Cross-Training For Stage Combat

The actor-combatant (a professional actor who can also perform fight scenes) who actually gets work must be versatile enough to work with the needs of each production, so is cross-training in several martial arts a good thing?

Two Kinds of People

I hate to be one of those people who divides the world into two kinds of people, but in this case, there really are:

  1. People who learn actions through physical repetition
  2. People with general body-control

Students often begin to study physical movement from an awkward phase of rejecting the physical play of their childhood and turning to books and the stage as an intellectual or emotional pursuit. They forget how to swing on monkey-bars or climb a tree.

The awkward young adult who has not played sports wants to make their stage movement an intellectual pursuit, and it makes sense to repeat like memorization the leg and arm displacements.

With enough practice in various directions, varying speeds and different goals, the repeater can become a generalist who can quickly learn a new hand position or stance or balance point. However, many adults remain stuck in the Repeater phase.

You Can’t Rehearse Versatility

If you’re the kind of person who gets into a certain way of moving, and you have trouble changing the pattern, you should stick with stage combat as your single pursuit.

If you’ve recently said “Sorry I did that step wrong, I’m too used to stepping like that in Karate,” then you should stick with as few distractions as possible until you feel mastery.

Stage combat skills are designed to be generic, so that the actor with little time or limited training can apply the same motions to different weapons. Your best path to better movement and especially improved stage fighting is to devote more time to practicing stage combat.


You don’t need to be flexible to display your plasticity: it’s your ability to conform to a new pattern. With enough general skills, your body will be ready to refine existing movements, or creatively invent new positions.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to observe a stunt, and can reproduce it pretty well without much coaching, then seek out as many different experiences in physical expression and combat as you can:

  • dance styles
  • Western swordplay
  • Eastern martial arts
  • yoga, gymnastics, running and parkour

Should I Specialize?

There’s no doubt that having more skills is better, and above the Basic Actor-Combatant level, FDC expects your plasticity to improve.

But once a performer has several martial arts in their “bag of tricks” and the ability to learn new ones fast, is it better to focus, or to keep expanding that base?

There are two logical arguments:

  1. More skills = more types of shows = more work (reputation: Can Do Anything)
  2. Higher skills = directed marketing = work that I like (reputation: Master Of Thing)

In an article for FDC’s newsletter, Daniel Levinson once related that Fight Master Simon Fon told him that stage combat is not a speciality, and every high-level performer should decide on a further refinement.

It’s the answer to the question: What’s your favourite weapon? In a way, it’s a silly question. In another way, it’s a good marketing tactic.

Can’t It Be Both?

I believe that an Advanced Actor-Combatant should have a speciality in mind, as well as a wide base of skills.

Here’s your carrer path:

  1. Learn Basic stage combat
  2. Pick a martial art in which you can get local training, and study that for a year or two (while taking Intermediate stage combat)
  3. Pick another martial art or dance or movement style to practice, while reading about and testing out other skills from videos, online and books (while taking Advanced stage combat)
  4. Keep researching until you feel that you could mimic pretty much anything new someone demonstrates to you.
  5. Re-focus on your favourite style or combination of styles to show off your best skills, and have clear ideas about how you’d choreograph an ideal fight.

You’ll find that all fight choreographers are expected to know all historical eras, and duplicate any martial art worldwide. Therefore, generalized skills are indispensable. But you’ll never get work by saying “I can do anything, really!”

Instead, build on your general skills by telling people that you’re especially good at X. That way, you are top-of-mind when anyone needs that particular art. If you’re lucky, a director may even design a production to show off your speciality.

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