If you want to have someone's eyes gouged out, or their head beaten against the floor, or their torso impaled with a spear – all in the name of drama, of course – Kyle Rowling is your man. Rowling has worked as fight director for stage and screen for over 15 years, applying his brutal touches to Wolfgang Petersen's Troy and the two most recent episodes of Star Wars.
In 2008 you may have seen his work in Opera Australia's Carmen and Don Giovanni, Company B's Pillowman, and the Hollywood blockbuster Wanted. At the time of this interview, he was hard at work on the Sydney Theatre Company production of The Women Of Troy.
This is actually part of the reason stage combat came to Australia. Many years ago there was an Australian actor studying at Boston University. He was supposed to do a slap on stage – they had no idea how to do it and they were doing a real slap. On opening night, with all that performance energy, he ended up breaking the girl's jaw. It ended her career and almost ended his. He gave up acting, spent several years studying and founded the Society of Australian Fight Directors in 1993.
There is a way to do a stage slap safely – an illusion. One person claps their hands and you do an air-swing. We do have one contact technique for the face-slap that can only be done from a short wind-up – but if you can get away without making contact, it's much better.
FYI A 'knap' is the international term for a sound effect for a stage strike, usually a clap or a hit on the body.
I really enjoy my period swordwork, especially with the 17th-century rapier. I'm a bit of a romantic at heart, so I love all the swashbuckling stuff.
I love bringing historical accuracy to performance, but I also love the fantasy – in my career I've done everything from training Eric Bana with period Greek shield and sword for Troy, through to doing all the lightsaber fights for the last two Star Wars films.
FYI A rapier is a type of sword.
Tons and tons of research. For Troy, I studied everything I could find, grabbed the spears and shields and got in the backyard with a couple of my guys and girls and worked on it from a combat knowledge point of view. Quite a few hours goes into that.
Star Wars, however, was just fun. There are no rules when you get to the fantasy world. It was just about whatever we could make that looked cool.
I've been into acting and martial arts since I was about eight years old. I started my first acting class around the same time I started my first judo class. I did judo for two years, I did jujitsu for eight years, then one form of kung fu. Then I left all that behind and did my full apprenticeship as a mechanic for four years ...
I rented Highlander one day and watched it four times the first day. That was it. I was pretty much hooked. I started doing my own bits and pieces, but I came across the Society in 1993 and thought, 'This is great!' The one thing I hated about the martial arts was that getting hit hurts. I was primarily an actor. I don't like getting hurt. When I found out about the stage combat, I thought it was the perfect blend of acting, action, cool moves and real moves.
It was very slow, very tedious, very hard work. I learned everything from a guy in the Society, and the two of us did mail-outs, and started doing some work for NIDA.
Stage combat at the time was either dangerous or looked rubbish. So we walked in with our techniques that looked and sounded real. It was a hard push at first, but the word seemed to spread pretty quickly.
Now I work for just about every theatre company in the country – in Melbourne and Sydney at least.
FYI NIDA stands for National Institute of Dramatic Art, a training centre for performers in theatre, film and television, based in Sydney.
There's no way of saying which is harder or which is easier. With film, some techniques are easy because of the camera angle. On stage, if you're in the thrust or the round, it's harder to hide from things. With Women Of Troy, we're working on a thrust stage you have the audience all around you, which is like the audience being behind the magician's table.
Also with film, if you do it wrong, you go again. You do another take. In Episode III, the first fight between Anakin, Obi-Wan and Count Dooku, we shot four 14.5-hour days to get it right – but once it was done, it was done – you never had to do it again. With stage, you only get one chance to get it right every night, and it could be at the end of three hours of Shakespeare that you then have to draw your sword, exhausted, and keep it safe and believable.
Yeah, it is exactly that: a violent-looking dance. It should look horrible and horrendous to the audience. The fact is, inside the fight, the two actors are using their strength to support each other. When it looks like I'm throwing you to the ground by your hair, I'm actually lowering you to the ground, pulling against your energy as you throw yourself to the ground. In the fight, it actually feels like a waltz.
Martial arts is a good start; acting is a great start. (As a fight director, I'm a trained actor, director, historian, stage combatant – with a little bit of psychology thrown in there for good measure.)
Check out the Sydney Stage and Combat School, which I run, one of the only schools for stage combat in the country. We run classes once or twice a week, as well as a series of certificate workshops throughout the year.
Tons and tons of discipline. I don't teach anybody under the age of 17 for that reason. The fact is, on the stage, we use real steel swords – they're blunt, but they have to go 'clang' when they hit each other. On film you can use replicas, which are lighter and softer, and you put in all the sound effects later.
There are high demands on physical strength. If I were to swing a sword at you, I'd need to be able to stop it an inch from your shoulder. As we've said, it's a dance. There's quite a lot of physical and mental strength required.
Stage combat would be completely useless to you in a pub brawl, and you'd get really hurt. It doesn't work in a real situation at all: your partner falls down, you swing a fist six inches in front of their face and slap your chest to make a sound. That's going to get you really stuffed up.
Real fighting is never a good thing. I deplore violence – real violence – but I love the illusion of violence. I'm all about making it look cool on stage.