Living By the Sword

(Okay—this one isn’t about food. But I loved meeting these guys and writing the story.)

A look of rage passed across the otherwise handsome face of the dark-haired man as he grabbed the shirt front of the young, fair-haired man facing him. A loud thwack made it obvious that his fist connected with his opponent’s face. He showered blows upon the young man, dropping him to his knees. Then he kicked him; kicked him again. It was all over in a few bruising minutes.

Brushing his hands together, signifying an end to the fight, the dark-haired man moved away from the motionless, crumpled body. He turned to face the crowd of onlookers and noted cheerfully, “I could tell from your reactions that the fight was convincing. Let’s go through it again, in slow motion, to show you how it’s done.” The fair-haired victim sprang to his feet, grinning.

Though the audience was shaken, it was obviously just another day’s work for Richard Gilbert and David Gregory. This dynamic duo are partners in R&D Choreography, theatrical “violence designers.” They are fight choreographers, stage combat instructors, and stunt men—and they know how to make you feel their pain.

Gregory and Gilbert explain that they chose the designation “violence designers” because only a small part of the violence in plays is fighting. Murder, muggings, spouse abuse, suicide, or other violent actions are all potential plot elements. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, for example, is incredibly violent, but almost none of the violence is fighting.

Theaters hire people like Gregory and Gilbert because it’s hard to convey violence convincingly—especially if you don’t want to beat up your actors. Lots of other people hire them, too. Gilbert did the stunt work on a new Martin Lawrence movie, and Gregory recently drove a Dodge Ram pick-up through a wall and over two banquet tables for a Daimler-Chrysler ad. However, theater is their focus.

So how does one end up in this line of work? Gilbert, who is from Cumberland, Rhode Island, relates that, as a teen, he worked summers with a local theater company. A fight choreographer from Broadway joined the company, and Gilbert’s training began. Eventually, Gilbert worked full time at the theater. He moved to Evanston in 1995 with the intention of being an actor. “But when I got here,” he recalls, “I realized that, though I’m a decent actor, Chicago didn’t need another decent actor. But I’m a very good fight choreographer.”

Gregory hails from the small farm town of Dixon, California. He developed an early interest in swords and, around age eleven, started painting targets on the garage door and doing lunging practice. There was no local theater, so he didn’t pursue acting until college.

College is also where Gregory met his wife, Melissa Vickery-Bareford. Today, Vickery-Bareford is Managing Director of Chicago’s acclaimed Lifeline Theater and on the board of the League of Chicago Theaters, but then, they were simply fellow theater students. The two got involved in stage combat while doing Shakespeare in Minnesota, attending the Minnesota Academy of Stage Combat Skills. He loved it. Then, when Vickery-Bareford finished her Ph.D., they headed for Chicago.

Gilbert and Gregory arrived in Chicago at about the same time, with about the same goals. They met at the Rough House, a stage combat company, then appeared together in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Soon, they noticed that they were competing for the same jobs. They also noticed that they had the same ideas of how things should be done, so they joined forces. “This partnership is unusual,” Gregory observes. “We share a brain. We describe moves in the same words and have the same approach to things. We pretty much always know what the other will do or think—which makes the job of choreographing a lot smoother.”

Gregory says that they follow three tenets of violence design: it must be organic, true, and responsible. That is, it has to grow out of the story, has to look real and believable, and has to be safe. Both are fervent about having violence be organic. “Sometimes you see a play,” Gregory relates, “where there’s a pause, and you know everyone is thinking ‘this is where the fight starts.’ That’s disastrous. The violence has to be part of what the actors are already doing. It has to flow out of the ideas and emotions of the play. Otherwise, you can’t make it really believable.”

Making violence convincing has several aspects to it: knowing what an audience expects, knowing what people perceive, understanding physiology and how the body reacts to violence, and teaching the actors how to look violent. “Blood is not a key,” Gilbert states, “and we avoid using it. Instead, we try to create an ‘after image,’ something that resonates, that reminds people of things they’ve seen.”

To root the violence in the ideas and issues of the play, Gilbert and Gregory rely on the director to share his vision. They then make decisions that will capture that vision. “This is one thing we really do well,” Gilbert states. “We translate the director’s ideas into a design that works on the stage.” Often, the violence is the climax of the story, and sets up the resolution of the play’s conflict. So it is not just added on, it is a key element of the play—so having it flow from the story is vital.

Once they plan the violence, they start training the actors. Gilbert and Gregory explain that, though they can talk about theory and tone, it really comes down to very specific moves, and you have to learn the moves. Doing it the right way not only looks good, it’s a lot safer. It’s one of the reasons some theaters prefer working with actors who already have stage combat experience—people are less likely to get hurt.

“We still love swords best of all,” Gilbert notes, testing a broadsword, “but we can work with any weapon, or with no weapons.” He swings the massive blade, then adds “This is a good example of why you have to train people. If someone gets out of control with a fencing foil, you have a welt on your skin. If they get out of control with a broadsword, you have broken bones.”

Gilbert and Gregory do more than choreograph thrilling stage fights. They teach, do demonstrations, and rent weapons from their large collection to theaters. They are on the faculty at Lewis University and have done seminars and classes at numerous schools and universities around the country. In addition, Gregory knows sign language and works with deaf actors.

The purpose of art is to explore issues, Gregory observes. Unfortunately, a lot of life’s issues involve violence. But neither of the men likes violence. “We want the audience to think about what’s happening,” Gilbert adds. “We want to show that this is the way these people are, but we don’t want to glorify it. We want people to see that it’s horrible.”

The grace and speed of a complex fencing duel illustrates the artistic and athletic aspects of their work. The laughter that follows shows that these guys love what they do. Gregory observes that “every year, we have more students and work with better theaters.” It’s a trend they’re enjoying.

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