University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

The Art of Stage Fighting

Daniel Levinson wants his students to fight like they mean it, but without getting hurt

Daniel Levinson is standing between two men aiming swords at each other’s necks, and telling them to breathe. Maybe he can help them work it out without violence? Instead, he takes a large step back. “Okay. Resume.”

Levinson doesn’t want the two U of T students to stop, he wants them to fight like they mean it – but without getting hurt. Levinson is their fight instructor. The students have worked with him in the joint UTM/Sheridan College Theatre and Drama Studies program, and are now in his downtown Toronto studio earning their stage-fighting certification.

At UTM, Levinson teaches basic fight manoeuvres such as rolls, falls, throws, slaps, punches, kicks and chokes, as well as some knife and sword work. Through his company, Rapier Wit, Levinson offers more advanced training. He also choreographs and directs both armed and unarmed battles for stage and film. Included in his U of T repertoire are Theatre Erindale performances of Dangerous Liaisons and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as a Hart House production of A Clockwork Orange.

Choreographed combat is an intricate and potentially dangerous dance most actors will be required to perform during their careers. Weeks of preparation translate into minutes on the stage; Levinson trained for nine years to become a certified fight director. (There are three combatant levels to complete in addition to two apprenticeships.)

The symbolic meaning of the fight intrigues Levinson as much as the technicalities. “The fight is a metaphor for what actors do – enter into emotional conflict with other characters. In some cases, words won’t work.” The emotions are raw and direct, Levinson explains. “I want to attack you; I want to cut your arm.” When a fight is done right, it appears both spontaneous and inevitable. And, Levinson hopes, honest. He consults medical texts to achieve accuracy: If you are stabbed in the upper arm, how much blood would you lose? Would the blood trickle – or spurt? How long could you stagger about after an abdominal through-and-through?

The range of weapons is impressive. “Check out the armory,” Levinson says, smiling. There hang rows of broadswords, rapiers, sabres, daggers and axes. Soon after, a package arrives at the studio. “Submachine guns,” Levinson tells me. But he prefers weapons of old – for their drama. “Give me a sword fight any day.”

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