manager


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