Encore: Richard Lane
Monday, December 22, 2014
Interviewed by David Templeton
Fighting is motion. It's dance. It's storytelling as action. No one knows that better than Richard Lane. A veteran fight director, Lane has been hit, stabbed, broken and bruised over the course of his 22-year career, earning a stellar international reputation along the way. In the Bay Area, Lane founded the not-for-profit Academy of the Sword and served as resident fight director for the San Francisco Opera, TheatreWorks and Marin Shakespeare Company. The author of the book Swashbuckling: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Art of Stage Combat and Theatrical Swordplay, he's taught movement and stage combat at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the San Francisco School of Circus Arts. In August, Lane—now retired from fight directing—was honored with the rarely bestowed title of Fight Director Emeritus, awarded by the Society of American Fight Directors. Still active in the local theatre scene, Lane currently serves as controller for Magic Theatre in San Francisco.
The Fight Director Emeritus award is a very rare honor. Did it come as a surprise?
To quote Juliet, it was an honor I dreamed not of. When I retired in 2010, a former colleague in the American Fight Directors Association told me he would be nominating me as a Fight Director Emeritus. Six months later, I was presented this award in front of about 75 members. So it was a surprise but not a surprise. The surprise was that I was also presented with the President's Award, which is bestowed upon whomever the president of the association chooses. It was accompanied by an actual sword.
What were you drawn to first, the stage...or the sword?
I was definitely drawn first to the stage, drawn to the art of movement. I grew up on Long Island in New York, and I did a lot of community theatre, and really enjoyed the dancing stuff. After high school, I moved to Manhattan and I started studying martial arts, then I ended up in a modern dance company for about five years. It was around then that I discovered this art form called "stage combat," and it just rang a bell with me.
People who are good at stage combat tend to have a really aggressive spirit, which is totally me—people who are also tremendously caring. That's the strange dichotomy that exists in stage combat. You can't really do a fight alone. You really need a partner. And the more that you and your partner are willing to commit to this action, work together to create a scene, the better that scene will be.
How much did your dance training help in becoming a fight director?
Oh, it was vital. With stage combat, you really need to understand how your body works. It doesn't mean, as is the case in dance, that everybody has to do it the same way. Stage combat is much more freeing, in the sense that every body type is the right body type. You can be short, tall, male, female—or any of the other variations. It doesn't matter. And it doesn't matter what you look like. It's really just about commitment and your sense of center.
What's one element of stage combat that most people would not expect?
The level of commitment between the performers. When an audience watches a moment of stage combat, if it's done well the audience sees aggression, they see violence, they see me trying to cut off your head. What the reality is, is that you are I are working together very, very closely to manipulate the audience's perception. It's a bit like stage magic. We are creating an illusion in the audience's mind. An illusion that often ends with one actor dead on the floor.
That's the most important element of being a good stage combat performer—generosity. If you want to do stage combat professionally, if you want to be part of a great fight on stage, you have to be generous. It's not about you. It's all about your partner.
What's your favorite weapon: broadsword, rapier, pistols, bare fists?
Oh, I love them all! They're all my children! But if pressed into a corner, I'd say my favorite is unarmed stage combat. An unarmed combat gets more into the acrobatics of a fight, you and I sharing the same space at the same time. It's basic and simple and pure. [Laughs.] And without pointed metal objects in the hands of the actors, it gives me one less thing to worry about.
What's the most important element of stage combat?
Commitment. It takes commitment to do this work; it takes commitment to earn each other's trust.
How do you establish that kind of trust between actors?
Repetition, repetition, repetition! You have to do a movement over and over and over. That's why I love stage combat. When you get that far inside your partner's head, so deep inside you can almost hear what they're thinking while you're doing the swordfight, it's very special. And a whole lot of fun.