My Nemesis: The Contact Slap

I’ve heard every excuse why people want to do contact slaps:

  • It maintains the reality of the scene (as if anything staged is “real”), or I want to feel the slap to react with true emotion.
  • It’s the only way a slap looks genuine
  • It’s not really dangerous, so why not?
  • We don’t have time to learn some complicated set-up and rehearse a specialized substitute

What’s in a Slap?

Let’s look at some footage.
Warning: strong language

Now, go back and watch again. Notice how many of those clips use two shots for the slap: one for the wind-up, and the opposite angle for the delivery. Why? Because they’re not making contact, and they want to hide the gap between the hand and the face.
Here’s why we don’t do contact slaps:

What’s the Danger?

Let’s take a look at the side of the head, to look for options to use as target for the contact slap.

The cheek itself is full of blood vessels, so if you’re on target, you’re still going to give the victim a red mark that may stay until the next night’s performance. I don’t think actors should have to cover bruises with makeup and call it part of the job.
If you miss slightly high, you can hit the eye and detach the retina. There’s a trip to the hospital.
A broken or bleeding nose with certainly end the scene.
Are you safer aiming further away from the face? Forcing air into the ear canal with force can burst an eardrum. Even a mild hit on the ear can disrupt balance, which won’t be regained for about 5 minutes.
And slapping on the neck can not only harm the blood vessels to the brain, but also damage the lymph nodes that are critical to your immune system.

Acting Against the Flinch

If the danger argument doesn’t convince you, then let’s just look at the acting. It is natural to flinch when being hit in the face. It’s what your body does to protect the eyes and the other vulnerable parts discussed above. You tense in anticipation of the blow.

Knowing you’re about to be hit in the face does not allow you to act more freely, it makes it harder because your body wants to flinch, and you have to fight that instinct. Furthermore, the actor performing the slap also doesn’t want to hurt you, so they’re tensing in anticipation of the slap as well. Are either of you really acting the scene when the contact slap looms?

Which brings us to the point of impact. You have two choices: slap mildly, to avoid too much damage, robbing the slap of energy and meaning; or slap hard and hope for the best. The problem is that good hard slap, even if it’s on target, is so jarring that you’re not acting any more. Your adrenaline will shoot way up, making you forget your lines and at the very least losing the flow of the scene. I’m sure you can imagine other reasons why a good hard slap might inhibit the rest of the scene, and make the next performance of the slap even more tense.

Stage Combat Substitutes

Okay, so if we can’t use a contact slap, what’s an actor to do?

We teach a number of slap alternatives that work for audiences in every configuration. The thing they have in common is that the operator does not touch the victim. They can slap through at full speed, and the victim’s reaction is timed to the slapper’s cue. The sound comes from a knap (usually a clap performed by the victim, but there are other possibilities), and the scene can continue with acting, intention and intelligent choices instead of flinches and instinctive reactions.

So never use a contact slap. It’s my mission to eliminate them from all acting. The contact slap is my nemesis.

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